Jewish World Review / August, 1998 / Menachem-Av, 5758

Jonathan S. Tobin Grandstanding
on Swiss loot?

The attention paid to Nazi gold and artwork may distort our view of the Holocaust, says Jonathan Tobin

ARE JEWISH GROUPS ready to go to financial war against Switzerland? That's the impression we're getting in the aftermath of stalemated talks between Jewish negotiators and the largest Swiss banks. While the Clinton Administration is urging caution and continued negotiations, some Jews and many state and local finance officials in the U.S. are threatening to enact sanctions against Swiss banks.

At stake is the amount of money the Swiss will pay to settle claims over Holocaust-era bank deposits. The ongoing talks between Jewish groups from around the world and the Swiss government have stalemated over the lost funds which have enriched the Swiss while many Holocaust survivors are indigent. Officials of the World Jewish Congress, which helped uncover the fact that the Swiss took part in the looting of the victims of the Holocaust, and who have taken the lead in the talks, now say that sanctions on Switzerland are in order. They have refused the 3 top Swiss banks' offer of a settlement of $600 million and instead want a "global settlement" of $1.5 billion to cover all outstanding claims against the Swiss.

The refusal of the Swiss to make a more generous settlement has led many state and city controllers around the country to campaign for sanctions against Swiss financial institutions doing business in the U.S. Indeed, in my own state, State Rep. Lee Samowitz (D-Bridgeport) has urged that Connecticut enact sanctions of its own, following the lead of New York and Pennsylvania. Advocates say that such measures can then be used as leverage to make the Swiss give back more of the stolen Jewish money.

But Stuart Eizenstat, U.S. under secretary of state for economic affairs, who has devoted enormous energy to the investigation of the role of the Swiss and other neutrals in the Holocaust and the efforts to force them to make restitution, has a different point of view. Eizenstat thinks sanctions won't help in the negotiations and may even hurt.

While I am by no means shy about support of global economic sanctions where they represent a principled stand against evil (such as human rights violations and support for terrorism), I think this time Eizenstat and the Administration are probably right. The negotiations with the Swiss ought not to be treated as moral warfare.

The Swiss banks and their governments did wrong during the Shoah and were slow in admitting to their guilt. They have also not been as forthcoming as we might have wished in the subsequent negotiations about the disposal of such funds today. But treating present day Switzerland as if there were no difference between it and escaped war criminals is a self-defeating tactic. The Swiss seem to be ready to make amends. The question is how much. And sanctions and lawsuits will only drag out the issue and make it even more unlikely that indigent Holocaust survivors will see any of the looted money.

That will not serve justice.

But press conferences and impassioned speeches on this issue do serve the interests of some in the Jewish world who have latched onto this issue to promote themselves (though by no means all of those who have worked on this issue), as well as those politicians who would like to make a little political hay out of it too.

I also think it is ironic that the overwhelming media coverage of this issue in the secular press is unmatched by any interest in the ongoing efforts to deport and convict Nazi war criminals and collaborators. Recently, I heard Eli Rosenbaum, the director of the U.S. Justice Department's Office of Special Investigations speak about the tough job of tracking down war criminals. Rosenbaum said his office rarely gets coverage from the mainstream press these days, while stories dealing with stolen artwork can command the front page of a newspaper like The New York Times. Rosenbaum noted that all of those whose paintings were stolen by the Nazis would not fill the small university auditorium in Cleveland where he spoke. Yet, when murderers of thousands are tried, little ink is expended on that story.

Why is it that such cases are ignored by newspapers like The Times when they are prepared to devote so much space to looted art and bank accounts? Justice should be done in these thefts, but they pale in comparison to the question of murdered human beings. Like some Holocaust survivors whom I have spoken to, I am troubled by the idea that the murder of millions of Jews is being reduced to a question of cash and goods which were stolen and now must be returned. With that in mind, perhaps it is time for many of those who have been grandstanding on the issue of the Swiss banks to calm down and negotiate some more.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Connecticut Jewish Ledger. He was the recipient of the American Jewish Press Association highest award: First Place in The Louis Rapoport Award for Excellence in Commentary and Editorial Writing. The Rapoport award is named for the longtime editor of the Jerusalem Post and was given to Mr. Tobin at the AJPA's 1997 Simon Rockower Awards dinner in Cleveland on June 18, 1998.


©1998, Jonathan Tobin