Who owns the past?
Left to right: Mitchell Gropper, QC; Prof. Guy Pessach, Hebrew University; Prof. Catherine Dauvergne, dean of the Peter A. Allard School of Law, University of British Columbia; and Randy Milner, Vancouver chapter president, Canadian Friends of the Hebrew University. (photo from Canadian Friends of the Hebrew University, Vancouver)
What happens to the archival materials of a Jewish community when that community no longer has the capacity to maintain itself can be complicated and messy. A 2013 Supreme Court decision in Israel provided a solution but also raised important questions about identity, collective memory and the relationship between Israel and the Diaspora.
On March 17, Prof. Guy Pessach of Hebrew University of Jerusalem presented a lecture as part of the Mitchell H. Gropper, QC, Law Faculty Exchange Program. An initiative of Hebrew U and University of British Columbia, the program’s UBC webpage notes that, since the program began in 2010, each law faculty “has hosted three visiting professors from the other university.”
Pessach’s topic was Who Owns the Past? – Law, the Politics of Memory and the Israeli Supreme Court. He discussed two cases but focused primarily on a lawsuit involving the Vienna Jewish community and the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People, which is in Jerusalem. He said decisions made by the Israeli Supreme Court reflected a propensity for Israel to regard itself as the international arbiter of Jewish cultural property and collective memory.
According to Pessach, Vienna was the second-largest Jewish community in Europe in the early 20th century. The nearly 200,000 Jews in the 1930s were reduced to fewer than 9,000 after the Holocaust. In the early days of Israel’s statehood, the Central Archives actively collected materials from Jewish communities in Europe to safeguard the rich Jewish history of these disappeared communities.
Although the Viennese community continues to decline in population, he said, in the 21st century, it sufficiently reorganized to request the return of its archival materials from the Central Archives. When the archives refused, claiming that the material was given on “indefinite loan,” Vienna’s Jews launched a lawsuit.
According to a January 2013 article in Haaretz, “The collection includes thousands of papers stored in 200 containers, documenting 300 years of the Vienna community from the 17th century up to 1945. After the Holocaust, community leaders decided to transfer the archive to Jerusalem, fearing it would not be stored properly in Vienna, and they continued to add documents to the collection. Yet the Viennese community insists it sent the documents – in four shipments in 1952, 1966, 1971 and 1978 – with the explicit agreement, time after time, that the documents were only on loan and remained the property of the community.”
Vienna lost its case. At the time, Israeli state archivist Yaacov Lozowick, stated, according to Haaretz, that “the depositors felt they were strengthening the cultural importance of the young state of Israel as the centre of the Jewish people; they were proud about their contribution; and they had no intention of the collection ever returning.”
In the case, said Pessach, Israel asserted its place in the Jewish world as protector of Jewish identity and history. He explained the ins and outs of the court’s decision and discussed the issues of cultural property law and restitution. He said restitution is not just the physical return of culturally and historically significant items but also symbolic justice for a community. He noted that similar situations continue to play out in Jewish communities, in the form of art stolen by the Nazis, and that Canadian First Nations and many other groups are also currently seeking restitution for cultural property stolen during colonial times.
For more information on the Mitchell H. Gropper, QC, Law Faculty Exchange Program, call the Canadian Friends of the Hebrew University office at 604-257-5133 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.