Briefs: Congressmen fight for lawsuits against P.A.; Jewish diplomats defend Obama advisor

Congressmen Press on Lawsuits

Congressmen urged the Bush administration not to intervene in lawsuits that U.S. terror victims have won against the Palestinian Authority. In a letter Feb. 14 to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, a bipartisan slate of eight U.S. senators expressed opposition to “government interference with the victims’ legal rights.”

Separately, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.) grilled Rice on the matter at a congressional hearing Feb. 13.

“We have a pending issue about the U.S. victims of Palestinian terrorism and so far the P.A. and the PLO have refused to pay those judgments of those U.S. victims, and recent reports indicate that the State Department may issue a statement in favor of the P.A. efforts to avoid paying hundreds of millions of dollars in judgments won by American victims in U.S. courts, and I would hope that that would not happen,” Ros-Lehtinen said.

A federal court in December asked the government for its opinion on a Palestinian Authority effort to put aside the awards, saying it could bankrupt the authority at a time it is facing down extremists and negotiating peace.

Families of victims killed in attacks in Israel and the West Bank areas and survivors of the attacks were in Washington this month to meet with top Bush administration lawyers and with Congress members to lobby against any intervention.

Jewish Clinton Officials Defend Malley

Five Jewish former U.S. diplomats excoriated a campaign to trash another ex-diplomat who advises Barack Obama.

“Over the past several weeks, a series of vicious, personal attacks have been launched against one of our colleagues, Robert Malley, who served as President Bill Clinton’s special assistant for Arab-Israeli affairs,” says a letter circulating in the Middle East policy community, with signatories who also served under Clinton. “They claim that he harbors an anti-Israeli agenda and has sought to undermine Israel’s security. These attacks are unfair, inappropriate and wrong.”

A recent e-mail and Internet campaign claims that Malley, one of a host of former officials who have offered advice to the presidential campaign of Sen. Obama (D-Ill.), “hates” Israel and is allied with Arab radicals.

The signatories to the pro-Malley letter, three with ties to pro-Israel groups, are: Dennis Ross, a former top Middle East negotiator who also advises Obama, and who is a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, which leans pro-Israel; Martn Indyk, a former ambassador to Israel who now heads the Saban Institute, a peace think tank founded by Israeli American media magnate Haim Saban; Aaron David Miller, a former senior State Department adviser who subsequently directed the Seeds of Peace program that encourages dialogue between Israeli and Arab youths; Daniel Kurtzer, a former ambassador to Israel, and Sandy Berger, a former national security adviser.

Malley, who now works with the International Crisis Group, differs with some of the signatories over who was responsible for scuttling the 2000 Camp David Israeli-Palestinian talks, but the differences are more over degree, with no one assigning absolute blame to any party.

“Whatever differences do exist, there is no disagreement among us on one core issue that transcends partisan or other divides: That the U.S. should not and will not do anything to undermine Israel’s safety or the special relationship between our two nations,” the letter said. “We have worked with Rob closely over the years and have no doubt he shares this view and has acted consistent with it.”

Report: Israel to Declare Two Abducted Soldiers Dead

A German magazine said Israel plans to declare dead two soldiers who were abducted by Hezbollah. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s administration will soon go public with its assessments that Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, two army reservists seized by Hezbollah in a July 2006 border raid, are dead, Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine reported over the weekend.

Israeli officials said there was no formal change to Jerusalem’s policy that Goldwasser and Regev should be considered alive unless proven otherwise, and the soldiers’ families dismissed the Der Spiegel report as speculative. Germany has been key to efforts to mediate an Israeli-Hezbollah prisoner swap under which the soldiers would be returned home.

Hezbollah has refused to give any information on the condition of Goldwasser or Regev. Israeli security sources believe that one or both of the men may have been killed during their kidnapping, given the amount of ordnance used against their convoy as it patrolled the Lebanese border.

Der Spiegel regularly runs stories about the Middle East and is believed to have high-placed government sources in Israel.

Germany’s Suspends Jewish Congress Membership

Another country has left the European Jewish Congress (EJC). Germany’s Central Council announced its decision Monday to suspend its membership in the EJC, becoming the fourth European Jewish organization to leave the EJC over a controversial decision made at its recent meeting in Paris.

