The debate regarding legal actions that could be initiated against Germany began soon after World War II, as Jewish organizations argued vigorously that the Jews had the legal and moral right to damages for losses sustained during the Holocaust.
When the German authorities made clear that they would not return Jewish assets to their rightful owners, the American military authorities passed a law in October 1947 mandating that all property illegally appropriated by the Nazi regime be returned to its original owners. Claimants, however, would have the burden of proof to establish ownership. In a bold and significant move, the law also authorized Jewish organizations to bring claims on behalf of heirless property, most of whose owners had been murdered in the Shoah.
Beginning in the early 1950s, Jews and Jewish organizations argued that, given the breadth of physical and emotional damages inflicted by Germany upon the Jews during the Holocaust, Germany should be responsible for far more than property losses, thus raising the issue of reparations.
The reparations question became a delicate issue not only for Israel and the Jewish world, but also for Germany, which was seeking to reestablish itself amongst the community of legitimate nations. Concerned about world opinion and wanting to silence the Israelis, Germany sought to put its new “Jewish problem” to rest.
Israel, however, maintained that the very idea of a “new Germany” was absurd on its face, particularly given that Germany’s leading financial, political, military, and financial positions were still held by Nazis. Moreover, as we will see below, most Jews viewed the idea of accepting German blood money with deep disdain, if not abject horror.
With the public in both countries opposed to reparations – only 34 percent of the German public believed that Germany owed Jews anything at all, and 21 percent still believed that the Jews themselves were responsible for what had happened to them during the Holocaust – secret negotiations began between Germany and Israel, with both nations concerned about adverse publicity.
Israel rejected Germany’s $100 million initial offer; demanded that Germany take direct responsibility for the Holocaust, and insisted that any settlement make clear that Germany could not buy Israel’s forgiveness – nor, by extension, the forgiveness of the Jewish people.
In a September 1951 address to the Bundestag, Konrad Adenauer, the first Chancellor of the postwar First German Federal Republic, owned up to the “unspeakable crimes [that] have been committed in the name of the German people [during the Holocaust],” and announced his government’s readiness to sit down with representatives of world Jewry and the State of Israel to “bring about a solution of the material indemnity problem, thus easing the way to the spiritual settlement of infinite suffering.”
One month later, Nahum Goldmann, co-chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel and president of the World Jewish Congress, convened a meeting of 23 major Jewish national and international organizations, which created the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (the “Claims Conference”), which was authorized to negotiate claims – but only material claims – with Germany.
Following Israel’s War of Independence, Israel faced monumental challenges in establishing a firm economic foundation for the new nation, not the least of which were the overwhelming costs of absorbing and rehabilitating half a million destitute Jewish refugees. Prime Minister Ben-Gurion took what he characterized as a pragmatic approach, arguing that accepting a deal with Germany was the only practical solution to Israel’s economic woes; that reparations were necessary to restore what was stolen from Hitler’s victims; and that underscoring the reparation demand was the recovery of as much Jewish property as possible “so that the murderers do not become the heirs as well.”
Leading the struggle against reparations was a passionate Menachem Begin, who gave fiery speeches at mass demonstrations at which he addressed many Holocaust victims sickened by the prospect of permitting the perpetrators of genocide to obtain absolution through the payment of blood money. He called upon Israeli citizens to withhold paying taxes and urged them to engage in civil disobedience, even if the result is incarceration in “an Israeli concentration camp.”
One such protest rally was held on Mograbi Square in Tel Aviv:
Tomorrow, on Tuesday at 5:00 p.m. at “Mograbi Square” an angry rally and demonstration of grief will be held against having any discussions with the German murderers.
Our demand: withdraw the disgraceful delegation and honor will thereby be returned to the memory of the millions.
The nation of Zion will roll back the great shame of reparations.
ATTEND THE RALLY IN GREAT NUMBERS!
Various respected halachic authorities weighed in on the reparations question. For example, Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky announced at a New York gathering:
The majority opinion sides with the opinion of Rav Aharon Kotler who opposed all negotiations with Germany even if large sums of reparations can be obtained. One can file suit against a killer and a thief and receive damages from him, but one cannot conduct negotiations with killers and receive something that rewards horrific acts. Rav Kotler is concerned that the Government of Israel wants to put an end to Germany’s culpability and to establish friendly relations between the two peoples. Chareidi Jewry should not participate in this endeavor.
