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European Jewish council wants to be included in restitution talks

RIGA, Latvia, Oct. 11 (JTA) – Europe’s Jewish communities want a voice in the restitution of Holocaust-era assets, the board of the European Council of Jewish Communities resolved at a meeting here. The group’s resolution came in an effort to reverse what it views as American and Israeli domination of the restitution process. In particular, the council said it wants to participate in lawsuits and negotiations over slave labor, bank assets, insurance claims, and looted art and property. The council, which along with the European Jewish Congress makes up the European Restitution Committee, voted Sunday to push for inclusion in the deliberations of such groups as the World Jewish Restitution Organization and the Conference of Jewish Material Claims Against Germany in matters dealing with “reparations, compensation and restitution” of Holocaust-era assets. The council includes representatives from the major Western European states as well as from Russia, Ukraine and most other post-Soviet nations. The group attempts to represent Europe’s estimated 3 million Jews. “They’re not at the table where decisions are made,” said the American Jewish Committee’s European affairs director, Rabbi Andrew Baker, who acted as an adviser at the Riga conference. Europeans are not represented on the Claims Conference, and only last year were allowed to join the WJRO, said Baker, who added that Jews from former Soviet states are particularly underrepresented. “What we are asking for is not money,” said the chairman of the council’s board, Jacob Benatoff of Milan, Italy. “We think of the restitution as the restitution of historical truth, and dignity.” Benatoff and other board members hope the resolutions will bring a strong European community to the table in a meeting with the WJRO in New York on Oct. 28. European progress toward inclusion, which has only begun in recent years, stalled this summer with the death of Ignatz Bubis, the head of both the German Jewish community and the European Jewish Congress. In New York, Elan Steinberg, the executive director of the World Jewish Congress, one of the groups that makes up the WJRO, said the October meeting proves that the council already has a voice in decisions taken by the WJRO. Steinberg also downplayed the significance of the resolution, saying it “reflects dissatisfaction over the past and does not reflect conditions as they are today.” In their set of principles for the restitution process, the council’s board on Sunday expressed hope that, whenever possible, assets will be returned to their owners. But at the same time, they also staked their claim to heirless and unclaimed communal properties, which will be the object of competition between American, Israeli and European groups. “The Shoah was the attempt to erase the Jewish communities from Europe,” Benatoff said. “And we are today the European Jewish communities which have rebuilt” what the Nazis attempted to destroy. Because of this, the council argues, the communities deserve a substantial portion of unclaimed communal assets. (JTA foreign editor Mitchell Danow contributed to this report.)