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Behind the Headlines: Holocaust Restitution Deals Fail to Engross Israeli Public

August 25, 1998
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When Switzerland’s two leading private banks reached a $1.25 billion settlement with representatives of Holocaust survivors earlier this month, the news sent shock waves throughout the Jewish world.

But not in Israel.

The situation was similar when Italy’s largest insurer, Assicurazioni Generali, agreed last week to pay $100 million as part of a settlement of a class-action lawsuit filed by survivors.

The main details of the stories were reported in the Israeli news media. But there have been no editorials or op-ed pieces published, and little, if any, discussion of the developments on talk shows, which are considered a staple of Israeli public discourse.

Indeed, during the past year or so, as Jewish groups wrangled with Switzerland to come to terms with its wartime past, the restitution issue appears to have eluded the attention of Israelis, who usually miss no opportunity to transform every minute political development into endless debate and commentary.

Israeli observers of Jewish groups’ ongoing attempts to reach settlements with European banks and insurers were not surprised by the general lack of interest among the public here.

While no studies or polls have been conducted to confirm or explain their impressions, those involved in the restitution issue offer a range of theories, some stemming from the very different roles that memories of the Holocaust play in Israel and the Diaspora.

Likud Knesset member Avraham Herschson, who heads the parliamentary subcommittee on restitution, says the explanation lies with the Israeli media.

“The public is extremely interested in knowing about these issues,” says Herschson. “But even though it is getting tremendous coverage throughout the world, it seems to be passing by the Israeli media as if it has no relevance to us.”

But some observers say that it is the average Israeli who is indifferent to the issue and that the Israeli media are merely reflecting that indifference.

Moshe Sanbar, chairman of the Center of Organizations of Holocaust Survivors in Israel — an umbrella organization for 29 groups and 300,000 survivors — links the lack of interest to the survivors themselves.

“Israeli survivors did not want to have anything to do with these issues,” he says. “They wanted to close the book on the Holocaust.”

Sanbar traces this attitude to survivors’ experiences just after their liberation from the death camps and arrival in the nascent Jewish state.

“They called us the sabonim,” he says — using Hebrew slang for “cowards.”

But it also sounds like the Hebrew word “sabon,” or soap, which survivors perceived as a reference to the soap the Nazis made from Jewish corpses.

With some justice, survivors arriving in Israel felt stigmatized. Israelis were creating a “new Jew,” symbolized by the suntanned kibbutznik working the fields or the fearless underground fighter.

They looked down on the passivity of European Jews, who they felt went like sheep to the slaughter.

Eager to fit into Israeli society, Sanbar says, many survivors tried to shake off their Holocaust experiences.

And 50 years later, they do not want to reopen the history books to fight for financial restitution.

Nevertheless, the Holocaust does play an important role in Israeli education and public life. In addition, the media often discuss Holocaust-related issues. For example, a recent expose by the Israeli daily Ma’ariv of a local restitution issue — in which Israeli survivors committed to psychiatric hospitals had their funds frozen by the state — generated much interest.

Walter Zvi Bachrach, a professor emeritus from Bar-Ilan University and an expert on Holocaust history, says the role the Holocaust plays in Israeli public life may explain why there is less interest in restitution in Israel than in the Diaspora.

“You don’t feel Holocaust Remembrance Day when you are not in Israel,” he says. “Dealing with and identifying with the Holocaust is an integral part of independent Jewish life. But in the U.S., for example, that national and public identity with the Holocaust simply doesn’t exist.”

This may lead Diaspora Jews to seek issues such as restitution in order to bolster their Jewish identity, he adds.

While Bachrach stresses that his observations are not the result of any empirical data, he nonetheless believes there is a clear link between contemporary Israeli attitudes toward restitution and the stormy debate during the 1950s over German reparations.

“In the 1950s, many were not emotionally capable of accepting reparations because they didn’t want to take compensation from the murderers,” he says. “There is no fundamental difference here.”

Yair Auron, a researcher of contemporary Judaism at the Kibbutz College of Education and the Yezreel College, has conducted extensive research on Israelis’ attitudes toward the Holocaust.

His studies indicate that secular Jews in Israel, who do not relate to a traditional or religious framework, are increasingly seeking their Jewish identity through the Holocaust.

“But in Israel, the Holocaust is discussed less in the Jewish sense and less in terms of its universal lessons,” he says. “The emphasis is on the Zionist lessons of the Holocaust, such as the need to have a strong state.”

He adds that this may lead Israeli Jews to feel uneasy about issues of financial restitution.

“In an indirect, and perhaps subconscious way, they feel that these issues belong to Diaspora Jews or [stereotypes of] money-hungry Jews, even though Israelis would certainly agree that the cause is just.”

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