By Bobby Brown
Culture and justice are both indicators by which the well-being of modern society can be measured. Culture asks questions about our collective identity. It enables us to observe our fellow human beings and to evaluate events and individuals that live in our collective consciousness. Justice protects modern society. It guards the individual, offers comfort to those who have been harmed, and provides a warning to those who would harm others. Two words, two concepts - we aspire to increase their presence both in our life and in our communal environment. But what happens when culture and justice clash, when a society must decide on preferences and priorities? Such is the situation facing the State of Israel today.
Some of the most breathtaking paintings in the world, foremost among them the treasures of the Louvre and those of other fine French public collections, are slated to be exhibited in Israeli museums and galleries in the near future. The old masters, Impressionists and expressionists, Modernists and Classicists, will be a banquet to our eyes and a festival to our thoughts. Or will they?
France is requesting a seemingly inconsequential prerequisite before opening the floodgates of the Israeli public's access to cultural expression. In order for Israelis to see these treasures, Paris has demanded the adoption of a law that would bar legal action in Israel by those who claim title to those paintings, including works which may have been looted by the German Third Reich or its henchmen throughout Europe during the Holocaust era.
They have been gripped by the fear of international precedents such as art treasures loaned to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which were the subject of intense legal wrangling initiated by the owners of these works, the heirs of Holocaust victims, whose parents lost their property − and their lives − during the Nazi atrocities. And while the wrangling continued, the artworks could not be returned to the museums whence they came. The French are not willing to risk their cultural
patrimony in Israel.
So much for justice.
Beside accomplishing the greatest murder rampage in human history, the Nazis could also boast of being world-class art thieves. The Third Reich ran teams of art experts who criss-crossed Europe looking for great works of art. Whether they were 'degenerate' pieces to be sold for cash in Geneva or more conventional pieces to be placed in the Goering collection or the great museums of Naziland, objets d'art were trophies sought after by the Nazi leadership everywhere. Jews didn't only have their art stolen after their deportation; they were often deported in order [for Nazis] to steal their art.
After 60 years and a monumental struggle, a new sensitivity has taken hold in museums and auction houses. After years of efforts to place this issue on the international agenda, we have now reached the situation in which 'problematic' provenance of artworks does make a difference in values and sales procedures. With the Internet, it is getting harder to hide the paintings that hung in the salons of our parents and grandparents. However, many European countries place obstacles in front of claimants trying to retrieve these 'national' treasures by judicial means from the cultured societies who count them among their cultural jewels, leaving survivors and their heirs essentially locked out of, or unable to afford, due process in order retrieve that which was stolen from their families. It is precisely to preserve this single path to claimants that the French and others are requiring that the Knesset pass a law to safeguard art loans made to Israel's museums.
This presents a dilemma for Israel, a clash between culture and justice. If the Knesset votes for culture, it will effectively be sanctioning the status quo still prevalent in too many countries that is preventing the return of property to its rightful heirs. If it votes for justice, and takes a principled stand that the Israeli courts recognize the supreme right of Holocaust survivors and their heirs to claim back what once belonged to them, irrespective of which country housed these treasures since the end of World War II − it will, in all likelihood, place Israel outside the rich world of international cultural exchanges and deprive its public of viewing these great works on their home territory.
Will the Knesset enact such a law? For me, at least, there is no clash, no struggle between culture and justice. I don't want to see stolen pictures at an exhibition, especially if I know that the pictures' rightful owners have not been able to retrieve them. For me, the right of individuals to reclaim property stolen from their family during the Holocaust is paramount to all other issues. Justice is a higher value than culture and the Israeli Knesset should declare this in the clearest and most unequivocal terms. We may have to content ourselves with seeing reproductions. It's a price worth paying, especially if it ensures that we uphold what the Torah calls tzedek [justice].
At the Conference on Looted Nazi art held in Vilna in October 2000, a very courageous member of Knesset, Colette Avital, asked the ambassador representing France to whom her father's siddur [prayer book], sitting in a French warehouse, belongs. The French ambassador replied, "Madame, it belongs to France." I for one don't want to see that siddur, or any other property stolen from my people, on display.
The writer is a member of the board of directors of the Company for Locating and Retrieving Assets of People who were Killed in the Holocaust, Ltd.