Voiding of Holocaust Law Sparks Anger

Holocaust survivors and Jewish organizations have reacted with anger and disappointment to Monday’s U.S. Supreme Court decision striking down a California law that required European insurance companies to disclose information about all their Holocaust-era policies.

Much of the dismay was directed at the Bush administration, which sided with the insurance companies in the case.

"This is very disheartening," said Suzanne Weiner-Zada, a 73-year-old survivor of Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz, who is suing an Italian insurance company. "Why would an American court side with foreign companies against American citizens?"

"The insurance companies have been stonewalling us and cheating us for almost 60 years," the Hungarian-born Los Angeles resident added. "You would think that the United States government would be morally on our side."

In a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court ruled that California’s Holocaust Victim Insurance Relief Act of 1999, which would have revoked the state license of any company ignoring the law, was an unconstitutional interference with the president’s foreign policy prerogatives.

The decision specifically invalidated the part of the California law that would force insurance companies to make public the owners and contents of all policies written between 1920 and 1945. Not affected were other provisions, such as allowing plaintiffs to file claims against the companies in California courts and extending the deadline for filing such claims until 2010.

Legal experts expressed fear that the high court ruling would chill the judicial climate in considering related cases.

Among those most disappointed by the ruling was former Democratic Assemblyman Wally Knox, who authored the California law and helped it weather one gubernatorial veto and a number of lower court cases.

"This law was struck down for one reason, and that is because the president of the United States was opposed to it," Knox said. "As Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg (who dissented from the majority) noted, the president sided with the companies that sided with the Nazi looting of Jewish families."

Knox, who now serves as executive director of California’s Holocaust-Era Insurance Claims Oversight Committee, said he was baffled by Bush’s attitude, and "while the decision may have been taken at a lower level in the administration, the ultimate responsibility is the president’s."

By contrast, the American Insurance Assn. (AIA), which spearheaded the legal fight against the California law, expressed its satisfaction with the outcome.

"We believe that the International Commission for Holocaust Era Insurance Claims (ICHEIC), which was established specifically to handle Holocaust insurance claims, is the best way to provide a measure of financial relief [for Holocaust victims and their families] today," said AIA Senior Vice President Craig Berrington in a prepared statement. "As both the Clinton and Bush administrations made clear in this long litigation process, the issues remaining from the Holocaust are matters for the United States government, not individual states."

The Generali Insurance Co. of Italy is one of the chief financial underwriters of ICHEIC, a voluntary commission made up of representatives from European insurance companies, U.S. state insurance regulators, Jewish organizations and the State of Israel.

However, since its establishment in 1998, the commission has been dogged by charges of foot-dragging, meager accomplishments and administrative overspending. It has set a deadline of Sept. 30 for the filing of Holocaust-related insurance claims.

New York attorney Kenneth Bialkin, Generali’s lead counsel in the United States, though not involved in the Supreme Court case, said his company "was not unhappy" with the decision, which he lauded as "well crafted."

Attorney Frank Kaplan of Los Angeles, who represented the California Department of Insurance in the high court case, said that the main recourse left now would be congressional action. Such an initiative has already been taken by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles), who introduced the Holocaust Victims Insurance Relief Act in March. The bill has gathered more than 50 co-sponsors.

Waxman said, "It is clear that Congress must act. The Supreme Court decision will spur momentum and move the legislation forward."

Jewish organizations spoke out on the high court ruling.

Gideon Taylor, executive vice president of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, said that "the effort to ensure that unpaid Holocaust-era insurance policies are paid will continue, regardless of this decision. This has always been a matter of morality and not just legality."

Speaking for the national Jewish Council for Public Affairs, chairman Michael Bohnen promised to work with Congress "in a bipartisan manner to try to right some of the wrongs that have been allowed to linger far too long."

California Gov. Gray Davis pledged to continue the fight "to deliver full justice to victims of Nazi persecution. For me, this is more than a policy decision. This is a moral imperative."

In Los Angeles, both Bet Tzedek Legal Services and the Simon Wiesenthal Center had filed friend-of-the-court briefs, in which they argued, "Callous insurance companies that profited from the Holocaust need secrecy, not only to keep the properties they stole from corpses, but to continue to do business today with Californians who would be rightly concerned … if they learned the truth."

David Lash, until recently executive director of Bet Tzedek, added, "We may have lost our last opportunity to get truthful information from the insurance companies."

Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the Wiesenthal Center, said the court ruling was a blow not only to Holocaust victims but to the legal efforts of American ex-prisoners of war to obtain compensation for forced labor under their Japanese captors.

"It is the shame of the U.S. State Department that it claims foreign policy prerogatives to give cover" to the wartime deeds of former enemies, Cooper said.

In the 5-4 Supreme Court decision, the two Jewish justices were on opposite sides, with Stephen G. Breyer voting with the majority and Ginsburg filing a strong minority dissent.