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24 Adar I 5760 - March 1, 2000 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Aguda: Yeshivos and Kehillos Deserve Part of Swiss Bank Settlement
Its Historic Submission Highlights Pre-War Demographics, Post- War Continuity

by Yated Ne'eman Staff

In a hefty brief to the Special Master in charge of making recommendations for the distribution of $1.25 billion Swiss Bank Settlement Fund, the Agudath Israel World Organization showed that traditional Jewish educational institutions and religious communities should be included among the beneficiaries of the Fund. Marshaling evidence that they were prime targets of Nazi genocide efforts, including documentation that an absolute majority of the victims were religiously observant, the brief argues that yeshivos and kehillos are also key factors in the future of the Jewish life.

The Fund was established by a group of Swiss banks in response to allegations of their unlawful actions during World War II, including the charge that they unlawfully retained accounts deposited by Jews before the war, and that they collaborated with the Nazis by accepting property looted or confiscated from Jews and Jewish institutions.

Last week's submission was filed by Agudath Israel World Organization with Special Master Judah Gribetz, who is preparing a recommendation for U.S. Federal District Court Judge Edward Korman as to how the settlement fund should be allocated and distributed. Mr. Gribetz's recommendation is due on March 15, with a final plan to be decided upon by Judge Korman later in the year.

Agudath Israel World Organization, an 88-year-old confederation of Orthodox Jewish communities worldwide, has championed freedom of religion since its inception and, since 1948, has enjoyed consultative status with the United Nations as an officially sanctioned non-governmental organization. Its submission was authored by its director of international affairs and United Nations Representative, Professor Moishe Zvi Reicher, and Agudath Israel of America's executive vice president for government and public affairs, Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, assisted by government affairs associate Mordechai Biser. Washington-based attorney Nathan Lewin and his daughter Alyza Lewin, as well as Brooklyn Law School Professor Aaron D. Twerski, were "of counsel" on the brief.

The gist of the Orthodox group's submission is that the yeshivos and kehillos that the Nazis and their supporters sought to destroy in the Holocaust and which were reestablished both in Europe and on other shores after the war should be regarded as prime candidates for a significant share of the settlement funds.

From a purely legal standpoint such institutions and communal structures deserve consideration as members of the "Looted Assets Class", an officially assigned grouping of fund recipients. "Every yeshiva and kehilla in pre-War Europe," explains Professor Reicher, "possessed a variety of tangible assets, including valuable religious artifacts like Torah-scrolls and precious-metal ornaments," that were looted by the Nazis.

Furthermore, yeshivos and kehillos have a profound historical and moral claim on restitution funds. "They played a central role in pre-War European Jewish life," the submission notes. "They were clearly targeted for persecution and destruction by the Nazis; they have labored assiduously and heroically to rebuild themselves in the post-War era; they play a vital role in contemporary Jewish life; and they serve as a central factor -- perhaps the central factor -- in ensuring Jewish continuity for generations to come."

The Nazis, moreover, sought to destroy not only Jews but "a whole culture, or way of life, as embodied in the educational and communal institutions that promoted that uniquely Jewish way of life."

Alfred Rosenberg, Hitler's chief ideologue, said that "the honorless character of the Jew [is] embodied in the Talmud and in Shulchan-Aruch" -- the texts that remain mainstays of yeshiva study to this day. Also, an October 25, 1940 directive issued by the German Highest Security Office prohibiting Jewish emigration from occupied Poland, contends that an influx of Eastern European "Rabbiner" "Talmud-lehrer" and "Orthodox ostjuden" could foster "geistige erneuerung" (spiritual renewal) among American Jewry.

"The Nazis understood," says Mr. Zwiebel, "that, more than anything else, Jewish education guarantees Jewish continuity and Jewish survival -- and they were right. Where there has been no Jewish education, there has been rampant Jewish assimilation."

Indeed, Agudath Israel's submission cites many studies that show the correlation of Jewish religious instruction and Jewish continuity.

It is thus only fitting, contends the brief, that the very Jewish education that guarantees survival of the Jewish people should be assisted out of "funds paid by economic allies of the Nazis."

Religious Jewish communities today that trace their roots to earlier European communities should also be considered prime candidates for a share of the Swiss funds. They have kept the names of their original European locations, are often led by religious leaders who are descendants or disciples of their pre-War forbears and are guided by the same life- philosophies, approaches to Jewish observance and prayer.

Appended to the Agudath Israel submission is a hefty volume of historical material, the fruits to date of a major project undertaken under the group's auspices to research and present a comprehensive study of the centers of Torah and Chassidus that were destroyed in the Holocaust. The research project is being overseen by a committee headed by Professor Reicher, and including a number of other highly regarded personalities in the world Orthodox community, including: Rabbi Chaskel Besser, Mr. Avrohom Biderman, Rabbi Chaim Yaakov Davis, Mr. Benjamin Fishoff, Rabbi Shmuel Halpert, Mr. Pinchos Kornfeld, Rabbi Yaakov Litzman, Councillor H. J. Lobenstein, Mr. Dovid Moskovits, Mr. Zwiebel and Mr. George Klein who, Professor Reicher says, "was the prime impetus for this monumental undertaking."

The committee has been working with a team of distinguished historical consultants, headed by Rabbi Meir Wunder and including Dr. Michael Berenbaum, Dr. Martin C. Dean, Reb Yosef Friedenson, Rabbi Binyomin S. Hamburger, Dr. Severin Hochberg, Rabbi Eliezer Katzman, Rabbi Moshe Kolodny, Dr. Yitzchak Mais, Dr. Saul Stampfer, and Rabbi Berel Wein.

The historical appendix to the Agudath Israel Swiss Bank submission includes a letter from Dr. Michael Berenbaum attesting "with certainty" that a "majority of the Jews who were murdered [in the Holocaust] were Orthodox." Dr. Berenbaum, a distinguished historian who served as director of the Research Institute at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., estimates the Orthodox percentage of the Holocaust's Jewish victims at between 50 and 70 percent.

"Thus," says Professor Reicher, "it is clearly fitting to use funds misappropriated from the War-era Jewish community to help strengthen institutions and communities that are guaranteeing the perpetuation of the way of life lived by so many of the Nazis' victims."

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