A bitter legal dispute has erupted between the Jewish community of Austria and
an archive in Israel over the ownership of thousands of historical
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The lawsuit puts the centrality of Israel in the Jewish world
and the autonomy of Diaspora Jews at odds.
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
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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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.
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.
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
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.
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
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
“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.”
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.
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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