Shameful behavior

Shameful behavior

For now, it seems, the public criticisms of the Conference on Material Jewish Claims Against Germany have died down. As I noted in the past, the Claims Conference is an easy target for survivors’ groups and other Jewish organizations, all of whom think they would do better at distributing the monies collected for restitution and reparations.

Judging by many of the criticisms leveled against it over the years, what most irks these groups is the priority the conference gives to the poorest survivors of the Shoah, or for their benefit. This does not sit well with survivors who favor a more even distribution, regardless of whether it is also an equitable one. The conference, however, has a responsibility to see to it that as many survivors as possible live the most normal lives possible. That means it cannot consider giving everyone the same size slice of a finite pie, when some already have whole pies of their own.

The proper targets are elsewhere, with the State of Israel standing at the top of the list. It deserves a great deal of criticism for its handling of Holocaust funds, as the daily newspaper Haaretz reported a week ago – and not for the first time. In its article, Haaretz quoted the testimony of a Shoah survivor to the Knesset Labor, Welfare and Health Committee in April. In 2005, the Knesset set up the Company for Location and Restitution of Holocaust Victims’ Assets. It has over $280 million (over 1 billion New Israel Shekels) sitting in its coffers, sitting being the operative word. “What have you done with the money?” the survivor asked the Knesset panel. “What? The sight on television of Holocaust survivors who don’t have heat in the winter, who don’t have money for food is to your shame. Permit us to die in dignity.'”

It is scandalous that there are Shoah survivors in the Jewish state who live in such poverty when there is money available to ease their suffering. Every parliamentary election cycle, political parties appeal to the survivor community, promising to rectify the situation. Once the election is over, the promises get put back into campaign desks, waiting to be dusted off for the next round.

Israel’s finance minister, Yair Lapid, seemed poised to deal with the problem when he came to office, considering that his ministry had direct responsibility for survivor issues. Doing so was part of his party’s platform and part of his political DNA. His father, the near-legendary Yosef “Tommy” Lapid, was one of the most sincere and effective political advocates on behalf of Israel’s survivor community. The government, apparently, had other ideas; it moved survivor issues from Finance to the Social Affairs Ministry.

Why is that $28 million sitting in a bank vault instead of helping the victims? That is the question upon which newspapers, survivors’ groups, and Jewish organizations should be expending resources, but they do not. This also is scandalous.

Financial restitution is only part of this shameful story. In recent years, thanks in great part to initial efforts by then New York County District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, the issue of reclaiming and restituting art and other cultural property looted by the Nazis has taken part of center stage. In January 1998, Morgenthau ordered the seizure of two paintings by Egon Schiele, one of which is the famed “Portrait of Wally.” The paintings were on loan at the time to the Museum of Modern Art from the Leopold Foundation in Austria.

MoMA, chaired back then by Ronald S. Lauder, who today heads the World Jewish Congress and its Commission for Art Recovery, fought efforts to return “Wally” to the family from whom the Nazis stole it. Lauder recently was one of the Claims Conference’s critics, yet no one raised the question of why he allowed MoMA to fight restitution of “Wally.” Indeed, one must wonder why Lauder, who has been involved in at least two cases in which it was charged that he himself owns looted art, should chair a “Commission on Art Recovery.” I am not suggesting that he has done anything wrong, but surely there seems to be a conflict of interest worth exploring. Yet no one explores it.

Backing MoMA was the Jewish Museum, which is under the nominal aegis of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. Why have none of the Claims Conference’s critics ever raised the question of what might move a Jewish museum to oppose restituting Jewish art to the heirs of Shoah victims?

This surely is a topic for investigative journalism, yet the Claims Conference’s critics in the media have avoided such a probe.

So, too, have its critics among survivors’ groups and Jewish organizations, perhaps because they have nothing to gain from addressing the issue other than good press and good feelings.

It is easier to attack the Claims Conference, even if it means that elderly survivors will go cold again this winter in Israel because attention has been diverted toward an office in New York.