Austria’s Jews sue Israeli Central Archives

Community demands return of texts detailing centuries of Jewish life in Central Europe, says they were sent to Israel "temporarily."

By GIL STERN STERN SHEFLER
May 6, 2011 04:31
Austrian Jewish community head Ariel Muzicant.

ariel muzicant 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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A bitter legal dispute has erupted between the Jewish community of Austria and an archive in Israel over the ownership of thousands of historical documents.

The lawsuit puts the centrality of Israel in the Jewish world and the autonomy of Diaspora Jews at odds.

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Last week the Jewish Community of Austria filed a lawsuit in Israel against the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People in Jerusalem, demanding it hand over a collection of documents detailing Jewish life in Central Europe between the 17th and 20th centuries.

In its appeal, the community claims the manuscripts – which include birth, marriage and death certificates going back centuries as well as various other texts – were loaned to the Israel-based institute in the aftermath of World War II because it was unable to care for them at the time. The community argued that the documents were sent to Israel on the stated condition that they would be returned upon request.

“First of all they are ours,” said Ariel Muzikant, the president of the Jewish community in Austria, by phone from Vienna. “They belong to us and when times were difficult we sent them to Israel as a loan. Now we are trying to retrieve documents from six different countries and build a Jewish archive for them in Austria, and the archive in Jerusalem is ignoring us.”

Muzikant said his community would like to house the documents in a multipurpose Jewish center that will be built in Vienna. The complex, which will also house a branch of the Simon Wiesenthal Center and a Jewish museum, will be used to educate future generations about the country’s Jewish community. He said that when he first asked the Central Archives in Israel to return the documents two years ago, it refused.

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“We wrote letters to the archive, spoke to them on the phone and tried through the Prime Minister’s Office, but they played deaf,” he said.

While Muzikant said he supports Israel and donates money to Israeli causes and institutions – including the Hebrew University which the Central Archives is part of – he also wasn’t afraid of standing up for his community’s rights.

“We have sued the State of Israel also when they didn’t want to give our property back,” he said. “It is our legal right.”

Hadassah Assouline, the director of the Central Archives in Jerusalem, categorically rejected Muzikant’s claims. The head of the educational institution, which stores 60,000,000 pages of documentation on Jewish communities around the world, said the disputed collection was placed in the indefinite care of the Archives.

“The documents from Vienna are among many put in our trust by Jewish communities around the world with no intent of returning them,” she said. “No such agreement was in place and we’ve invested considerable funds in preserving them.”

Assouline added: “Muzikant has been talking about returning the documents for years, but he never approached us. He was here last week and didn’t set up a meeting. Had he set up a meeting we would have talked, but his behavior does not justify giving up the material, nor is it written anywhere that we must give it back.”

Each side says that other has neglected the historical documents. Muzikant said the Central Archives kept them in a “dusty box” for years until he raised a cry, whereas Assouline said the community in Austria lacked microfilm readers and proper storage facilities.

But the most controversial argument made by the Central Archives is that Israel has the same, if not more, of a historical claim to the documents, because more Austrian- born Jews and their descendants live in Israel than there are Jews in Austria.

Gideon Eckhaus is one of the estimated 3,000 Austrian- born Israelis. Born in Vienna in 1923, he made aliya shortly after Germany annexed Austria in 1938.

Most of his family was left behind and died in the Holocaust. As the head of an organization representing Austrian-born Jews in Israel, he said the documents should remain in Jerusalem.

“From a legal point of view this doesn’t concern us, because we weren’t those who signed the papers, but from a historical point of view it certainly does,” Eckhaus said. “These documents were transferred to Jerusalem and put in its permanent – not temporary – care. Several other Jewish communities did the same. I don’t understand the insistence by Muzikant. If he says he is a Zionist then he should know Israel is the center of the Jewish people and from a Zionist and Jewish point of view the documents should stay here.”

Attorney Gilad Maoz, of Epstein, Rosenblum and Maoz, a Tel Aviv based law that focuses on international transactions and is representing the Jewish community in Austria, said Israel had no right to the documents.

“This is a legal argument that doesn’t hold water,” Maoz said. “The Jewish community of Austria is a legal entity that has been in existence for decades. It has representatives and holds signed documents. Factually, the claim that there are more Austrian Jews living in Israel is also untrue.”

The senior partner in the firm, which employs several lawyers admitted to practice law in the US, UK, and elsewhere, said it was a classic case of a difference in mentality between Israel and Austria, and accused the Central Archives of paternalism.

“We sought to have a debate with the archive, to hold a discussion and state our case from a legal as well as an ethical standpoint, even if the legal one is all that’s required,” Maoz said.

“But the archive isn’t willing to hold a legal or ethical discussion with us, nor is it willing to answer our letters and queries. Its conduct is paternalistic and constitutes a real disgrace.”

Attorney Gideon Weinbaum said the refusal by the Israeli institute to relinquish its control of the documents stood in contradiction to the attitude of other countries that had cooperated with the Jewish community of Austria.

“We were surprised that countries like Austria and Russia worked diligently to return the documents to the Jewish community whereas here in Israel, the Jewish state, it did not,” he said.

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