Rethinking restitution: A case for Jewish dignity

Polish prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki recently asserted that his government would never agree to pay restitution for properties stolen from Jews during the Holocaust.  This is in stark contrast to other former Soviet members of the European Union, which have passed comprehensive legislation regarding private property confiscated by the Nazis or successive regimes.

According to Gideon Taylor, chair of operations, World Jewish Restitution Organization, Prime Minister Morawiecki's statement is "deeply insensitive to Holocaust survivors and their families[.] ... We call on Poland to meet its commitment to non-Jewish and Jewish property owners who have waited many years for Poland to provide them with a measure of justice."

Holocaust restitution payments are a widely accepted way to right a historic injustice: the systematic, state-sponsored persecution and murder of six million Jewish men, women, and children by the Nazi regime and its collaborators.  The guiding principle behind restitutions is that human dignity that had been revoked can be regained by punishing lawbreakers and compensating victims.  According to author and Holocaust survivor Jean Améry, human dignity was the primary virtue the Nazis sought to eradicate.

No Dignity For Europe's Jews  

Unfortunately, reimbursement for Jewish property stolen by the Nazis and subsequent regimes has done little to restore the dignity of Jewish people living in Europe.

The European Union's Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) published a report that found anti-Semitism to be intensifying.  Jews are more and more worried about being harassed, according to this major survey of 12 E.U. countries.

The FRA reports that in these countries, which, except for Poland, have laws on the books for the compensation of property stolen from Jews during World War II, incidents of anti-Semitic abuse are so rampant that most victims don't even bother to report them.  The survey found that 47% of European Jews are worried about anti-Semitic verbal insults or harassment, and 40% fear being physically attacked in the next 12 months.

The Sad Story of Israel's Holocaust Survivors

According to Gideon Taylor, restitutions are meant to "provide the means for survivors to live with the dignity that they deserve."  Yet dignity is in short supply for the approximately 200,000 people living in Israel whose lives were uprooted by the Nazis.  A quarter of these individuals live in poverty.

This sad state of affairs is in spite of the fact that total German reparations paid to Israel since the Reparations Agreement was executed by Israeli foreign minister Moshe Sharett and German chancellor Konrad Adenauer in 1952 exceed $78 billion.  

But these funds aren't sent directly to individual Holocaust survivors.  Reparations are channeled through the Israeli government and Jewish Claims Conference, with disastrous results.  In 2016, the Israeli government published a report finding that 20,000 survivors in Israel had never received the assistance owed to them.

The report documented how bureaucracy and the multiple agencies dedicated to Holocaust restitution created a situation in Israel where survivors go hungry and suffer from cold and neglect.  Organizational overhead is estimated to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars — money that was supposed to go to Holocaust survivors.

From Retribution to the Restoration of Dignity

The Center Organizations of Holocaust Survivors in Israel, made up of 55 organizations representing communities that suffered from Nazi persecution during World War II, states that its purpose is to "fight for the survivors' rights in Israel and abroad, in order to allow them to live in dignity and ensure their welfare."  Why have they failed?

Because the Holocaust restitution model is based on an application of retributive justice, a theory that considers punishment to be a morally acceptable response to crime.  Meanwhile, restorative justice focuses on the needs of victims instead of the need to satisfy the rules of law.  While retributive justice is backward-looking, restorative justice looks forward to what's best for society as a whole.

The primary need of Holocaust survivors and their descendants is to live in dignity.  A onetime official apology and financial arrangement hasn't produced dignified lives.  Such an approach to obtaining justice brings to mind the Catholic practice of selling indulgences as a way to reduce the amount of punishment one has to undergo for sins.  In 1567, the church outlawed the sale of indulgences.

As Jackie Robinson said: "The most luxurious possession, the richest treasure anybody has, is his personal dignity."  Ultimately, it's dignity that protects an individual from unjust treatment.

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