The Israeli government will take action to restore Holocaust-victim assets to their rightful heirs for the first time, through a new bill approved by the Knesset's Constitution, Law and Justice Committee on Monday.
The bill will be up for a final vote on Wednesday. It is expected to pass because of support of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Finance Minister Ehud Olmert, and Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin.
MK Colette Avital (Labor) proposed the bill, which would create a government-owned company to locate the assets of Holocaust victims and return them to their heirs. "This is a historic event," said Avital. "For the first time the State of Israel will recognize that the state owes money to the family of people who perished in the Holocaust."
The annual budget for the company has been projected at NIS 32 million. The Finance Ministry, however, has allocated only NIS 12 million, leaving open the question of where the rest of the funding will come.
It is thought that a large amount of land, which was purchased prior to World War II by Jews who later became Holocaust victims, is held by government housing and land companies.
Before the Holocaust, many Eastern European Jews also opened bank accounts and purchased land in pre-state Israel. The British Mandate later seized those assets once the war began and later transferred them to the state of Israel. Those assets are now valued at NIS 1 billion, said representatives of the committee.
The Jewish Colonial Trust (JCT) currently holds the majority of those assets. JCT's management appeared at a meeting of the Holocaust Reparation Committee to argue against the bill, claiming that company regulations prohibit funds to be transferred to government-operated bodies. Former Knesset Speaker and JCT executive Dov Shilansky also appeared in front of the committee to request that the committee waiver from the law.
MKs on the committee later said that JCT's opposition to the bill was baseless and shameful. "They said that while it was a good bill, it should not apply to them," said Avital. "We told them to go home."
The final vote on the bill will be held on the last day of the Knesset. If it cannot pass both a second and third reading then, it must start from scratch in the next Knesset.
Drafting the bill was a long process, said a spokeswoman for the Knesset committee because of the complex work involved in evaluating long-standing claims and locating heirs.
According to the bill, any company or person who is found in possession of assets belonging to a Holocaust victim must relinquish them within 30 days.
For the 10 percent of Holocaust victims having no living heirs, the company or person will transfer those assets to impoverished Holocaust survivors.