294. "Shun Calls for Silence in Swiss Gold Mess," USA Today, (September 29, 1997), p. 15A.
I have a personal stake in the gold the Swiss made off victims of Nazis during World War II. I was a Jewish child in Germany in 1936 when my family was forced to flee the Nazis. I know my family had an account in one of the major Swiss banks but I have never asked about it or ever publicly addressed this issue before.
I felt until now that the voices of those who demand justice have been quite strong enough without me. I also felt, perhaps irrationally, that it was somehow unseemly to bang on the doors of the Swiss banks, to find how much of my family's money they have squirreled away.
But I began wondering whether I was right to stay out of this fray when recently I attended a scholarly conference in Geneva. Reporters there asked if I was not concerned that "all this talk about gold" would lead to more anti-semitism. When I wondered how, the reporter nodded knowingly and said, "Well, you know, Jews and gold." Another reporter observed in passing that "the whole thing" started when Senator Alfonse D'Amato, R-N.Y., was seeking re-election in New York City and decided to make an issue of a few lost accounts. I responded that as far as I knew, "the problem" started fifty years earlier.
What makes me break my silence, hoping others will speak up as well, is not directly the Swiss but my own government. I'm especially reacting to that "shtetl" -- insecure, small-town mentality -- position articulated by Stuart Eizenstat, the administration's main person dealin with the Swiss mess. Jews in the Diaspora often told to keep a low profile, to stay mum about various injustices inflicted on them, in order not to distress those in power. In effect, one main reason the West's response to the news about concentration camps was much too tepid was that large segments of the Jewish community remained "cautious."
Jews and other Americans are now asked by the administration to restrain their criticisms and not to hurt the Swiss by boycotting their banks, chocolates, and cuckoo clocks even though the Swiss banks, government, and people continue to drag their feet in making amends for profiting from the Nazis.
The Swiss not only have stonewalled the international community for 50 years, but they also continue to offer little help to those who seek to find their lost fortunes, often offering tiny amounts as compensation. Most Swiss banks have yet to conduct proper searche sof their accounts or to disclose what they have found. And finally, nine months after Swiss banks vowed to heko Holocaust survivors, is the first installment of reparations -- $1,000 each for 12,000 survivors -- about to be paid out. But if you had put in $50 in a Swiss bank account 50 years ago, it would amount to far more than $1,000, which shows how minuscule is this gesture. And, so far, they have punished only Christoph Meili, the bank guard who, instead of shredding incriminating documents as instructed, spilled the beans.
At the smae time, the Swiss govnernment has yet to put to a vote a separate fund it promised to establish. If we criticize the Swiss, we are warned, the Swiss will not vote to make reparations. If we chastise the Swiss, rather than "accentuate the positive," we are cautioned, they will have nothing to gain by being more forthcoming.
The United States government may find it tactically wise to play such diplomatic games. But this should not confine our moral voice as members of the community at large. A nation's expressions should not be limited to those its diplomats feel permitted to state, especially when it comes to what a people consider right vs. wrong. We are free to point out that if the Swiss were inclined to come clean and make amends, they have been given ample opportunity. They now are playing for time, for people to tire of the issue, and worse -- for the remaining victims of the Holocaust to die out.
We should, as in other situations, say our piece clearly and firmly, or we become accomplices through our silence. We may not be able to gain the loot the Swiss kept or an admission of guilt. But future people will know that when they collaborate with tyrannical regimes, and later add insult to injury, they will be appropriately censured -- if not by governments, then by world public opinion.
I, for one, would rather let them keep whatever of mine they may have, but no longer remain silent.
Amitai Etzioni is a professor at George Washington University and author of The New Golden Rule.