One of the many reasons I'm proud to be an American citizen is that our government over the years often has stood up for what's right and moral. Oh, I know its record is imperfect and that it began its life not just tolerating but defending slavery, sanctioning the oppression of Native Americans and preventing women from voting.
But quite often it has been a voice for the voiceless, for the marginalized. One good example is the way our government took the lead in negotiating restitution agreements with Switzerland, Germany, Austria and France on behalf of Holocaust victims and survivors. That work resulted in what the lead American negotiator, Stuart E. Eizenstat (pictured below), calls "imperfect justice," which is the name of his 2004 book I just finished, Imperfect Justice: Looted Assets, Slave Labor, and the Unfinished Business of World War II. (Yes, I'm six years behind in some of my reading.)
You may not be aware of it, but the U.S. State Department continues to maintain an Office of Holocaust Issues, now led by Special Envoy Douglas Davidson. As Davidson's online biography notes, "he is responsible for developing and implementing U.S. policy pertaining to the return of Holocaust-era assets to their rightful owners, compensation for wrongs committed during the Holocaust, and Holocaust remembrance."
The story of how Eizenstat got involved in the process of seeking restitution for Holocaust survivors is the subject of his fascinating book. These were tough bargaining sessions with Swiss bankers, German industrial leaders, Austrian and French leaders, to say nothing of a room full of class action lawyers.
The goal was not really to put a price on evils committed in the Holocaust era but to cause the countries that participated in this most heinous of human crimes to acknowledge their role and, as Eizenstat writes, "to establish the principle of accountability for violences of human rights. . ."
Eizenstat records in remarkable detail the machinations required to come to agreements on how, if at all, the governments and businesses of the countries involved were going to offer some measure of restitution to people who had been used as slave labor, people whose property, including valuable art, had been stolen, people who had deposited money in secret accounts for their children, if they survived, only to have the banks deny the accounts ever existed.
At any rate, I find it reassuring that our government has continued through the Bush and Obama administrations the work begun in the Clinton administration to bring a measure of justice to this area, however imperfect that justice is. And perhaps if the State Department knows that people are watching what it does in this area, it will press harder for compliance with the agreements that the Eizenstat team was able to put together.
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AND NOW FOR SOMETHING COMPLETELY DIFFERENT
When we think about that Taliban-like Florida pastor who made a big splash by threatening to burn the Qur'an on the anniversary of 9/11, I hope we also think about the gazillion members of the clergy who try to do things right. My friend Bob Welch, a columnist at the Register-Guard in Eugene, Ore., devoted his column the other day to just such a member of the clergy. These are the kind of people who deserve press coverage, not the knaves selling hate.
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THE BOOK CORNER
The God Strategy: How Religion Became a Political Weapon in America, by David Domke and Kevin Coe. This just-released updated edition of the 2008 book comes at a good time -- when we're slogging through mid-term election season. The authors remind us that politicians have long used religion as a political device and we need to keep that in perspective. On the other hand, the more modern use of religion as a drawing card in politics, they write, began with Ronald Reagan (after a bit of it from Jimmy Carter) and then was picked up by Bill Clinton and many others since then. Is there a place in politics for religion. Well, yes and no. Clearly the values religions teach help to shape and define the work of politicians. And clearly it's helpful to know how a candidate's religious beliefs might affect public policy. But we all should reject the blatant attempt to pretend that one's own political views are the same as God's political views. To do that, however, one needs to know how politicians are using religion to appeal to voters. That's what this book helps us understand, and it's an important addition to our political process.
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P.S.: For my conversation with Vern Barnet that he wrote about in his Kansas City Star column today, look under the "Check this out" headline on the right side of this page. There's more there than was in Vern's column.