Rethinking Gidon Ben-Zvi’s views

May 27, 2019 by Robert Goot
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J-Wire published an article by Gidon Ben-Zvi’s article “Rethinking restitutions: a case for Jewish dignity”  the contents of which were challenged by the Claims Conference. Robert Goot sets the record straight.

Robert Goot

From Robert Goot, Director of the Claims Conference and Member of its Leadership Council.

The article contained so much egregiously erroneous information and confused and illogical conclusions, that it is difficult to know where to start, in responding to it.

Conflating restitution with retribution

  • Ben-Zvi wrongly asserts that “the guiding principle behind restitutions is that human dignity that had been revoked can be regained by punishing lawbreakers and compensating victims.”

Correction:  There is no such principle. The objective of the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO) is to have property returned to its rightful owners or to compensate them for their loss of that property. Restitution is not sought as compensation for murder at the hands of the Nazis­ – that loss is not, and indeed can never be appropriately compensated. Moreover, in some countries, such as Poland, what is sought is the return of property taken after the War – by the Polish Communist government.

  • Ben-Zvi wrongly asserts that,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acceptable response to crime.He states, “The guiding principle behind restitution is that human dignity that had been revoked can be regained by punishing lawbreakers and compensating victims.”

Correction:  For reasons given above, this assertion by Ben-Zvi is also completely wrong.  Restitution is not intended to nor does it punish the lawbreaker. Restitution is about restorative justice – seeking to make the injured whole, or as close to it as possible – not retribution. Restitution is about returning to the victim what was stolen; what should legally belong to him/her.  Restorative justicefocuses on the damage to, or need of, the victim.

  • Having conjured a straw man, Ben-Zvi presumably believes he knocks it down by asserting that “in countries…which have laws on the books for the compensation of property stolen from Jews during WW11, incidents of Anti Semitic abuse are rampant…”

Correction:  There is no correlation between restitution and antisemitism –  antisemitism predated restitution; there is antisemitism in countries where there is restitution; and there is antisemitism in countries where there is no restitution.

The compensation programs for survivors of the Shoah

  • Ben-Zvi asserts“…dignity is in short supply for the approximately 200,0000 people living in Israel whose lives were uprooted by the Nazis”and references a Jerusalem Post article that cites a figure that 25% of those people live in poverty.

Correction:However, even a perfunctory look at that Jerusalem Post article informs the reader that Ben-Zvi is not familiar with the compensation process or the current situation. The issues laid out have nothing to do with German compensation and the Claims Conference, but with previous issues with the Israeli government.  Many different entities in Israel have worked to streamline the process, they are meeting with survivors and working to ensure they are receiving what is needed and is available for them.  Further, as the Jerusalem Post article itself notes, the overall situation continues to improve in light of  changes of certain laws in Israel affecting survivors and successful efforts  to increase the amount Holocaust survivors receive and to provide free health care and medication.

  • However, Ben-Zvi suggests a more nefarious reason, asserting– “…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 channelled through the Israeli government and Jewish Claims Conference, with disastrous results.”

Correction:  While some of the original German reparations were “paid to Israel”, most were paid to survivors throughout the world.  Again, Mr. Ben-Zvi, got it wrong as (i) some is paid directly by Germany and (ii) whilst other pensions are paid indirectly, the survivors receive 100% of those pension payments.

  • And as for his alleged “disastrous results” – really? Allow me to also inform Mr Ben-Zvi ,of the following facts:

Since 1951:

  • 278,000 survivors throughout the world received lifetime pensions;
  • 75,000 are still alive today and receiving pensions in 47 countries;
  • more than 750,000 people received one-time payments;
  • 125,000 survivors worldwide are currently receiving social services including homecare, medicine, transportation, food and socialization benefits paid for and regularly updated by the German Government; and
  • the criteria for compensation payments are regularly expanded in annual negotiations between the Claims Conference and the German Ministry of Finance.
  • Then without referencing it, Ben-Zvi relies on a 2016 Report which he asserts “documented how bureaucracy and multiple agencies dedicated to Holocaust restitution created a situation where survivors go hungry and suffer from cold and neglect.

