holocaust survivor 298.8.
(photo credit: GPO [file])
A dizzying number of foreign officials have visited Yad Vashem. The visit may not be part of the official diplomatic welcome mat, but it is a routine part of the protocol. A recent poll showed that some three-quarters of Israelis thought it was important for foreign leaders to visit Yad Vashem.
And so they come. This year alone, the UN secretary-general, the chancellor of Germany, the American defense secretary, the prime minister of Italy, the foreign ministers of Australia, Hungary, Iceland, Latvia, Slovakia, Sweden and the UK were among those who made the pilgrimage. The list goes on.
Suffice it to say that these visits to Yad Vashem are important. One can imagine the hue and cry if a foreign dignitary failed to visit the Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority. The Israeli government is quick to remind the world of the Jewish dead.
The question is, if this emotional confrontation with death at Yad Vashem is essential to Israel's encounters with foreign dignitaries, what is essential in Israel's relations with the living survivors of the Holocaust?
ONE CAN argue that the State of Israel's obligation is to all the impoverished and vulnerable elderly, including the native-born, the Jewish refugees from Muslim nations and victims from Nazi-occupied Europe. Despite the customary wreath-laying with foreign guests at Yad Vashem, perhaps there are no special Israeli obligations specifically for survivors.
If this sounds politically incorrect, especially when survivors have been highly insulted by the paltry amount recently offered by the government, consider that it is not new. Israel has put the needs of the state above the individual since 1951, when it first realized it would have to negotiate with West Germany.
Israel originally sought $1.5 billion from Germany, which it calculated as the cost of resettling some 500,000 refugees from or survivors of the Nazi-conquered territories. It never intended to divide that amount among the survivors. Instead, it used the German money to build Israel's economic infrastructure; the idea was that if the state was developed, all of its inhabitants could thrive.
In fact, when the Claims Conference insisted that the Jewish world must also negotiate with West Germany for compensation for individual victims, the Israeli ambassador, Abba Eban, was nearly apoplectic. He feared that additional, amorphous demands for compensation for individual victims would sabotage the Israeli claim. In fact, it did not.
UNDER THE 1952 Luxembourg Agreements, West Germany agreed to pay Israel DM 3 billion in goods and services. These payments (known as shilumim), as hoped, had a dramatic effect on the economic development of the impoverished state. Bonn also agreed to the demands of the Claims Conference for legislation for compensation for individual Nazi victims. But many of those in Israel were at a disadvantage, because West Germany insisted that the Israeli government provide compensation to Nazi victims who already were in Israel.
Israel had demanded payment to resettle victims; the fact that "resettlement" meant building an electrical grid, for instance, was irrelevant to the Germans. West Germany was not going to provide a payment to the government and additional payments to individuals for what amounted to the same reason. The result was that, early on, Nazi victims living in Israel received lesser amounts than other victims received directly from Germany under terms negotiated with the Claims Conference.
HOWEVER, THE inequities were not limited to Israel. There were vast groups of victims who did not receive payments, or only small, one-time payments. For the last 50 years, Germany has made incremental improvements in compensation, but these did not relieve or reduce many disparities in compensation.
The principle that Germany would provide compensation was based on West Germany accepting responsibility for Nazi persecution and damages. However, payments were never based exclusively on the suffering endured, but on a complicated formula that included the residency and legal status of victims before and after World War II. The result was wide variations in the amounts and durations of payments for Nazi victims - and seemed to be based more on where they lived than the persecution they had survived.
One could say that survivors in Israel fare no worse, and probably much better, than those in Ukraine. The difference, however, is that Israel has had opportunities to improve the lot of survivors, and has not used them.
Instead, for instance, at German reunification, when the Claims Conference met with Germans to get compensation for individuals, the Israeli government conducted separate negotiations that produced German submarines for the Israeli navy. When the Conference began to recover heirless and unclaimed Jewish properties in the former East Germany, Jerusalem laid a claim to them - but not for survivors.
"The Israeli government feels that this property, and compensation received for it, should be used mainly for financing the absorption of newly arrived Jews and other important social goals," then finance minister Avraham Shochat said in 1993.
No one suggests that submarines and immigrant absorption are not important. But for a state that has ingrained the Holocaust in its foreign relations, more focus should be placed on survivors and the elderly. Perhaps, instead of wreath-laying at Yad Vashem, dignitaries should visit the day care center for the elderly, including survivors, at Rosh Pina.
The writer is the author of Confronting the Perpetrators: A History of the Claims Conference, with a foreword by Sir Martin Gilbert, published by Vallentine Mitchell in London.