Sun, Jan 14, 2001 - Page 9 News List

Demands for restitution ignored

The Jews of Austria and the Palestinians of Israel believe they have waited too long for their day of justice but, although both governments are listening, thus far their calls for restitution have gone unanswered

By Jonathan Power

ILLUSTRATION: MOUNTAIN PEOPLE

In the dying days of the Clinton Administration, two separate but nevertheless very interlinked Jewish issues are possibly in the final stages of being laid to rest. The first are the very well publicized negotiations, orchestrated personally by President Bill Clinton, over a settlement of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Will the losing side, the Palestinians, regain land and religious sites they lost and will the refugees who lost their homes and farms in the area, now claimed by Israel as the Jewish state, be given "the right to return?" The other, rather less publicized but just as important, is the restitution of Jewish property, art and businesses appropriated by the Nazis in Austria. On Jan. 10, under the mediation of the US deputy Secretary of the Treasury Stuart Eizenstat, the final round of negotiations between the Austrian government and Jewish victims on the terms for a final settlement were opened. There will be a closing meeting in Washington this week.

If the Palestinians have cause to complain that they have waited far too long for their day of justice, the Austrian Jews have reason to complain even louder. For decades, since the end of World War II, successive Austrian governments, socialists, centrists and coalition, have connived to keep the issue under the carpet. Right of return? Even Austria's Jewish emigre Nobel Prize winners were not encouraged to come home. Right of possession? Homes have rarely been returned and, today, an important part of the governing coalition is led by Joerg Haider, whose own parents bought at a knock down price a large rural estate where he now lives, compulsorily sold by a Jewish family. Looted art only began to be returned in any quantity three years ago and much remains in Austrian museums and mostly overseas private collections. In the greatest single scandal of all, the home, property, art, jewels and private bank, the second largest private bank in Austria at the time, of the Thorsch family were confiscated by the Nazis and barely a penny has been returned. Compare this with Nazi-occupied Denmark which engaged in the serious restitution of all looted property and art within six months of the end of the war. Or, even more tellingly, compare this with Germany which moved very rapidly to settle all Jewish claims, including the private Warburg Bank, which was returned within a year.

There can be no collective innocence in Austria or Israel either. Only one in 20 Jewish Israelis living in Israel today personally experienced the 1948 war and the confiscations in its aftermath. Modern Israel has to realize that in its parents' time 700,000 Arabs were forced out of the only homes they and their forefathers had ever known. Hundreds of villages and 400,000 hectares of orchards and cultivated fields were abandoned. Today the Jewish state seems unable to comprehend the sentiment of the Palestinian negotiators. Why should the Palestinians settle for one-quarter of their homeland? Why do so many of them have to give up all that was theirs?

The only difference, and a very important one, between the Austrian and the Palestinian situation is that the Arabs started the 1948 war. The Arabs decided not to accept the creation of a Jewish homeland that sparked over 50 years of bloody struggle between Arabs and Jews.

Austria only began to emerge from its torpor when the former Secretary General of the UN, Kurt Waldheim, was elected president in 1986. The international row over his candidacy, sparked by newly discovered documents, forced modern Austria to confront the fact that he had probably participated in a war crime himself. Chancellor Franz Vranitzsky re-opened the debate on whether Austria was in fact a "victim state." He argued that many citizens had happily cooperated with Austrian-born Adolf Hitler in his quest to extend the Third Reich over much of Europe. Amazingly, until the Waldheim crisis, the US, Britain, France and Russia had all gone along with the Austrian myth that it was a victim state, even agreeing to allow it to be written into the State Treaty that marked the end of the allied occupation in 1955.

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