Correction:His source is a report about the 2016 Report which appeared in a Tablet magazine article published 2 years ago. That Tablet magazine article quotes the relevant Israeli Government Minister as acknowledging that the government is now working to contact the 20,000 survivors who had not received the government assistance that they should have, in order to ensure they receive these benefits, which include stipends for nursing care, additional hours for in-home aids, and discounts on electricity.

No one aware of restitution efforts on behalf of Holocaust survivors believes that a single survivor or survivor family will be made whole even if those efforts are successful.  Nonetheless, we must persist in such efforts.  Beyond whatever material benefits and the acknowledgment of what happened, at the very minimum – and this is no small thing –  continuing to raise the issue of restitution, represents yet another thread in the tapestry that is Holocaust memory.

Whilst there is always room for improvement in trying to obtain restitution, as well as in the delivery of compensation and services to the mostly elderly and frail survivors of the Shoah, the result of all of these endeavours can only represent a small measure of justice to enable survivors to live out their lives in some dignity.

That situation does not justify the mischievous and erroneous conclusions in Ben-Zvi’s article. The survivors and those who work to assist them, deserve better.

 Along with Israel Hayom and The Algemeiner, J-Wire deleted the article.


3 Responses to “Rethinking Gidon Ben-Zvi’s views”
  1. Robert Goot says:

    Mr Ben-Zvi completely misses the point about the difference between restitution as part of restorative justice on the one hand and retribution on the other.
    He outrageously asserts “…that the primary beneficiaries of the billions spent on Holocaust restitutions have most assuredly not been Holocaust survivors and their heirs.”
    He is correct in describing that conclusion as “odious”, but contrary to his self serving comment it is not “backed up and buttressed by facts, history and data” in the slightest. Indeed his original article cites no primary source only secondary reports of reports.
    Finally, for the record, since at least 1967, I have worked only on a pro bono basis, in an honorary capacity for the Jewish community in Australia and overseas including for the Claims Conference, a fact that would have been simple for Mr Ben-Zvi to confirm, rather than suggesting that my activities on behalf of survivors is other than “gratis.”

  2. Lynne Newington says:

    As an outsider [for what it’s worth]….I read and found that your article had been reasonable, in fact I had the audacity to leave a comment expanding your information in relation to the Catholic Church and Indulgences.

    There’s a lot of political whitewashing in relation to Poland in my opinion….

  3. Gidon Ben-Zvi says:

    Hello From Jerusalem,
    Gidon Ben-Zvi here, checking in. While I’m glad to see that my piece, “Rethinking Restitution: A Case For Jewish Dignity,” has provoked a lively response, the spirit of open discourse would be best served if the original item was published along with the response. Having said that, let’s drill down:

    1) Mr. Goot has had the sublime luxury of running roughshod over my well-researched piece. For one thing, he asserts that I erroneously conflate restitution with retribution. This quote I believe sets the matter straight: 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.”

    In short, the above equates ‘justice’ with ‘restitution’

    2) In the piece that I submitted, every statistic is sourced. While my conclusions may be odious, they are backed up and buttressed by facts, history and data. Again, had my piece been allowed to remain online, readers would’ve been allowed to read and decide for themselves.

    3) Regarding my ‘nefarious reasons’, again: facts matter. I could be wrong, but I don’t think that Mr. Goot works ‘pro bono.’ Nor do I think that the leaders of the many dozens of organizations engaged in the Holocaust restitutions industry carry out their sacred mission ‘gratis.’ Again, had my piece been published, readers would have been able to get a cleaer picture of the context in which my ‘nefarious’ reasoning appears.

    4) Regarding my lack of expertise on the issue of compensation for Holocaust survivors and/or their heirs. It’s true that I’m just a working man weighing in with an opinion. But a personal attack is a rather low form argumentation, no? One doesn’t need to be an expert to see that the primary beneficiaries of the billions spent on Holocaust restitutions have most assuredly not been Holocaust survivors and their heirs. For shame…

    I hope that my responses to Mr. Goot’s responses to my deleted article has served to clarify my stance. Still, the best way to get the full picture is to read “Rethinking Retribution: A Case For Jewish Dignity,” which appears – despite Mr. Goot’s best efforts – on several other websites.

    Thank you for your time.

    Gidon Ben-Zvi

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