Israel wins case to retain Austrian Jewish archive

Jerusalem District Court rejects lawsuit submitted by Vienna’s Jewish community to obtain documents from 17th-20th centuries.

State archives 370 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
State archives 370
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The Jerusalem District Court rejected last week a lawsuit submitted by Vienna’s Jewish community to obtain Austrian Jewish documents from the 17th to 20th centuries.
It is a “very important decision” for the archive, Israel’s state archivist Dr. Yaacov Lozowick told The Jerusalem Post on Monday.
The court decision “bolsters Israel’s claim” as the repository for the Austrian archives, and the legal ruling set a precedent for the “cultural centrality of Israel,” Lozowick said.
In 2011, Dr. Ariel Muzicant, then head of the roughly 7,700-member Vienna Jewish community, filed a lawsuit in the district court against the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People in Jerusalem, calling for the collection of Vienna Jewish documents to be returned to the community’s headquarters.
Oskar Deutsch — the successor to Muzicant — declined to comment on Monday and referred the matter to the community’s Vienna-based lawyer, Daniel Neubauer. He told the Post by telephone: “We are going to do everything that is possible to appeal the decision. The Jewish community [in Vienna] is the rightful owner.”
If the Jewish community pursues its appeal, the case will require Vienna’s Jews to sue the State of Israel.
Judge Gila Canfy Steinitz — the wife of Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz — issued a four-page decision, which dealt with the dispute between the Central Archives, located at Hebrew University, and the Vienna community.
Lozowick issued an advisory opinion outlining the reasons for Israel’s right to retain the documents, which played a central role in the judge’s decision and interpretation of the 1955 law. Writing on the Israel’s State Archivist blog in October, Lozowick wrote in connection with his opinion: “The depositors [Austrian Jews] felt they were strengthening the cultural importance of the young State of Israel as the center of the Jewish people; they were proud about their contribution; and they had no intention of the collection ever returning.”
Lozowick told the Post that Canfy Steinitz argued in her decision that Israel’s State’s Archive has the authority to look at this legal dispute as a broader issue. He added that the judge interpreted a 1955 law on archival material to mean that the opinion of Israel’s State Archivist has professional merit in light of the law.
Attorneys Gideon Weinbaum and Gilad Maoz are litigating the case for Vienna’s Jewish community in Jerusalem.
Weinbaum told the Post during a telephone interview that the court made a “legal error” and the judge made a technical decision, rather than dealing with the merits of the case. The question of whom the documents belong to still needs to decided, said Weinbaum.
He said Israel’s State Archive and Lozowick do “not have this type of authority” to decide over ownership of the documents.
Asked if the Vienna community plans to sue the State of Israel, Weinbaum said his firm is drafting the appeal and it will be “against various organs of the State of Israel,” including the Archives.
If a party loans documents to a public institution, “it is unthinkable that the State Archive can stop “attempts to compel a return of the material to the Austrian community.”
The Israel State Archives blog wrote about its advisory opinion to the court: “The main findings of the decision are that the collection was originally transferred as a permanent loan (permanente Leihgabe). A permanent loan is not an oxymoron, but rather a procedure used rather often by museums and sometimes by archives when the owner of an important cultural artifact wishes to transfer it forever to a cultural institution, while retaining some connection to it.”
The leaders of Austria’s tiny Jewish community in post-Holocaust Vienna sent the archives to Israel in the early 1950s because of the insecurity in the capital city.
Before the Holocaust, 200,000 Jews lived in Austria.