Newspaper reports of the turmoil at the World Jewish Congress that credit WJC leaders with negotiating twenty-billion dollars in restitution payments – an astounding sum – and an unrelated phone conversation with a man who has had a long and distinguished career of voluntary communal activity, including in the restitution field, have got me thinking about how little has been disclosed and how little most of us who are attuned to Jewish public affairs know about a subject that has been critical in Jewish life for at least half a century.
It isn’t surprising that the linkage of post-Holocaust activity and money have not brought forth an excess of moral or elevated behavior. The opportunity for enrichment ordinarily does not induce restraint or propriety. The attachment of the prospect for financial gain to the Holocaust has not resulted in Tikkun Ha-Olam. What has been improved is the financial status of some individuals and well-positioned organizations and causes. Profiteering began shortly after the death camps ceased performing their evil and it hasn’t stopped, although the opportunity to profit is no longer the province of black marketers. It has become the handiwork of persons with nice professional and organizational titles.
The latest exhibit is the piggishness of Burt Neuborne, a respected law professor at NYU, who has submitted a bill for millions for his work in the Swiss Bank case. While he is rightly being pilloried, he has not been alone at this ample feeing trough. I suspect that his uncharacteristic avarice was triggered by what others – lawyers, accountants, experts and especially a notable who has served as a special master – have extracted from a fund that was supposed to benefit those whose accounts were looted. Relatively little has been dispensed in that direction, while there have been missteps all along the way, to an extent because of the rulings of the well-meaning but naïve federal judge handling the litigation.
The results may be worse in the litigation involving the Italian insurance giant which after years of stonewalling hired a phalanx of lawyers to deceive and to wear down the claimants. It has come away virtually unscathed, despite its sinful behavior. Here, too, judicial naiveté has contributed to an unsatisfactory outcome.
Hundreds of millions of dollars of the Swiss funds remain to be distributed, which should not be surprising as two generations after the Holocaust there are too few claimants to press and prove their claims. The preference has been to direct unclaimed funds to those who are said to be poor. As a consequence, Jews and thousands of non-Jews (by any standard) in the Former Soviet Union have been the primary beneficiaries. If poverty is to be the criterion for the allocation of these funds, Israel’s poor should have priority because there is greater Jewish poverty there than there is in the FSU and certainly than there is in this country.
It is always a safe bet to advocate for the Jewish poor. However, utilizing restitution funds for this purpose is wrong and not because there aren’t poor Jews, although for sure FSU and U.S. Jewish poverty claims have been exaggerated. After those whose property or bank accounts were looted have been paid, priority in the allocation of all Holocaust- related funds should go to Israel and to the nurturing of religious life.
The Nazis did not seek to exterminate European Jews because they were poor or not poor or because of this or that organization. They sought to eradicate Jews, to destroy a religion, a nation and people. Whatever may be said about the appropriateness of seeking restitution for crimes whose barbarity and cruelty transcended what may be classified as evil, any funds that are allocated toward the Jewish people must be utilized to promote our sense of nationhood and peoplehood and to strengthen our religious life. Israel clearly meets this test. It is noteworthy that the first restitution funds were payments made to Israel by West Germany. Even now, Israel is a powerful claimant, certainly more powerful than any organization with restitution in its title. The religious communities and institutions that are the successors to what the Nazis destroyed are far more powerful claimants than any organization.
Am Yisrael Chai, the Jewish people live, because of Israel and because of our religious life, not because of any restitution bureaucracy. Perhaps it was impossible to avoid the establishment of a cohort of organizations. If so, this inevitability resulted in a second inevitability, described a century ago by Robert Michels as the iron law of oligarchy, referring to the tendency of organizations to become ends in themselves, with their mission being relegated to a secondary status.
I imagine that, in the aggregate, those in the restitution business have attempted to act honorably. There have been mistakes, some significant, and there has been too much feeding of the pets of those who are inside. Too little has been disclosed. There is an absence of transparency, a situation that is unpardonable for organizations that are nothing other than trustees for the Jewish people. Restitution funds are not private philanthropy. They are the property of the Jewish people.
If the twenty-billion dollar claim is accurate, restitution funds exceed what the UJA has raised in this country since the establishment of Israel. I suspect that the figure is greatly exaggerated by those who are prone to pat themselves on the back. In the event, the amount is huge and the failure to disclose is an egregious wrong. The Jewish people have a right to know how much has been taken in, how much has been spent and who have been the recipients. Strangely, our media, including this newspaper, have been bereft of curiosity. We know about in-fighting at the WJC, but nearly nothing about what has happened with the restitution funds.
It is time for a full public accounting.