Holocaust memorial in Athens, Greece.
(photo credit: PROVIDED BY MEMORIAL MANAGEMENT)
A Tel Aviv court this week rejected a demand by the Greek Jewish community that an Israeli organization turn over shares worth up to NIS 1 million in the Jewish Colonial Trust, the predecessor of Bank Leumi.
The contentious case pits two Holocaust restitution bodies against each other.
Greece’s Heirless Property and Jewish Rehabilitation Fund (OPAIE) – an independent arm of that country’s Jewish community, established to take charge of heirless property that victims of the Nazi genocide left behind – had asserted that the Company for Location and Restitution of Holocaust Victims’ Assets (Hashava) had no right to the 512 shares of JCT it was holding.
OPAIE argued that since those assets had not been located in Israel at the time of the Holocaust, the Israeli body should not be administering them.
Before World War II, Jews across the Diaspora put their money into the trust, which was a London-based arm of the Zionist movement tasked with raising money for the development of Jewish life in Palestine.
However, many such investors subsequently perished in the Holocaust, and the shares were later transferred to Israel.
Greece’s parliament established OPAIE in 1946 to oversee the restitution of Jewish assets, giving it exclusive rights over heirless property.
In 2006, the Knesset passed the Assets Of Holocaust Victims Law, which established Hashava to take charge of the disposition of assets “that are in Israel and of which it may be assumed that their owners perished in the Holocaust.”
According to OPAIE, Hashava has no claim to the contested assets, as the victims were Greek citizens who died in Greece while their shares in the trust were still in London.
While judge Gideon Ginat was sympathetic to OPAIE’s arguments, he ultimately ruled that the shares must remain with Hashava, citing the 2006 law.
The law states that “notwithstanding the provision of any [statute], for purposes of the right to inherit the asset of a Holocaust victim in order to receive it under this Law, [the] inheritance [statute that] shall apply to the Holocaust victim’s estate [is the one] which would have applied to him if he had been an Israeli subject, within its meaning in the Inheritance Ordinance.”
What that means, according to OPAIE representative Zvika Barak, is that under normal inheritance laws, the shares would have gone to his clients, but the 2006 law prevented such a move.
“The Knesset passed a law 60 years after the Greek parliament passed a [restitution] law, whereby the Israelis took [for] themselves the legal [right] to give to this new company the jurisdiction over property that was not in Israel in the Holocaust [but] that moved to Israel [afterward],” he told The Jerusalem Post.
While Ginat said in his ruling that he had no choice but to dismiss OPAIE’s appeal, he stated that since the original owners of the shares were not Israeli citizens and did not live or die in Israel, and since their property had not been located in Israel at the time of their deaths, it would be appropriate for Hashava to negotiate a compromise with the Greeks.
Barak said that despite losing the case, he retained the right to appeal. He added that he was heartened by the judgment, because it was the “first time somebody said what we said all along.”
If Hashava is unwilling to negotiate a compromise, he continued, “we will find our way with this issue. We will not give up.”
Barak said he found it ironic that Israel had been pressing European nations for decades to create mechanisms for restitution, but that “the only one country that did not [give back Holocaust victims’ property] is the state of Israel.”
In a statement following the ruling, Hashava rejected approaches by OPAIE, saying the company maintained the right to the shares under Israeli law.
Israeli law applies to Holocaust assets located within the Jewish state, Hashava said, “regardless of [the] citizenship, residence or nationality” of the original owners.
“The court rejected [OPAIE’s] interpretation of the order of succession and adopted the company’s position that the victims property law applies retroactively to all assets currently in Israel left behind by Jews who perished in the Holocaust,” the statement said.
Hashava also rejected Ginat’s suggestion that it earmark some of those assets to help survivors living in Greece, stating that it was already helping thousands of survivors in Israel “who need it most” and whose “economic situation is the most difficult of all the survivors.”
The group explained that it was unable to determine who qualified as a Holocaust survivor in the Diaspora, as it relied on lists from the Holocaust Survivors Rights Authority that did not include Jews living abroad. Hashava added that it was bound by law to help survivors here.