The EJC, which has 42 member countries and is a subsidiary of the World Jewish Congress, voted 51-34 on Feb. 10 to extend terms for officers to four years from two. The extension was applied retroactively to EJC President Moshe Kantor, who was elected in June 2007, as well as to his board. Kantor is the first person from a former Eastern bloc country to lead the organization.

The German Jewish umbrella group, at its Sunday meeting, unanimously condemned the developments at the Paris convention. It announced its solidarity with the other three countries that had left the body in protest: France, Portugal and Austria. The German council condemned “the methods of EJC President Moshe Kantor” as “deeply disturbing.”

But Stefan Kramer, the council’s secretary general, said that his group’s withdrawal is a suspension, and that he’d rather see the EJC’s “success story continue” than build an alternative organization, as some other countries have proposed.

The development underscores months of tensions between some of the Western European EJC members and Kantor. The EJC issued a statement of regret after Germany’s decision, saying the EJC was working on “a conciliatory commission so that we can find the best way to bring unity back to the organization.”

Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Behind Restitution

This is the first in a series of articles on Holocaust restitution as The Journal observes the 64th anniversary of Kristallnacht (Nov. 9). The next article will deal with the hands-on work of Bet Tzedek Legal Services, a beneficiary agency of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, and will include a concise listing of all claims categories.

Restitution and reparations to Holocaust victims and their families have been described as a minimal repayment for European Jewry’s material losses, if not their suffering, a trigger for renewed anti- Semitism, a triumph of American justice and, most tellingly, as a minefield of passions.

Picking his way through the minefield for the past five years has been law professor Michael J. Bazyler, whose book, "Holocaust Justice," is to be published by New York University Press next April.

Right off the bat, the book pithily takes care of the Third Reich’s "kleptocracy," whose Nazi elite, according to World War II scholar Allan Millett, consisted of "Lowbrow guys with highbrow pretensions. They stole everything in sight — art, jewelry, artifacts and paintings of the masters."

Altogether, the Nazi loot from the Jews of Europe came to $230 billion-$320 billion in today’s dollars, estimates Bazyler, who teaches at Whittier Law School in Costa Mesa and is the son of Polish and Russian Holocaust survivors.

From its very beginning in the early 1950s, the restitution issue has been driven by deeply felt philosophical and emotional controversies.

At the time, the acceptance by the Israeli government and Holocaust survivors of some $800 million in West German reparations was heatedly denounced as "blood money" meant to "expiate" the Nazi murder of 6 million Jews. Variations on this controversy have continued for half a century.

In 1951, representatives of 23 Jewish organizations met in New York and formed the Conference of Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, Inc. to unify and spearhead demands for restitutions. The Claims Conference, as it is generally known, has since been the object of high praise, as well as bitter denunciations.

In 1996, the battle shifted to the courts, not in Europe where they had proven unsympathetic and ineffective, but in the United States.

Bazyler, whose book is subtitled "The Battle for Restitution in America’s Courts," describes the U.S. justice system as "heroic" and the only one in the world flexible enough to break new ground in the restitution battle.

The first legal shots were fired with the filing of three federal class-action suits against Swiss banks for failure to return money deposited by Jewish account holders just before and during World War II. After two years of legal wrangling and congressional and public pressure, the banks agreed to pay out $1.25 billion, described by Bazyler as the largest settlement ever in a human rights case.

These court victories, he writes, opened "the floodgates of litigation." The next targets of both legal and political pressures were European insurance companies, which had largely failed to honor, for half a century, policies taken out by Holocaust victims and survivors.

Next were demands for compensation by former slave laborers, forced to work under generally inhuman conditions for German companies and their subsidiaries during World War II.

In December 1999, the German government and private corporations settled the slave labor suits for $5 billion. As in other cases, non-Jews benefited greatly from lawsuits filed by American Jewish lawyers and organizations.

Bazyler points out that 80 percent of the slave labor compensations are going to elderly East European Slavs and Romani.

With the slave labor payments, post-war Germany has committed itself to a total of nearly $70 billion in restitution to Jewish and non-Jewish victims of the Nazi regime.

