The United States Senate Appropriations Committee has passed its annual State Department appropriations bill, and it includes a strong instruction on Holocaust-era looted assets. The bill, entitled the Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act, 2016 (S. 1725) was accompanied by the Committee’s report, which would direct the State Department to include in an annual report an assessment of U.S. domestic law and foreign countries’ status on their compliance with the Washington Principles and the Terezin Declaration. As the World Jewish Restitution Organization (WJRO) and the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (Claims Conference) observed last year, that progress is mixed, at best. This is a budget bill, meaning it is just the first step in allocating resources for the U.S. government in the year to come (in this case, for the State Department).
This is a significant development for a few reasons. First, it is a legislative statement about the United States’ role in the issue of Holocaust-era looted property—not just here, but around the world. As last week’s furor over the German cultural protection law shows, even proposed legislation can have an effect (to wit: Georg Baselitz’s withdrawal of his works from German museums, and Gerhard Richter’s threat to do the same). Second, it empowers further the very important Office of the Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues, a desk within the State Department that carries the imprimatur of the 1998 Washington Conference on Holocaust-Era Assets, which was itself hosted by our State Department. And lastly, it seeks out additional, affirmative steps for improvement. Given the unusual position of the U.S. relative to other Washington Conference countries—i.e., that the role of government is more complicated because it does not hold much of the property in dispute, unlike most of the European countries involved—it is a bold step. It is still just an appropriations bill, but one worth watching nonetheless.
The full text of the language in the Committee report reads:
Holocaust Era Assets.–The Committee directs the Secretary of State, with the assistance of the Office of the Special Envoy for Holocaust Issues, to include within the first Annual Report on International Religious Freedom submitted not later than 180 days after the date of the enactment of the act an assessment of national laws or enforceable policies in, as appropriate, foreign countries regarding the return of or restitution for wrongfully confiscated or transferred Holocaust era assets and compliance with the objectives of the 2009 Terezin Declaration on Holocaust Era Assets and Related Issues, to include: the return to the rightful owner of any property that was wrongfully confiscated or transferred to another individual by Nazi, Nazi collaborator, or Communist regimes (if return of such property is no longer possible, the provision of comparable substitute property or the payment of equitable compensation); the return to Jewish communities of any religious or communal property that was stolen as a result of the Holocaust or subsequently nationalized by Communist regimes; the use of the Washington Conference Principles on Nazi-Confiscated Art, agreed to December 3, 1998, in settling all claims involving publically and privately held movable property; the mechanism for and demonstrable progress on the resolution of claims for United States citizen Holocaust survivors and United States citizen family members of Holocaust victims; and recommendations for actions to be taken by the country, and the United States Government, to improve country progress on the return of or restitution for wrongfully confiscated or transferred Holocaust era assets.