The battle for Holocaust restitution has collapsed - opinion

The last survivors of the Shoah, inclusive of those from North Africa, deserve to enjoy the restitution of their property and the missing third, at least in their lifetime.

 Israeli flag is seen attached to "Shoes on the Danube Bank" memorial during the annual "March of the Living" to commemorate victims of the Holocaust (photo credit: REUTERS/BERNADETT SZABO)
Israeli flag is seen attached to "Shoes on the Danube Bank" memorial during the annual "March of the Living" to commemorate victims of the Holocaust
(photo credit: REUTERS/BERNADETT SZABO)

There is no leader now in the battle for restitution of Jewish property looted during the Holocaust in Europe and in North Africa. The US has abandoned this effort and the Israeli government is ignoring that role. A critical and urgent reform is needed in the conduct of the government. A public inquiry commission should be established by the Knesset.

International Holocaust Remembrance Day evokes two major and open issues from the Holocaust era: the restitution of looted Jewish property and East Germany’s unpaid share of the reparations agreement, known as the “missing third.” In both issues, there has been no progress and there has been an alarming retreat. Although the number of Holocaust (Shoah) survivors continues to shrink at the alarming rate of 41 survivors on average every day.

Since the 1990s, the US has led the battle for the restitution of looted Jewish property. Recently, the US withdrew from the leading role and at an international conference on the subject held in Prague in November 2022, it allowed the process to die quietly. Israel, which participated in that conference, was expected to immediately raise the flag and announce that it is leading the process from now on because, after all, it is Jewish property.

To the surprise of some of those present at the conference, Israel ignored the mission and in its recorded message on the conference’s website, there is no mention of the looted Jewish property and the leadership of the process of its restitution.

Why have the US and Israel dropped the fight for Holocaust restitution?

For many years, the representative of the American government, ambassador Stuart Eisenstadt, who participated in the conference in Prague, complained that he was not getting help from the Israeli government and its representatives abroad in his restitution efforts. He even expressed his protest about this in a letter he sent at the time to prime minister Ariel Sharon.

 Israeli government and social leaders prepare for Terezin Conference to fight for Holocaust restitution. (credit: YITZHAK HARARI) Israeli government and social leaders prepare for Terezin Conference to fight for Holocaust restitution. (credit: YITZHAK HARARI)

Against the backdrop of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the Knesset State Audit Committee began deliberations this week on the state comptroller’s critical report on the subject. The comptroller determined that the value of looted Jewish property is between $212-$673 billion (NIS 714 b.-NIS 2.27 trillion) as of 2010 and depending on the form of calculation. Today, its value is estimated to be about 30% more.

From the sources for the auditor’s report, it appears that Eastern European countries have so far restituted on average no more than 3% of the looted property and Germany has restituted at most 12% of it.

THE STRUGGLE for the payment of East Germany’s share of the reparations agreement from 1952, which is currently estimated at $18 b. (NIS 61 b.) and should have reached the Israeli government a long time ago is led by a working group made up of volunteers.

In this initiative, 20 first- and second-generation survivors of the Holocaust and organizations representing Shoah survivors filed a petition on their behalf and at their own expense to the Supreme Court to order the government to claim the missing third or alternatively waive it and allow organizations and individuals to claim it directly from Germany.

The group could not bear the thought that Germany would not pay such a large sum to the Jewish people. The Supreme Court decided for some reason not to intervene in the issue and suggested to the petitioners to withdraw it. Withdrawing the petition will allow the filing of the lawsuit with new information.

In the Israeli government, the struggle for the restitution of looted Jewish property is entrusted to the Social Equality Ministry for historical and political reasons that are irrelevant. In this office, according to the state comptroller’s report, one employee deals with the issue for part of her job, with the help of one external consultant. The Foreign Ministry employs one more employee who deals with the issue.

In both offices, it does not receive the attention the issue deserves. It should therefore be transferred at once to the responsibility of the Justice Ministry. Property rights are in the field of human rights which the Justice Ministry here, in the European Union and in other countries administer.

The general custodian in the Justice Ministry is the only one who has been granted legal powers and possesses the know-how to restitute to Israeli citizens property they own that is located abroad – and he is already dealing with the issue of looted art. The ministerial committee for all of these issues must also be re-established. This time headed by the justice minister with the ministers of finance, foreign affairs and others as members.

It is to be hoped that the discussion at the Knesset State Audit Committee will awaken these great national and moral issues from their final demise, and a public inquiry commission will be established by the powers entrusted with this committee. The last survivors of the Shoah, inclusive of those from North Africa, deserve to enjoy the restitution of their property and the missing third, at least in their lifetime.

The writer researches the restitution of Jewish property from the Holocaust era. His doctoral thesis was cited in the 2022 state comptroller’s report on the restitution of Jewish property. He served as a senior adviser for the restitution of Jewish property in the Prime Minister’s Office and senior director of the Jewish Property Restitution Division in the Ministry for Senior Citizens (currently the Ministry for Social Equality).