Jewish Journal

Power, Politics & People

By J.J. Goldberg

Posted on Aug. 20, 1998 at 8:00 pm

J.J. Goldberg writes regularly for The Jewish Journal.


Swiss Story Lessons

On Oct. 29, 1857, delegates from four cities gathered in Baltimore for a national Jewish protest assembly, the first one ever. After drafting a statement, they set off on Oct. 31 for the White House, where they presented their petition to President James Buchanan. Their complaint: anti-Semitism in Switzerland.

Seven years earlier, America had initialed a treaty with Switzerland to formalize diplomatic and trade relations. As customary, each country guaranteed protection to the other's citizens. Except Jews, that is; they were excluded at Swiss insistence. Most Swiss cantons denied Jews any rights, even barring Jews from their soil. The Swiss government said it couldn't override canton law.

Washington was reluctant to sign a treaty denying protection to its own citizens, but even more reluctant to damage ties with the world's only other federal republic. Caught in a vise, President Millard Fillmore had the treaty rewritten in 1853 to drop all mention of religion. The new version promised equal protection to all, except where it conflicted with state or canton law. Now American Jews could expect the same welcome in Basle that Swiss blacks might find in South Carolina. That seemed fair enough to the Senate, which ratified the pact in 1855.

Jews didn't think it fair at all. After all, wrote Philadelphia Cantor Isaac Leeser, America's best-known Jewish spokesman, "there are not many colored people in Europe."

Jewish protests snowballed into a coordinated, nationwide campaign in late 1857. Rallies were held in 12 cities. Each city chose delegates to a national meeting in Baltimore (thanks to Orthodox-Reform feuding only four delegations showed up). The climax was the White House visit. President Buchanan promised "a speedy and energetic course of action." He did nothing.

Now, 141 years and 27 presidents later, we've come full circle. After a century and a half of pogroms and world wars, of life-and-death struggles against tsars, commissars, Nazis and Jihad terrorists, we're back to butting heads with the folks from the Red Cross.

Hasn't anything changed in all this time? Well, yes. Last time out, the Jews lost. This time, we won.

Last week, in a federal court in Brooklyn, N.Y., Switzerland's two main banks agreed to pay $1.25 billion to settle claims by Holocaust survivors who say the banks stole their money. The settlement was a decisive turning point in a seven-year struggle to regain Jewish-owned properties looted by the Nazis.

The World Jewish Congress, which led the struggle, estimates that more than $14 billion in assets -- bank accounts, insurance policies, artworks, jewelry -- was taken from Jews during the Holocaust and never returned. Fourteen countries have now formed commissions to trace wartime Jewish assets. The Swiss bank settlement, says WJC executive director Elan Steinberg, "will probably be the largest single component."

The restitution campaign began in 1991, after the collapse of the Soviet Union made vast troves of documents newly available. Researchers could finally track the exact fates of millions of Jews and their property. That winter, the WJC and other groups formed the World Jewish Restitution Organization to confront European countries that had profited from Jewish tragedy.

In September 1995, WJC president Edgar Bronfman and secretary-general Israel Singer flew to Bern to discuss Jewish claims with Swiss bankers. The bankers listened coldly -- never even offering Bronfman a chair -- and then offered a flat $32 million. Only 744 dormant accounts could be traced to Holocaust victims, they said. When Bronfman urged that an independent auditor explore the records, the bankers erupted. Secrecy was the Swiss banks' time-honored calling card, and couldn't be breached. It was a standoff.

Over the next three years the Swiss slowly found themselves cornered. They kept yielding scraps -- a historical review commission, a $200 million humanitarian fund -- but never fully realized what they were up against. Last week they cried uncle.

Switzerland wasn't the first European country to find itself encircled by the WJC. Bronfman and Singer had mounted similar campaigns during the 1980s, one to remove a Polish convent from the grounds of Auschwitz, another to expose the Nazi war record of Austrian president Kurt Waldheim. Each time the moral and political clout of American Jewry was pitted against the wounded pride of a European country unwilling to confront its prejudices. Each resulted in a WJC victory, but at a cost: stirring new waves of anti- Semitism in the name of ending it.

The Swiss campaign has been a new and sobering experience. Poland and Austria each had a widely acknowledged record of anti-Semitism. A showdown between them and the Jews was a bit like a pro wrestling match: whoever you rooted for, everyone knew who the good guys were.

Switzerland, by contrast, is revered around the world as the very embodiment of integrity, home of the Red Cross, the Geneva Conventions and the world's most reliable watches. As guardians of the world's conscience, the Swiss were not readily moved by appeals to conscience.

The WJC and its allies compensated with sheer firepower. Holocaust survivors filed multibillion-dollar class-action suits against the Swiss banks in U.S. federal courts, with Jewish community leaders acting as pro-bono lawyers. The Senate Banking Committee, chaired by New York Republican Alphonse D'Amato, staged highly publicized hearings. The Clinton administration commissioned an in-depth historical review, led by Undersecretary of Commerce Stuart Eizenstat, a lifelong Jewish activist. Released in May 1997, the study was a devastating indictment of Swiss complicity in bankrolling the Nazi war machine.

Soon after, local and state governments around the United States began threatening financial sanctions against Swiss banks. Their leader was New York City Comptroller Alan Hevesi, whose grandfather was chief rabbi of Budapest when the Nazis invaded.

It was the combination of forces -- lawsuits, embarrassment, U.S. government involvement, the threat of sanctions -- that ultimately brought the Swiss to settle. In a sophisticated, multipronged campaign, the WJC had backed the Swiss into a corner.

It helped to have an Edgar Bronfman to open doors with his wealth and prestige. It helped even more to have a Stuart Eizenstat and an Alan Hevesi waiting on the other side of the door, representing government. "Obviously we're all a product of our backgrounds," says Eizenstat. "As a government official I act only in the national interest. But I bring my mindset and values."

It helps, too, that American Jews are respected by their neighbors as advocates for justice universally, not just for Jews. A century ago, Isaac Leeser couldn't see what anti-black racism had to do with Jews. Not surprisingly, his neighbors were hard put to see what anti-Semitism had to do with them.

Today American Jews are known as a leading voice in struggles from South Africa to Bosnia. When they speak out for themselves, they have armies of allies ready to join them.

"A lot of what I do is defined by my communal identification," says Hevesi. "But justice for Holocaust survivors is a global issue. My attitude was that if the Swiss banks want to participate in the global economy they'd have to accept global values."

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