As the World Jewish Restitution Organization and local Jewish community leaders work together to secure the return of Jewish properties seized during and after World War II in Eastern and Central Europe, disagreements are bound to occur.
But nowhere have these disputes become more apparent than in the Czech Republic.
The WJRO has signed agreements with the local Jewish communities in 10 eastern European countries – the Czech Republic being one of three exceptions – to work together for the restitution of communal property and to establish foundations to jointly manage returned properties.
But despite these agreements, local communal leaders have somewhat different goals from the WJRO.
While the WJRO has also to consider the broader interests of the international Jewish community when seeking restitution, local leaders are frequently arguing to retain control over any restituted property, and the income derived from it, solely for the benefit of their own community.
Conflicts and debates have resulted from these differing interests, but they are generally resolved to the satisfaction of both parties.
Peter Feldmeyer, the president of the Hungarian Jewish community, spoke of the amicable resolution of these debates during an interview at the recently held 10th Global Assembly of the World Jewish Congress.
“We have to create a foundation that will oversee the management of restituted properties” in Hungary, he said, adding that his community was debating with the WJRO “who will have the majority of seats on the governing board” of the foundation.
But for all the disagreements on this issue, he said, “we have very good relations with the WJRO.”
Similar assessments could be heard from other communal leaders attending the Jan. 22-24 WJC assembly in Jerusalem.
But an entirely different sentiment was expressed by Thomas Kraus, the executive director of the Federation of Jewish Communities in the Czech Republic.
Interviewed in his office at the historic Jewish Town Hall in Prague, Kraus accused WJRO Deputy Chairman Naftali Lavie of “blackmailing” the local Jewish federation.
“Naftali Lavie has said that if we won’t cooperate with the WJRO, we can forget about assistance from” the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany and from the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, Kraus said.
“And we are dependent on this help,” he added.
Kraus added his suspicion that the WJRO was behind the Claims Conference’s recent refusal to give a grant to the Prague Jewish Federation for the development of three Jewish communities outside Prague.
The Claims Conference, which Kraus said has been very generous to Czech Jewish communities in the past, said no to a grant, but agreed to a loan.
“This is unacceptable to us because our community is in a state that we cannot pay it back,” said Kraus.
“We don’t know if there is a connection to our problems with WJRO, but there are too many coincidences,” he added.
Czech Jewish Federation President Jan Munk, along with spokesman Jiri Danicek, criticized the WJRO for seeking the restitution of more communal properties than the federation itself was seeking from the Czech government.
“The WJRO wants the situation to be just as it was before the war,” said Danicek. “But they can’t see the complications.
“The WJRO does not understand the reality of Czech life,” he added.
Munk said that, unlike the WJRO, the local federation had to contend on a daily basis with governmental and public opinion toward the Jewish community’s restitution efforts.
“Unfortunately, the attitude of Mr. Lavie was very ultimative. He refused to consider the political and legal [intricacies] of the issue,” Munk said.
WJRO Chairman Israel Singer, in an interview during the WJC assembly in Jerusalem, disputed the Czech Jewish leaders’ charges on Lavie’s behalf.
“We’re story we’ve not come as far with the leaders of Prague’s Jewish community as we have with other local communities.
“It is our goal to work for the local community – and to work for their benefit,” he said, adding, “We want to help them maximize what they can get back.”
Singer was also quick to defend Lavie’s abilities as a negotiator.
“Lavie is a seasoned diplomat who participated in the Camp David negotiations [that led to a 1979 peace treaty between Israel and Egypt].
“I don’t believe he participated in blackmail,” Singer said, adding, “I am sure no such untoward activities have taken place.”
Singer suggested the possibility that the Czech Jewish leaders had come under the pressure of their government to fight the WJRO’s efforts at seeking a more far-reaching restitution of Jewish property.
“Jews should speak for the Jewish side, not the government side,” Singer said.
A source with the WJC who asked not to be identified had a similar assessment.
“The Czech government is holding up the local community to pressure the WJRO,” the source said.
If indeed there were members of the Czech government who thought they could put behind-the-scenes pressure on Czech Jewish leaders, Singer said, the time had come to show them that times had changed.
“Not everyone is used to the new requirements of democracy, which requires transparency in the process” of making restitution, he said.
“This matter should be adjudicated in the halls of Czech justice – if they are willing to help,” said Singer, who added the WJRO’s goal as it pertained not only to the Czech Republic, but to all its restitution efforts throughout Eastern Europe:
“We want open agreements openly arrived at.”