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House weighs Holocaust bill that has divided Jewish community

Leo Bretholz, a Holocaust survivor, testifying at a House Foreign Relations Committee hearing on allowing lawsuits to go ahead against SNCF, the French national railroad, for its role in deporting Jews to death camps, Nov. 16, 2011. Bretholz fled from such a transport. (Foreign Affairs Committee Republicans)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — The U.S. House of Representatives again is considering Holocaust compensation legislation that has pit survivors against some leading Jewish organizations.

The House Foreign Affairs Committee heard testimony Wednesday on a bill that would make it easier for claimants to make their case against Holocaust-era insurers in U.S. courts and to press insurance companies to release lists of policies from that time.

“These survivors deserve the opportunity to have their day in court and present evidence against these companies who have failed to honor their business obligations,” Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), the committee chairwoman who sponsored the insurance law with Rep. Ted Deutch (D-Fla.), said in her opening remarks. “Holocaust survivors came here looking for the freedom, tolerance and opportunity that they were denied in their homelands.”

The Obama administration, like its predecessors, opposes the insurance legislation, saying it amounts to Congress and the courts usurping executive branch primacy on conducting foreign policy.

Previous Congresses have made multiple attempts to enact laws that would make it easier to take the insurance companies to courts, but none has ever become law.

All the witnesses invited to the hearing favored the proposed bills, although opponents — including some of the mainstream Jewish groups — were allowed to submit written testimony.

Testimony submitted collectively by the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League, B’nai B’rith International, the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, the World Jewish Congress and the World Jewish Restitution Organization argued against the insurance legislation, saying it would “raise false expectations for survivors,” “compromise the ability of the United States to advocate for survivor benefits and issues” and “potentially hinder ongoing negotiations which have provided crucial funding for Holocaust survivors indeed.”

The State Department, on the eve of the hearing, released a statement saying that the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims, or ICHEIC, may still consider claims — although it was formally shuttered in 2007.

“This voluntary process, with evidentiary standards sensitive to the realities of the Holocaust and with a proven record of success, is a better and more efficient way to ensure payment of Holocaust-era policies than is litigation,” the statement said.

Ros-Lehtinen said the ICHEIC system was flawed and argued that her bill does not aim to upend the ICHEIC arrangement but simply to open up the insurance claims process to greater scrutiny.

The senior Democrat on the committee, Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), expressed sympathy for the views expressed by opponents of the bill, but said that justice for Holocaust survivors outweighed them.

“I am well aware of challenges to this bill, including opposition from some mainstream Jewish groups and our European partners,” he said in remarks. “But unless provided evidence that this bill would hurt more than help, these legitimate concerns are outweighed by the very real and immediate need to help survivors.”

Some Holocaust survivors’ groups supporting the legislation said no avenue to restitution should be closed to survivors.

“The American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants reaffirms its absolute support for the right of all survivors to pursue all legitimate claims, including insurance claims, in every appropriate forum, in particular the courts of law,” the group said in a statement. “In this regard, we support appropriate legislation to affirm this right and call on Congress to modify the current bill to place a restrictive cap on lawyers’ fees so that survivors are the principal beneficiaries of successful Holocaust restitution claims, and that lawyers are not unjustly enriched by this process.”

The Holocaust Survivors Foundation, a smaller group that in recent years has pressed claims against what it says are inadequate settlements negotiated by establishment Jewish groups, has lobbied for the legislation, and was represented at the hearing by David Schaecter, its president.

The Foreign Affairs Committee also heard testimony on a second bill that would allow lawsuits to go ahead against SNCF, the French national railroad, for its role in transporting Jews to death camps.

Rep. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), who sponsored the SNCF bill, said that “sovereign immunity,” which in certain cases exempts foreign entities from U.S. legal action, should not apply in this case.

“By finally forcing SNCF out of the shadows, and by precluding SNCF from hiding behind foreign sovereign immunity, the Holocaust Rail Justice Act will finally provide some measure of justice,” she said.

The French national railroad has opposed the legislation, arguing that it was forced to transport the Jews and should not be held responsible.