In a great fanfare of trumpets blasting that no one could ignore, the Jewish Agency, through its spokesperson, Bobby Brown, announced the creation of Project HEART—the Holocaust Era Assets Restitution Taskforce. The headlines were unmistakable: “Project HEART to take over restitution issues”; “Israel, Jewish Agency launches global effort to locate lost property”; “Project HEART to coordinate restitution efforts for Holocaust survivors.”
You’d think that no one had ever bothered in the past 65 years to do anything concrete for Holocaust survivors in any measurable sense? By the way, those screeching headlines all came from the Diaspora press, which, usually, is not well-informed and in fact ignores the complexities of searching for and restituting looted assets, except only when there is a convenient political moment to belt out thoughtless slogans.
The tone of this article blends necessarily an ounce of sarcasm with a pound of outrage, all of this thrown into the pan so that something mildly reasonable can come out.
At the heart of Project HEART lie the Jewish Agency, Bobby Brown, and the conservative government of Benjamin Netanyahu. Those three institutions are no strangers to controversy when it comes to reclaiming the residual losses suffered by millions of Jews during the Nazi era.
It is important to note that Benjamin Netanyahu believes fervently that he is the Prime Minister of all Jews in the world—regardless of whether folks endorse him or not—which gives him license to speak on behalf of all Jews in the world on matters pertaining to looted assets, their recovery and, most importantly, their disposal—do we sell them, do we actually return them, do we give some back and keep the rest, what do we do? The fact that these questions get even asked is a reflection of the true intent underlying projects such as HEART, which is to appropriate the lost property of deceased or surviving Jews and to become kingmakers in the way in which they get allotted.
Bobby Brown, by his own admission, is a man with a divine mission. He not only has taken personal credit for bringing the Israeli government into all global reparations discussions but he has also engineered the warm ties between the Christian Far Right and evangelical movement in the United States and the Israeli government. One of his mentors is Avigdor Lieberman, the severely nationalistic foreign minister of the current Netanyahu Administration. For Bobby Brown, the State of Israel should be at the center of any decision governing the distribution and allocation of recovered assets belonging to persecuted Jews. Hence, the inevitable rancor and divisiveness resulting from such an extreme position and the justification for Project HEART which is in direct response to the failure of the Israeli Government to impose its will on the Claims Conference and its allied organizations.
Restitution is not a game, but they make it into one, a game of power and influence in the rather incestuous world of asset recovery and reparations, a game that has lasted now for more than 5 decades.
We’re getting ahead of ourselves here.
Why now? Why does the government of Israel suddenly say: enough is enough! We’re taking charge now. As if no one is in charge… It may have more to do with the bitter quarrels between Jewish organizations in the Diaspora and the government of Israel over the management of recovered Jewish assets and where the locus of effort should be placed. It is not news to announce that groups such as the Claims Conference have been racked by internecine fights pitting those on its board who wish to either dismantle the Claims Conference or move it to Israel, and those who wish to continue the reparations campaigns independently of the Israeli government and rightfully so.
As in any bad marriage, the ones who suffer most are the children and in this instance the children are the survivors and their families. Bounced around from one reparations program to another--and they come by the bushels, believe me!, hanging on to endless promises that yield only recovered peanuts and tooth brushes, these poor people, once, twice, thrice traumatized by persecution, enslavement, and failed restitution efforts, are now having to get their hopes pumped by yet another arrogant headline-grabbing effort at making right with the wrongs of the past. HEART-breaking!
Incidentally, Bobby Brown is an expert on recovery of Jewish assets. Seriously, this is the same person who cooked up a scheme to recover the property of Jews who had been forced to leave Arab lands and settle in Israel. His thinking was and continues to be that if Palestinians want to return to lands controlled by the Israeli Government, Israel, in return, can ask for compensation for all property that Jews had been forced to abandon to flee from persecution. Hence, Bobby Brown’s reach is universal and centers exclusively on the inalienable right of the Israeli Government to assets owned by persecuted Jews worldwide, past, present, and future.
What does any of this have to do with the restitution of looted art?
Like all sales organizations, Project HEART is presenting itself as the most well-oiled machinery yet which will inventory all assets lost by Jews during the Nazi years, list them in a massive database that is supposedly going to hold upwards of three million items, from lost cows and sheep to 17th century Dutch masters. According to Anya Verkhovskaya, Project Director at Project HEART, from her base in Milwaukee, Wisconsin: “It is not necessary to have evidence of property ownership to be eligible to apply. If individuals believe they owned or were beneficiaries of such property, they should fill out the questionnaire.” Mere belief in loss is sufficient to list a lost asset into the database.
One needs to understand, based on this statement, how HEART will lead to the restitution of looted art when the mere belief of a loss of cultural property suffices to register the item in the HEART database. Perhaps, what is at work here, like in so many class action lawsuits, is not the actual description of the asset but the listing of the asset so as to be able to come up with an algorithm that produces a figure from which one can derive an estimated valuation of the extent of the loss and enter into negotiations with foreign governments over the sums to repay as reparations. In other words, restitution is not part of this game. If a survivor lists his or her lost cultural asset with HEART, and an agreement is reached between HEART, the Jewish Agency, the State of Israel and the negotiating government or entity, all assets listed in the agreement are folded into the settlement against a promise that no future claims will be filed for those assets from which reparations have been obtained. In other words, if you want to recover a drawing by Fragonard and you list it with HEART, and HEART and its sponsors negotiate a lump-sum settlement that includes the value of your drawing, you can forget about ever recovering the drawing, regardless of where it is and settle for the two bags of peanuts that you will receive as thanks for listing your property with HEART.
In sum, Project HEART is the Israeli Government’s response to a series of failed maneuvers aimed at re-centering the debate over Jewish reparations away from the Diaspora and into the bosom of the State of Israel, at the expense of Jewish survivors and their families. For those survivors who believe fervently that HEART can help them, we wish you the best of luck. For anyone with a reasonable amount of skepticism who can see through the designs of HEART, stay away and continue your fight for restitution!