HaRav Abba Berman zt"l, one of the great
talmidim of Mirrer Yeshiva, who was niftar this
past week, explained that there are two bases for making a
claim against another person: you can ask for your own money
or property that the other person is holding, or you can ask
the other person to fulfill his obligation to pay some money
— that happens to be owed to you.
In practical terms it usually does not make a difference
whether one is trying to collect a debt because he considers
the lender to be holding his money, or if he just considers
that the lender has an obligation to pay that he wants to
enforce. In either case the bottom line is that he has to
bring proof of the loan, either through witnesses or a
Nonetheless it can make a big moral and philosophical
difference which of these approaches is taken. And in
different situations only one or the other may apply, and not
both. The status of the two can be very different, but they
are often confused and conflated.
An illustrated case in point is found in various aspects of
financial assets that were lost during the Holocaust and are
now being sought by victims or their heirs.
The clearest situation is where the item or property still
exists, and was never sold or otherwise legally transferred.
A lot of property, such as jewelry, may be difficult to
trace, but there are many identifiable works of art, real
property including residences, investment property and public
buildings such as synagogues and yeshivas. Such property,
which was clearly stolen and is still identifiable as
property that is still legally and morally Jewish-owned
property, has the clearest and most justifiable basis for a
suit. The victim has the strongest claim possible: Momoni
gabboch — you have my property. Hand it over to
Close to this claim (but not quite as sharp) is one based on
an insurance policy. In that case there is a valid contract
between two parties that establishes a legal right. This too
is a demand that is clear and easily understandable by
everyone involved: the claimant, the defendants in the suits,
and the bystanders who follow the events in the news.
Many of the claims that have been in the news over the past
few years are significantly different from these types of
claims. General claims for reparations or for compensation
for forced labor rendered to businesses or governments do not
have the clarity and compulsion of a claim of, "You have my
property." Jews are at the forefront of the claims for labor,
for example, made on behalf of everyone, but the bulk of the
labor was by Russians, Poles and other peoples who were
effectively enslaved for several years. Relatively few of the
laborers were Jews since they were earmarked for murder. The public
sees the claims for labor as a Jewish issue, but really the
claimants are overwhelmingly not Jewish. If there is money
left over, for example, there is no reason that it should be
spent by Jewish organizations.
The least justifiable, and the most difficult to understand
for non-Jewish bystanders who just follow the news, is the
insistence by some that various groups such as the Vatican
acknowledge and apologize for what it did, and for what it
did not do, while Hitler was murdering millions.
This is clearly and completely in the realm of telling other
people to fulfill their own moral obligations. But this is
not our business. We have no need and no gain from such
declarations. Our obligations are to ourselves, to Klal
Yisroel, and to Hakodosh Boruch Hu. We have plenty
of work to do in fulfilling those demands and are undoubtedly
best advised to stick to them.