Fuck their money. The issue is do we allow people to talk this way in 1997." Elan Steinberg, executive director of the World Jewish Congress, is angry, and his anger is a sign of the increasingly ugly nature of the controversy surrounding the Swiss, the Jews, the U.S. Congress and the Holocaust.
The escalating war of words comes after more than a year of mostly civilized discussions over the recovery of funds in Swiss banks belonging to Jews who perished at the hands of the Nazis. Civilized, that is, until outgoing Swiss president Jean-Pascal Delamuraz last week accused Jewish groups of "extortion and blackmail" and being part of a plot to bring down the Swiss banking establishment.
Trying to tamp down the resulting furor, Swiss officials on Tuesday offered to come up with about $32 million in Jewish assets found in long-dormant Swiss bank accounts. That's a far cry from the $7 billion in looted wealth Jewish groups claim is at stake -- a figure the Swiss say is grossly exaggerated -- and besides which, Jewish groups say, the issue has become one of outright anti-Semitism.
"It will be almost impossible for us to sit together around the same table with people who did not deny, who did not reject, who did not oppose their president calling me a blackmailer," said Avraham Burg, head of Israel's Jewish Agency, a quasi-governmental organization that serves as a link to world Jewry. "We want what is ours and nothing more. They are trying to buy us with money that is not theirs."
Both sides had agreed to give a nine-member international commission, headed by former U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker, up to three years to determine the amount the Swiss owed. But the amity disintegrated when Delamuraz accused Jewish groups of pressuring Switzerland to establish a $250 million compensation fund while the commission determined comprehensive liability and before a second Swiss historical commission ruled on the extent of Switzerland's collaboration with Nazi Germany in laundering Jewish money during World War II.
In the international outcry that followed, the World Jewish Congress and Israel demanded an apology. They were hoping to get one -- and a repudiation of Delamuraz's remarks -- by the full Swiss cabinet Tuesday. Instead they got the $32 million offer and no mention of Delamuraz's remarks. "Effectively, it looks like they're saying, 'Never mind what Delamuraz said; we're willing to set up a Holocaust fund,'" said Steinberg. "And that just doesn't cut it."
The proposed fund would be made up of some $32 million which already has been identified as belonging to Jews who died in the Holocaust. Originally, Switzerland wanted to hold onto these funds until Volcker's commission completed its work. The decision to make it available now was taken as a conciliatory gesture to defuse the furor over Delamuraz' remarks, acknowledged Christophe Bubb, a Swiss diplomat in Washington.
That clearly has not worked. Steinberg said the Swiss gesture, in the wake of Delamuraz's comment, placed Jewish groups in the uncomfortable position of appearing mercenary they they to accept it. "I don't want to appear like I'm saying, OK, they're willing to set up the fund, so we'll ignore everything else they said and just grab the money," he said.
Sen. Alfonse D'Amato, R-N.Y., chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, which is investigating Switzerland's role in helping Nazis launder looted Jewish assets, also has weighed in. "These remarks clearly do not serve the effort to rectify the injustices of the past," D'Amato wrote in a letter to the new Swiss President Arnold Koller. "Most importantly, the silence of the Federal Council on the seriousness of the remarks is a telling feature of the country's policy in this regard."
Swiss officials privately say they view the letter as the Republican New York senator playing constituency politics on the international stage. Bubb, the Swiss diplomat in Washington, concedes that Delamuraz's comment was "not very statesmanlike," but he said it captured the feelings of many Swiss, who feel Jewish groups and their political allies in the U.S. are unfairly targeting the Swiss to pay for Nazi Germany's crimes more than 50 years after the end of the war. Bubb said the other members of the Swiss cabinet neither repudiated nor apologized for Delamuraz because they felt "solidarity" with him.
Steinberg, who called the ex-Swiss president a "drunk," says he is most galled by Delamuraz's accusation that Jewish groups came up with the figure of $250 million for an interim compensation fund, when it was a Swiss official, meeting with World Jewish Congress President Edgar Bronfman last month, who proposed the $250 million figure.
"If they had rejected our proposal for a fund in the first place, that's a disagreement and that's fair," Steinberg said. "But you can't send an envoy to meet privately with Bronfman to outline the $250 million proposal and then have this drunken president of theirs call us blackmailers. You can't double-cross us like that."
The threat of a Jewish boycott of Swiss financial institutions remains very much alive, Steinberg says. Swiss banking officials have expressed their concerns over the threats, which have depressed bank stock prices since they were made in December.
Asked what Switzerland was likely to do if an unequivocal government apology was the price that Switzerland had to pay to avoid a world Jewish boycott of its financial institutions, Bubb paused for a moment and then said: "I could imagine that a more distinct statement would be made to make the position of our Federal Council even clearer."
If you lived in 1801, it'd be today now
Imagine, if you will, if your father or your grandfather, for instance, were to have an official medallion from 1801 [sic], when Theodore Roosevelt took office. 1801 was, at one point, today. Now, it's 1997 today. Catch my drift?
-- Judy Crowell, hostess on the QVC cable shopping channel, hawking the Official 1997 Presidential Inaugural Medallion along with other Clinton inauguration memorabilia. (From "A Shopping Channel's White House Exclusive," in Thursday's New York Times)