Let Us Not Fight Over the Yerushah

June 1, 2002
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By Michael Berenbaum

Edgar Bronfman, Israel Singer, Elan Steinberg, and their colleagues at the World Jewish Congress together with Stuart Eisenstat and his colleagues in government deserve enormous credit for bringing forth a reasonable settlement, restitution, and recompense. They have forced a confrontation with memory in countries that had grown accustomed to telling a consoling narrative of their past, one that alleviated shame and promoted claims of innocence. The stories had been told often enough that they were believed, and a mythic past had been constructed that enabled certain European countries to live too comfortably in the present. I suspect that the fuel for their rage at Israel is the backlash from the collapse of comfortable national myths and, therefore, they have created a new myth of Israel as the Nazis reincarnate. (My psychologist friends might call this “projection.”)

When Jews first spoke of memory, as Elie Wiesel taught, they were attacked because people felt that it really was about money, and now that we speak of money, we must remember that it is really about memory.

Some people fear that Holocaust memory is threatened by the demand for justice. Over the past quarter century, we have witnessed not the fragility of Holocaust memory but its strength, and long after the issues of justice are settled, Holocaust education and Holocaust scholarship will endure. This period will be regarded as but one chapter in the struggle for memory. The Holocaust encompassed more than genocide. Surely genocide was the key, but expropriation was a significant and long enduring stage in that genocide and a pivotal example of the vast and widespread support for it and the indifference that persisted long afterward. Art collectors and bankers, lawyers and insurance companies continued to profit – and to forget. Singer is correct that a key achievement has been the shattering of historical myths.

Singer only alludes to the subterranean Jewish struggle over Holocaust assets and how settlement monies are to be distributed. Because the trigger for the negotiations was class action lawsuits, the settlements that were reached encompassed only certain classes of survivors. He and his colleagues were reticent to publicly grapple with the question of how these funds should be used. The struggle over these funds pits Israel against the Diaspora, impoverished East European Jews against their more affluent and powerful Western – and particularly American – brethren. It pits the heirs of Holocaust survivors no longer alive against the survivors who are still alive. And it demands that we assess the responsibilities that we have to the Jewish past against our responsibilities to the Jewish future.

Like the historical “truth-telling” process we are witnessing in Europe, questions about how monies should best be put to use also need to be the subject of transparency and honest deliberation, particularly in ways that include representative voices of the survivors themselves, who have for too many years been overlooked or excluded.

It is survivors – in America, Israel, Europe, and elsewhere – who are now advocating in one voice a basic principle: restitution obtained in their name should exclusively benefit living survivors.

Several years ago, as the restitution battles were shaping up, the suggestion was made by the younger generation that we come to a collective distribution. Those who were denied dignity then, should be given dignity now. This meant that survivors should receive health insurance (in American parlance supplemental Medicare Insurance), home and assisted care coverage, and funeral insurance. Survivors could then live out their days to the fullness of their natural life in dignity without being a burden to their family or community and be brought to their eternal rest in a kever Yisrael without burdening their descendents.

While this plan was not adopted as a negotiating principle, it is not too late to fashion practical solutions with available restitution monies that will directly impact the daily lives of survivors at a time when our communities are struggling to meet the complex and changing social service needs of aging survivors. This will be our last opportunity to put the idea of “dignity” into practice for these people.

So while I endorse the concept of a Fund for the Jewish Future that Singer proposes and the priorities that must be given to Jewish education – and I understand that the most important defeat we could give to Hitler and his collaborators would be to build a creative, committed, thriving Jewish future – I fear that we have not yet discharged the responsibilities that we have toward the Holocaust survivors who are still with us. Critical decisions remain to be made over the use of funds left after individual asset claims are resolved, and over the distribution of various “humanitarian” funds. Let us not fight over the yerushah while the survivors are still with us and while people in need are still in need.

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Michael Berenbaum is a Contributing Editor to Sh'ma and Incoming Director of the Sigi Ziering Institute for Ethics and the Holocaust at the University of Judaism in Los Angeles.

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