U.S., European Jewish leaders claim truce


PARIS, Jan. 11 (JTA) — The newly elected leader of European Jewry has mended fences with the New York-based World Jewish Congress.

At issue was how French Jewish leader Henri Hajdenberg — who was elected Sunday in Brussels to serve as president of the European Jewish Congress — regards European Jewry’s place when it comes to Holocaust-era restitution issues.

The EJC, which is the European branch of the WJC, serves as the diplomatic representative in discussions involving some 2 million European Jews and their respective governments.

In the campaign platform Hajdenberg set out in Brussels before the vote, he pledged, once at the helm of the EJC, “to give more responsibility to the Jewish communities of Europe for restitution issues and on how to divide various European funds” — a function that until now has largely been handled by the WJC and the World Jewish Restitution Organization.

As president of CRIF, France’s umbrella group for Jewish organizations, Hajdenberg has frequently been at odds with WJC officials over restitution issues.

During the past year, a French government-appointed commission has been probing the extent of Holocaust-era looting of Jewish assets with an eye to restitution.

Hajdenberg has emphasized the importance of French institutions acknowledging moral responsibility, rather than financial compensation, for Jews who suffered persecution under the nation’s World War II pro-Nazi Vichy government.

The WJC has focused on the monetary component, arguing that those responsible for the wartime theft of Jewish assets should repay what was stolen.

As a result of their differences, Hajdenberg’s determination to keep the question of monetary reparations out of negotiations with the French government, banks and insurance companies led to often acrimonious exchanges with WJC officials over who should handle restitution issues for Holocaust victims in France.

In New York, WJC’s executive director, Elan Steinberg, said the acrimony was now a thing of the past.

He said there were indeed strong differences of opinion six months ago, but now they have been resolved.

At that time, Steinberg said, the EJC became a part of the WJRO, the body that deals with restitution issues on behalf of the Jewish world.

At the same time, as part of an apparent compromise that defused the prevailing tensions, the WJRO was assured a role in the allocation process involving French institutions.

With Hajdenberg’s election this week, all parties appear eager to let bygones be bygones.

“I look forward to working with my good friend Henri,” said Steinberg.

Hajdenberg, who wrote a letter to the WJC just prior to his election expressing confidence that “we will work in the future in close cooperation,” said in a phone interview, “There is no more conflict.”

Running unopposed Sunday, Hajdenberg, 52, replaces German Jewish leader Ignatz Bubis, who died last August.

As part of his pre-election platform, Hajdenberg also promised to create a pan-European Holocaust educational program, encourage the continuing renaissance of Eastern European Jewry and create closer ties between European Jews and the peoples of the Middle East and North Africa.

Hajdenberg, who became CRIF president in 1995 and is now serving his second term, has become personally involved in Middle East peace efforts, including a visit to the region last year when he met several Arab leaders.

(JTA Foreign Editor Mitchell Danow contributed to this report.)

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