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The return of looted cultural objects to Israel

There is no reason why the German government should keep looted art works.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and German Chancellor Angela Merkel meet at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Credit: Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and German Chancellor Angela Merkel meet at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Credit: Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO.
Dr. Michael (Michel) Calvo, Attorney (Credit: Linkedin)
Michael Calvo
Dr. Michael Calvo is an international lawyer and author of the book The Middle East and World War III: Why No Peace? with a foreword by Col. Richard Kemp, CBE.

The German Culture Minister has agreed to bring to Israel the Gurlitt collection of some 1,500 art works looted by the Nazis and discovered in 2012. These art works are to be displayed for the first time in Israel in the hope of locating additional Jewish owners. This, however, is not enough since it does not answer a broader question. There is no reason why the German government should keep looted art works.

The year 2018 marks the 40th anniversary of the establishment of the UNESCO Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin or its Restitution in Case of Illicit Appropriation. Already in 1978, UNESCO’s director general, Amadou Mahtar M’Bow, acknowledged “that the vicissitudes of history have robbed many people of a priceless portion of the inheritance in which their enduring identity finds its embodiment … everything which has been taken away…bore witness to a history, the history of a culture and of a nation whose spirit they perpetuated and renewed. … The return of a work of art or record to the country which created it enables a people to recover part of its memory and identity.”

For the Jews such cultural objects are witnesses to a history of 2,000 years of wandering as exiles from country to country and of religious and non-religious persecution. They are Jewish heritage regardless of the country they come from.

The return of the Jews to their Jewish Homeland does not seem to be enough to recover the Jewish identity, history and culture, at a time when the Arabs of Judea and Samaria, the 1.9 billion Muslims, the European Union and some European States participate in the delegitimization, demonization and dehumanization of Israel and the Jews in order to prepare the world to accept the destruction of the one and only Jewish state. It is time to react strongly against such efforts.

According to UNESCO, every state has the right to access works that are part of its memory and that will enable it to continue to build its identity.

The late Dr. Meir Rosenne, the Israeli Ambassador to France and the United States, and previously the chief legal adviser of the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, suggested some years before his death, that the Jewish State has the duty to recover the Jewish cultural property and the property of Jews that were murdered during World War II. Israel has the legal right to ask for the return to its National Home of cultural objects that were taken over the centuries from the Jews (original books, manuscripts, sacred objects, cultural objects and all other “objets d’art”). These objects are in basements, libraries and museums around the world, like those detained by the Catholic Church and the Prague Jewish Museum, where the Nazis first stored materials and objects from the destroyed Jewish communities of Bohemia and Moravia.

To mention some examples, in the 1980s, Germany returned to Turkey 7,000 Bogazkoy cuneiform tablets, and Italy returned to Ecuador the 12.000 Pre-Colombian gold. The USA returned to Thailand the Phra Narai lintel. In 1964, Pope Paul VI initiated a process of return of relics to the Orthodox Church. In 2000, Paul John Paul II returned the relics of Saint Gregory the Illuminator to the Armenian Orthodox Church. In 2004, the relics of Saint Gregory the Theologian and Saint John Chrysostom were returned to Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople.

The Vatican should return what belongs to the Jewish people, including several books, manuscripts, Sefer Thora (the five books of Moses), Talmud relating among others, to the life of Jesus and one Temple candelabra given to Pope Innocent III by Baldwin I after the destruction of Constantinople and the murder of the Christian Orthodox population.

During World War II, France and other European states collaborated with the Nazis and took discriminatory measures against the Jews. The French law of July 22, 1941, tended to eliminate ”all Jewish influence in the national economy.” The confiscation of all property of the Jews in France followed. During the war, more than 60,000 objects stolen either by the French Government or the Nazis. France restituted 45,000 objects to their owners or heirs after the war. The French Administration sold and appropriated the proceeds of the sale of 13,000 objects, and 2,000 objects of great value are still in French Museums. It is appalling that France benefits as a result of the  discriminatory measures taken by the “Vichy” government against both French and foreign Jews who were murdered by the Nazis and their accomplices.

European countries such as Germany, the Netherlands, the Czech Republic, as well as the Vatican still hoard vast collections of looted art. These objects are witness to the history of European Jews and their persecution. They are part of Jewish history and these object should therefore be sent to Israel, the state of the Jews, and they should  be exhibited on a permanent basis in Israel. They belong in Israel and as a matter of legitimacy, a Museum of Looted Treasures of the Jewish People should be created in Jerusalem. This will allow visitors to learn and remember that the Jews, owners of these treasures, were dispossessed because they were Jews. If some States argue that the Jews were and are part of their culture and argue that this needs to be remembered, as a lesson, they can always scan them, copy them and do 3-D duplications for this purpose.

Saddam Hussein’s basement was filled with Jewish treasures, not Arab/Muslim treasures. Israel should seek the assistance of UNESCO pursuant to its own mandate. Those objects are part of Jewish heritage regardless of the countries where they are or come from. They belong to the Jewish National Home. The U.S. government that holds the objects that were in Saddam Hussein’s possession, should reverse its position and stop their transfer to Iraq.

The Dead Sea Cooper Scrolls were found by French Archaeologist Henri de Contenson in Qumran in 1952. These Scrolls are written in Hebrew, the language of the Jewish people, like the other scrolls that were found in the area. The Cooper Scrolls mention 64 locations where garments and gold and silver estimated in tons are hidden. Those treasures were most probably hidden by the Prophet and Great Priest Jeremy prior to the destruction of the First Temple by Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, in 586 BCE.

Jordan illegally invaded Judea and Samaria in 1948 and annexed the areas in 1950. This annexation was only recognized by Great Britain, Iraq and Pakistan. The Scrolls were then taken by Jordan and are still in the Jordan Museum in Amman. Jordan renounced all claims to these territories, and signed a peace treaty with Israel in 1994. Jordan has no right to keep those scrolls that belong to the Jewish People since Jews are the indigenous People of Judea and Samaria, where Qumran is located.

Judea and Samaria were conquered and colonized by Muslim Arabs in 636. These territories where under Ottoman rule for half a millenary (1417-1917) and became part of the Jewish Mandate five years later. Under Article 11 of the United Nation Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, the Jewish People, being the Indigenous People, are entitled to “the restitution of their cultural, intellectual, religious and spiritual property taken without their free, prior and informed consent or in violation of their laws, tradition and customs.”

In most of the above cited cases, “diplomacy will be the art of dealing with robbers” (Herzl).

The writer was born in Tunis, Tunisia, studied law in Paris and New York. He is doctor of law of international organizations and international economic relations from the Sorbonne, an expert in international law, and was a member of the International Court of Arbitration of the ICC representing Israel. He is the author of the book, “The Middle East and World War III–Why no Peace?” Preface by Colonel Richard Kemp, CBE.  See  

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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