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Jewish groups grow impatient with Swiss over missing assets

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JERUSALEM, Jan. 5 (JTA) — Angered by what it termed “remarks bordering on anti-Semitism” by the outgoing president of Switzerland, the World Jewish Restitution Organization has announced a series of retaliatory measures that would include a boycott of Swiss banks. Two top officials of the WJRO held a news conference here Sunday to unveil their proposals and to voice their impatience with the slow pace of negotiations regarding the return of Jewish assets deposited in Swiss banks during the Holocaust. The two sharply condemned the remarks of outgoing Swiss President Jean-Pascal Delamuraz, who last week dismissed as “blackmail” calls from Jewish groups for his nation to set up a $250 million fund to begin compensating Holocaust victims and their heirs who might be entitled to money deposited in Swiss banks in the World War II era. “If we agreed now to a compensation fund, this would be taken as an admission of guilt,” Delamuraz told the Tribune de Geneve newspaper the eve of stepping down from the presidency. “This is nothing less than extortion and blackmail,” added Delamuraz, who occupied the largely ceremonial post of president until Jan. 1 under the rotating system. “This fund would make it much more difficult to establish the truth.” Delamuraz has since said he was sorry if he offended families of Holocaust victims but repeated his view that it was not the right time to set up a compensation fund. Instead, the Swiss government will wait until its newly appointed historical commission determines whether Switzerland misappropriated Jewish assets, said Delamuraz, who now serves as Swiss economics minister. At Sunday’s news conference, the WJRO said it might attempt to implement the series of punitive measures if Swiss authorities do not denounce Delamuraz’s statements and accelerate their investigation into Swiss-held Jewish assets from the Holocaust. The WJRO, which was created in 1992 by the World Jewish Congress and the Jewish Agency for Israel, said Sunday the measures included calls for a withdrawal of investments in Swiss banks, cancellation of the banks’ operating licenses and a class action suit against the banks. Jewish Agency Chairman Avraham Burg and World Jewish Congress Secretary General Israel Singer said at the news conference that the WJRO had reluctantly formulated the list of punitive actions after Delamuraz made the comments last week. Singer said the WJRO would wait four weeks before implementing the steps outlined in their proposal. “This gives the Swiss enough time to consider their position,” he said. Noting that the Swiss government as a whole did not denounce Delamuraz’s statement — though a few legislators did register their displeasure — Singer said that there has apparently been a “sea change” in the government’s desire to resolve the issue of Jewish assets. In light of this change, Burg said it is “incumbent upon us to establish a strong policy.” In addition to its proposal for a boycott of Swiss banks by Jewish business leaders and organizations, the WJRO may file a class-action suit against the Swiss Bankers Association on behalf of hundreds of thousands of Holocaust survivors and their heirs. Other proposals include a call for private organizations, as well as federal, state and local authorities in the U.S. and elsewhere to withdraw their investments from Swiss banks. If the Swiss government does not act quickly, the WJRO may also ask U.S. legislators to scrutinize the licensing of Swiss banks. Acknowledging that the measures, if implemented, could have wide-ranging repercussions, Singer said, “We do not take this matter lightly. But we cannot take the words of a person who speaks for a nation lightly either.” Delamuraz’s comments must be “rejected by Switzerland and the bankers clearly and very, very decisively,” Singer added. Switzerland has been at the center of an international furor over its wartime dealings with Nazi Germany and the fate of Jewish assets deposited during the Holocaust. Jewish groups have suggested that Switzerland set up a preliminary fund as “a good faith financial gesture.” U.S. Senate Banking Committee Chairman Alfonse D’Amato (R-N.Y.) echoed the call at a congressional hearing in December. Jewish and Swiss officials have been discussing creation of such a fund in recent weeks, and negotiations have centered around the $250 million figure. (JTA correspondent Daniel Kurtzman in Washington contributed to this report.)

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