TFF logoFORUMS Power Columns

The Jews of Austria and the Palestinians of Israel both demand restitution




January 9, 2001

LONDON - In the dying days of the Clinton Administration two totally separate but nevertheless very interlinked Jewish issues are possibly but uncertainly in the final stages of being laid to rest. The first, more than well publicized, are the negotiations orchestrated personally by President Bill Clinton, over a settlement of the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. Will the losing side, the Palestinians, regain land and religious sites they then lost and will the refugees who lost their homes and farms in the area now claimed by Israel as the Jewish state be given "the right to return"?

The other, rather less publicised, but just as important an issue is almost the mirror reverse of the Middle East one. It is the restitution of Jewish property, art and businesses appropriated by the Nazis in Austria. Tomorrow (Wednesday), under the mediation of the U.S. deputy Secretary of the Treasury, Stuart Eizenstat, opens what is intended to be the final round of negotiations between the Austrian government and Jewish victims on the terms for a final settlement. There will be a closing meeting in Washington next week.

If the Palestinians have cause to complain that they have waited far too long for their day of justice the Austrian Jews can complain even louder. For decades, since the ending of the Second World War, successive Austrian governments, socialists, centrists or coalition have connived to keep the issue under the carpet. Right of Return? Even Austria's Jewish émigré Nobel Prize winners were not encouraged to come home. Right of possession? Homes have rarely been returned and, today, an important part of the governing coalition is led by a man, Joerg Haider whose own parents bought at a knock down price a large rural estate (in which he now lives), compulsorily sold by a Jewish family. Looted art only began to be returned in any quantity three years ago and much remains in Austrian museums and private collections, much of it overseas.

In the greatest single scandal of all, the home, property, art, jewels and private bank of the Thorsch family (then the second largest private bank in Austria, bested only by the Rothschilds who have also been maltreated) were confiscated by the Nazis and barely a penny has been returned. Compare this with Nazi-occupied Denmark that engaged in the serious restitution of all looted property and art within six months of the ending of the war. Or, even more tellingly, compare this with Germany that moved very rapidly to settle all Jewish claims and, in the case of the private Warburg Bank, returned it within a year.

There can be no collective innocence either in Austria or Israel. Only one in twenty Jewish Israelis living in Israel today have personal experience of the 1948 war and the confiscations in its aftermath. Yet modern Israel has no choice but to realize that in its parents' time 700,000 Arabs were forced out of the only homes they and their forefathers had ever known. Hundreds of villages and 400,000 hectares of orchards and cultivated fields were abandoned. Today the Jewish state seems unable to comprehend the sentiment of the Palestinian negotiators. Why are the Palestinians supposed to settle for one-quarter of their homeland? Why do so many of them have to give up all that was theirs?

The only difference, but a very important one, between the Austrian and the Palestinian situation is that the Arabs started the 1948 war. It was the Arab decision not to accept the creation of a Jewish homeland that sparked over 50 years of bloody struggle between Arab and Jew.

Austria only began to emerge from its torpor when electing the former Secretary General of the UN, Kurt Waldheim, to be its president in 1986. The international row over his candidacy, sparked by newly discovered documents, forced modern Austria to confront the fact that he had probably participated in a war crime himself. Chancellor Franz Vranitzsky led the debate to re-open the Austrian mind to confront the reality that Austria was not a "victim state" but many of its citizens had happily cooperated with the son of Austria, Adolf Hitler, in his quest to extend the Third Reich over much of Europe. (Amazingly, until the Waldheim crisis, the allies, the U.S., Britain, France and Russia had gone along with the Austrian myth of the victim state, even agreeing to it being written into the State Treaty that marked the ending of the allied occupation in 1955.)

Thus the Clinton Administration has in its hands in its closing days the two great unresolved issues of the Jewish past. In Austria, until very recently, the government has resisted serious restitution. Will it still and will it try to prevaricate until Eizenstat is out of office and a less sympathetic administration takes power, hoping as Austria has in the past to ride out international opinion even though at some point it may begin to seriously affect economic investment? In the Middle East the Palestinians know they will not get a better deal once Clinton, and probably Prime Minister Ehud Barak, are gone, but will they too prevaricate, preferring another 10 years of intifada and the economic ruin that goes with it, trusting to war that something better will come their way?

If Messrs Clinton and Eizenstat can solve these two conundrums they both deserve the Nobel Peace Prize.


I can be reached by phone +44 7785 351172 and e-mail:


Copyright © 2001 By JONATHAN POWER



Tell a friend about this article

Send to:


Message and your name















The Transnational Foundation for Peace and Future Research
Vegagatan 25, S - 224 57 Lund, Sweden
Phone + 46 - 46 - 145909     Fax + 46 - 46 - 144512   E-mail:

Contact the webmaster at:
© TFF 1997-2001