The debate on the reparations issue was likely the fiercest and most heated in Israel’s history. On January 7, 1952, the day of the Knesset debate on this issue, Israeli security authorities went so far as to have contingency plans to deal with an insurrection, and the IDF prepared to counter an attempt to overthrow the government. The Knesset ultimately decided by a 61-50 vote to enter into direct negotiations with West Germany – but only after a 15,000-strong violent anti-Agreement riot outside the Frumin Knesset Building, led by Begin, was quelled by police after hundreds of protestors and officers, as well as several Knesset members, were injured.
This protest became the first time in Israeli history that demonstrators interrupted a Knesset session seeking to overturn a democratically made Knesset decision. Begin, who was subsequently held responsible for the violence, was barred from the Knesset for three months.
Ultimately, the Heskem HaShillumim, or Reparations Agreement, was executed by Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett for Israel and Chancellor Adenauer for Germany on September 10, 1952 and became effective on March 27, 1953. Pursuant to the Agreement, West Germany agreed to pay Israel for the costs of post-Holocaust resettlement of Jewish survivors, and to compensate individual Jews, through the Claims Conference, for financial losses caused by the Third Reich.
Over the next 14 years, West Germany paid three billion marks to Israel and 450 million marks to the World Jewish Congress. To date, total German reparations paid exceed $70 billion.
The Agreement displayed several fascinating legal novelties never before seen: Its signatories were two countries (Israel and West Germany) that did not exist at the time period it concerns; it designated a third-party as a beneficiary (the Jewish people); and it was the first agreement pursuant to which a defeated country agreed to compensate individual victims and casualties of war.
The execution of the Agreement, however, did not quell the bitter feeling of those who felt that Israel and Ben-Gurion had sold them out. Not surprisingly, among the most strident and vociferous opponents was the Israeli Communist party, as may be seen from this June 25, 1959 flyer:
OH, THE DISGRACE –
THE GOVERNMENT’S ARMS DEAL WITH HITLER’S GENERALS!
It is not enough that the Ben-Gurion government gave “reparations” compensation a hechsher (“kosher” certification) to the rulers of West Germany, the neo-Nazis;
It is not enough that this government befriends the heirs of Hitler who rule in Bonn;
It is not enough that this government fails to add her voice to the protest of the nations against arming West Germany’s nuclear capability that threatens world peace and the Jewish nation;
It is not enough that the Eshkol deal scandal – Herman Abbes, the Nazi banker;
The Ben-Gurion government adds inequity to inequity by supplying Israeli arms to Hitler’s generals, who still stand at the head of the German military!
This is a desecration of the holy memories of our six million murdered brothers; this is a national humiliation for Israel as a Jewish state;
This is military assistance to the militarism of the neo-Nazis that constitutes a grave danger to all the nations and to Israel in particular.
Dismiss the Ben-Gurion Government, the government of co-operation with Hitler’s heirs.
The Ben-Gurion Government – oh, the disgrace!
Anti-Agreement activists continued to emphasize Germany’s ongoing failure to bring Nazis to justice after the war, as expressed beautifully – and painfully – in this flyer issued by “The remnants of the gas chambers:”
TO THE EX-CHANCELLOR LUDWIG ERHARD!
[Erhard served as second German Chancellor (1963-66)]
As central figure in the “Economic Bureau” of Hitler’s Reich, have you not given a hand indirectly to the slaughter of millions of our people in Europe?
As the Chancellor of “The Other Germany,” what have you done to bring to justice tens of thousands of Nazi murderers, who till now are living free in your country?
What have you done to clear the Government offices of Federal Germany from thousands of Nazi criminals who have found there a refuge?
We shall never forget and forgive the slaughter of 6 millions of our brothers and sisters by your people, among them a million and a half innocent children.
Even more than a decade after the Agreement was signed, opposition to the Agreement – and to accepting Germany – remained strong, including calls to boycott Germany, as in the flyer shown here (quoted only in part):
From the outskirts of Jerusalem, eighth months, 20 years since the end of the Holocaust (i.e., 1965)
LETTER OF BOYCOTT
The destruction of six million Jews has not opened the eyes of the remaining nation . . . I declare:
A BOYCOTT ON GERMANY
No person from the seed of Israel shall approach a German nor connect with him in a normal person-to-person manner, the Germans are impure forever!
No person from the seed of Israel shall purchase anything made by the Germans, shall not touch their produce, shall not trade in it – their creative hand redeemed in our blood!
No person from the seed of Israel shall tread on German land that is eternally damned and shall not pass its byways – within its borders was hatched the plot of destruction and upon that land it began!
Even today, some eight decades after the Holocaust and with few remaining survivors of the Shoah, the issue of Israel and Jews negotiating and accepting German reparations remains highly controversial and heatedly contested.