More recently, legal actions have focused on the recovery or compensation from museums worldwide, including some in the United States and Israel, for artworks looted by the Nazis from Jewish collectors.

As the restitution money, large in the aggregate but in small amounts to individual recipients, becomes available, two contentious issues have emerged: Who should get the money? And is the emphasis on monetary compensation obscuring and demeaning the suffering of the 6 million dead and of the roughly 400,000-500,000 survivors living in Israel and the rest of the world.

There is no dissension that the bulk of the money should go to Holocaust survivors, in whose names the lawsuits were filed and who are dying off at a rapid rate.

But should all the money go to survivors or should some be set aside for broader Jewish causes?

Rabbi Israel Singer, president of the Claims Conference and secretary general of the influential World Jewish Congress, has argued that the "heirs of the 6 million is the entire body of world Jewry" and has proposed that roughly 20 percent of restitution moneys be set aside for a Fund of the Jewish People. Such a fund might be used for Holocaust education and remembrance, general Jewish education and to aid Israel.

Most recently, some have proposed that part of the funds go to victims of genocides in Rwanda, Cambodia and Bosnia.

Such proposals are bitterly opposed by the Holocaust Survivors Foundation USA and individual survivors, who depict the Claims Conference as an elitist group of insiders that has sold out the interests of the survivors themselves. Under the motto "Money for persons, not projects," the foundation has criticized, for instance, a $1.45 million grant by the Claims Conference to the Yiddish Theater of Tel Aviv.

Just as acrimonious has been the debate over the morality of demanding restitution funds at all, harking back to the "blood money" controversy in Israel in the 1950s.

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, himself a "hidden child" during the Holocaust, initiated the debate in 1998 by arguing that the lawsuits against Swiss banks threatened to make money "the last soundbite" of the Holocaust.

Columnist Charles Krauthammer warned of an increase of anti-Semitism in Europe, while one of the shrillest critics has accused American Jewish organizations of "extorting" money to perpetuate their existence.

A reasoned response came from Elie Wiesel, who said, "If all the money in all the Swiss banks were turned over, it would not bring back the life of one child. But the money is a symbol. It is part of the story. If you suppress any part of the story, it comes back later, with force and vengeance."

The most lasting legacy of the legal restitution battles may not be the monetary but the historical aspect, and as role models for other international disputes and grievances, Bazyler said.

As an outgrowth of the court cases, many European countries, among them Sweden, Switzerland, France and Italy, have been forced to reexamine their often inglorious wartime roles. Some 50 governments have created commissions of inquiry, or less formal bodies, for self-examination.

Even the United States is now looking into its military’s complicity in the looting of art works during World War II, while Israeli banks have been accused of withholding funds deposited by European Jews in pre-war Palestine.

The same kind of self-examination is revealing the complicity of major corporations in collaborating with the Nazi regime, including such U.S. icons as IBM, General Motors, Eastman Kodak, J.P. Morgan and the Ford Motor Company.

Building on the model of the Holocaust reparations, long- suppressed grievances are being aired. Among plaintiffs now seeking redress are American prisoners of war who were forced to work for Japan in World War II, Asian women exploited as sex slaves by the Japanese army, Armenians charging Turkey with genocide during World War I, and African Americans seeking reparations for the slavery endured by their ancestors. Other victims of historical wrongs are also considering litigation, among them Sudeten Germans expelled from Czechoslovakia after World War II, Nepalese Gurkhas for discrimination while serving in the British army and South African blacks for suffering under the apartheid regime.

Bazyler thinks that the model might even be extended to help bring peace to the Middle East. One of the major factors for the breakdown of peace negotiations has been the Palestinians’ insistence on the right to return to Israel.

If they could drop this demand, he reasons, and focus instead on compensation to those Palestinians who actually lost land and real estate — perhaps counterbalanced by the material losses suffered by Jews in Arab lands who fled to Israel — a solution to the contentious issue might be found.

"It would be a magnificent legacy of Holocaust restitution," Bazyler concluded, "if it could resolve the conflict and bring peace to the state created out of the ashes of the Holocaust."