Proposed law would prevent Israelis from claiming Nazi-looted art

Haaretz 12 January 2007
Amiram Barkat

Israeli courts will not be able to adjudicate claims of ownership of works of art from abroad brought to Israel for exhibit, according to the terms of a bill to be submitted to the Knesset for its second and third readings.
The proposed law is controversial, because it would make it difficult for potential heirs to art looted in the Holocaust to sue for ownership in Israel.

The bill was drafted at the behest of the French government, which wants to mount an exhibition in the Israel Museum this summer of art stolen by the Nazis.

During talks between the Israel Museum and the French national authority for museums, it was agreed that some 50 works of art whose owners are unknown would go on display in Israel from museum collections in France.

The exhibition has already been put off for a number of years, due to French concerns that families of Holocaust victims will sue for ownership of the art in Israeli courts.

In 2003, the French understood from then-Supreme Court president Aharon Barak that the arrangement then in force, by which Israel's culture minister could grant a certificate of immunity to a work of art, was not binding in Israeli courts. They then informed Israel that they would agree to nothing less than legislation.

The bill, which would empower the justice minister to issue an order preventing the courts from hearing a case involving artwork brought to Israel for an exhibit, will come before the House within about two weeks.

MK Michael Melchior (Labor), chairman of the Knesset Education Committee, which is now debating the bill, said it involved a "moral problem of the first degree," although he predicted that the law would pass with some changes. The committee's legal counsel, Merav Israeli, said the law impaired a fundamental right of Israeli citizens.

The Israel Museum responded that it opposed the attempt to link the law and the Holocaust. Museum director James Snyder said such laws have been passed in all Western countries in response to attempts to demand restitution of archaeological items taken to the West during the period of colonialism.
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