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News Analysis: Jewish Groups Ready to Deal to Resolve Restitution Issue

November 27, 1996
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“How much will you offer?” This age-old question, which signifies that people are ready for business, is becoming the unofficial negotiating posture of the world Jewish campaign for Holocaust restitution.

This policy shift emerged in conversations with key figures attending a conference of the World Jewish Congress on restitution, held in the Norwegian capital this week.

The significance of the shift is that the handful of Jewish officials involved in making restitution policy now will be prepared to accept less than the true magnitude of a country’s accrued debt — in return for a prompt settlement made without acrimony.

One important consideration behind the policy shift is that soon there will be no living survivors who can benefit directly from compensation for Holocaust- related plunder.

The new negotiating policy will likely be applied in discreet diplomatic contacts between WJC officials and the governments of Holland and France, among others.

It is already being applied, in effect, in intensive negotiations with Swiss bankers and government officials in Bern.

According to unofficial, but well-founded reports emerging from these behind- the-scenes negotiations, Switzerland is considering making an interim settlement offer to world Jewry, pending the conclusion of inquiries into the role of Swiss banks in holding Jewish deposits as well as those made by the Third Reich, some of which originated in Jewish wealth.

These inquiries came after the WJC and U.S. officials launched a steady barrage of accusations that Swiss banks have hidden behind their secrecy laws in an effort to block the return of assets belonging to Holocaust victims or their heirs.

They also came after the WJC unearthed a series of recently declassified documents that it says proves that Switzerland helped finance Hitler’s war effort by laundering money for Nazi Germany.

Swiss government and banking officials are now said to be ready to come up with a sizeable restitution sum even before the conclusion of the ongoing investigations.

Informed sources said that $250 million was mentioned as a figure for the interim settlement in talks held in Switzerland last week.

Following the Oslo conference, WJC leaders hope to be able to embark on similar dialogues with other countries.

WJC sources disclosed that an $8 billion claim against the Dutch government is being submitted by the local community, with WJC backing.

In practice, realistic expectations of eventual compensation are significantly more modest.

Much depends, politically and psychologically, on the precedent set by Norway.

“This is the moral responsibility of our generation,” Norwegian Prime Minister Thorbjorn Jaglard told the WJC delegates at the opening session of the conference this week.

As the seat of the Nobel Peace Prize, and in its more recent role as facilitator of the Israeli-Palestinian peace breakthrough, Norway is widely seen as an example in international affairs to be respected and emulated.

The WJC chose Oslo as the venue for this week’s biannual meeting of its leadership, officials said, because of what they described as Norway’s forthcoming posture on making restitution for properties seized from Norway’s Jews during World War II.

The Norwegian government set up a commission earlier this year to study the restitution issue, and its report is due in March.

But in his address to the WJC conference Monday, Jaglard was less outspoken than the Jewish leaders had expected. He spoke of “allegations” that had “surfaced in the press” regarding “the fate of Jewish property confiscated by the Quisling Nazi government in Norway.”

He pledged that his government “will consider appropriate follow-up measures and submit our proposals to parliament,” after the commission issues its findings.

WJC officials had hoped for a more unequivocal affirmation of Oslo’s intention to pay back the plundered Jewish property. Jaglard had given such a commitment to WJC President Edgar Bronfman in a private meeting Monday, according to these officials.

Bronfman, addressing the WJC delegates, said Norway’s behavior in this matter was “a great moral precedent” that would strengthen Jewish claims against other Western European nations.

The fact that Norway’s pre-war Jewish community numbered approximately 1,800, 700 of whom where slaughtered at Auschwitz, and that the present number of its Jews does not exceed 1,250, renders restitution a manageable matter for Norway.

But translated into French or Dutch terms, any settlement arrived at between the Norwegian government and the Jews could have very significant monetary implications, given the size of their pre-Holocaust Jewish communities.

Thus, the WJC believes that the Dutch, the French and others would be willing, indeed anxious, to entertain the question: How much will you offer?

Nonetheless, putting forth that question in negotiations is not necessarily endorsed by the full range of Jewish groups engaged in the restitution issue.

The idea of an interim settlement pending final investigation of the Swiss banks record is not unanimously supported even among the small group who make policy on the Jewish side.

Some feel that to accept a payment-on-account now would weaken the principled demand for full disclosure and an exhaustive setting straight of the historical record.

Meanwhile, the WJC is demanding categorically that all Jewish groups stay united and not cut their own deals with the Swiss or with other negotiating partners.

The WJC looked askance at the recent announcement that AMCHA, an Israel-based counseling organization for second-generation Holocaust survivors, was awarded $500,000 by the Swiss.

Despite the call for unity, when sizable sums of restitution are recovered, some observers predict keen competition, or even outright conflict, among the Jewish groups concerned with restitution.

Officials assembled here contend that there is agreement among the Jewish groups on the broad outlines of a policy for distribution of the funds.

The first priority would be needy survivors, whose claim upon the restitution funds is universally recognized as taking moral and practical precedence over all else.

Following that, officials from all parts of the Jewish world, including Jewish Agency for Israel leaders, say that the top priority would be Jewish education in the Diaspora.

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