Tuesday, March 27, 2001

Not in Sanctification of Money

When the sun sets each day, there are fewer surviving Holocaust survivors than there were when the sun rose. And when the sun sets, there are more claimants for Holocaust funds, as additional lawyers, organizations and functionaries join the already long queue. In short, as the Holocaust litigation docket expands, there is a reciprocal decline in the benefits that may be paid one day to the survivors.

I know that it is difficult to write about the Holocaust without running the risk of trivializing that which was terrifying and beyond comprehension and description. There is another difficulty because to write about Holocaust-litigation and restitution efforts runs the risk of offending survivors. There is now a third risk in that criticism of Holocaust litigation and the organizations that benefit from it may provide material for Holocaust deniers and the likes of Norman Finkelstein, the CUNY professor whose obscene book, “The Holocaust Industry” has made him the darling of Europe’s neo-Nazis.

For nearly 25 years, we experienced something like communal amnesia about the destruction of European Jewry, as if the trauma and pain conspired to obliterate memory. This was changed by the Six-Day War, emergence of Soviet Jewry and the new sense of ethnicity and militancy embraced by many Jews. The Holocaust became a communal and philanthropic priority, with museums and memorials and all kinds of projects in just about every nook and cranny of Jewish communal life.

It was, I suppose, inevitable that the Holocaust would eventually be yoked to class action litigation and organizational needs and greed, two of the dubious charms of American civilization. In fact, Jewish organizations were active on the restitution front long before American Jewry awoke from its slumber. An old-boys network came into being long ago, gaining control of restitution funds and property confiscated from Jews.

In the process, these organizations anticipated or borrowed from the Swiss by creating a bureaucratic maze that made it impossible for survivors or their heirs to regain property, especially in Germany. The sordid story has been covered in detail in The Jerusalem Report, but American Jewish publications have maintained a “see no evil, know no evil” policy, in line with their practice of giving our dysfunctional army of organizations a free ride as they squander each year well in excess of a billion dollars in communal funds.

There are Jewish organizations that are salivating at the prospect of getting their hands on Holocaust funds generated by the class action litigation of the past decade. They will have to wait in line until the lawyers, accountants and assorted functionaries take their cut and the surviving survivors get their meager shares. If all goes according to plan, organizational patience will be handsomely rewarded.

If the funds were to be allocated to Jewish education or to sustain communities and institutions that are the direct continuation of what was destroyed in Europe, there would be justification for the use of Holocaust funds for communal purposes. That is not what is happening or likely to happen.

It’s time to regain perspective about the evil that befell our people. The families cheated by the Swiss banks that were in the steal business and those whose property was confiscated have every right, of course, to pursue their claims. As a community, though, we need to shift course and recognize at long last that our actions are sending the terrible message that our Holocaust-related activity is not about memory or renewing tradition but about money and how we can get our hands on lots of it.

To make matters worse, our efforts are aimed in part at securing Holocaust funds for other groups that are willing to stay in the background as Jews fight the tough battle. I attended one meeting on the Swiss funds, in the offices of the lead attorney, a good man who is not seeking a fee. Toward the end of the meeting, a group of Gypsies demanded a share of the settlement and we were told that they would be included, as would other non-Jewish groups. This situation is more pronounced in the slave labor litigation.

It turns out that we Jews are on the front lines and giving the impression that Holocaust-memory is about money and all along we have silent partners who will not get their hands dirty but who are eager to reap the fruit of our activity. Isn’t this nice?

Increasingly we have become caught up in a seedy business that we should stay away from. We cannot justify what we are doing on the ground that a small number of survivors will receive modest payments.

It’s time to say enough, to insist that the destruction of European Jewry not be treated as a pocketbook matter. It’s time to feel once more the searing pain and awe of the Holocaust, to know that court cases distort memory.

Jews were murdered because they were Jews and not because they wanted to preserve their property. They were murdered Al Kiddush Hashem, in sanctification of G-D’s name, and not in sanctification of money.