Nashvillian Fred Westfield, a former Vanderbilt professor, is about to be compensated by the Boston Museum of Fine Arts for a valuable painting stolen from his uncle by the Nazis during the Holocaust. Westfield’s uncle, the Jewish art dealer Walter Westfeld, died at Auschwitz.
According to the artlyst.com/London Art Network website, BMFA purchased the painting in question in good faith, but the museum has nonetheless agreed to pay restitution to the surviving Westfields. The amount of compensation was not disclosed but could be substantial. Artprice.com valued a similar painting by the same artist, Eglon van der Neer, as high as $428,000.
According to The Vanderbilt Hustler the Westfield family attempted to sue Germany in 2008. Walter Westfeld’s art collection included works by El Greco and Rubens so there are obviously considerable sums of money at stake.
Being an editor and publisher of Holocaust poetry, I am well aware that the Nazis used racist lies, Jim Crow-like laws and kangaroo courts to rob millions of Jews of their land, homes and property. Even worse, they were deprived of their freedom, hopes, dreams, aspirations — and all too often their lives. Those of us who believe in justice understand why Germany has paid billions of dollars in reparations over the years. But I think the question of whether Americans should pay reparations for art stolen more than half a century ago by Germans brings up another important question: What about reparations for Palestinians?
Do we believe in justice for everyone, or only for the “chosen few” (i.e., self-nominated Jews and Christians)? Obviously it was wrong for Nazis to steal the land, homes and property of Jews. But what about the land, homes and property Israeli Jews have stolen from Palestinians since 1948, and continue to steal to this day? Is a piece of Jewish art somehow more important than the land Palestinian farmers depend upon to feed their families? Why should Jewish professors receive windfalls while Palestinian women and children can’t even eat dirt because it’s been stolen from beneath their feet?
Before 1948, Israeli Jews owned roughly 7 percent of the land of Palestine. Today they “own” about 80 percent of the land without having compensated anyone for it, because they took it by force, and they now control most of the remaining 20 percent via a brutal, repressive military occupation of the West Bank. On a daily basis, Israel goes about the slow process of gobbling up Palestinian land — a housing lot here, a few acres of farmland there. Over the course of time, that theft adds up to “free” treasure for Israeli robber barons, but it also adds up to abject misery for Palestinians and unwinnable wars and massive debt for the American public, since the men who masterminded 9-11 said their main reason for attacking was the suffering of Palestinians at the hands of Israel and the U.S., its patron.
Israel is the only “civilized” nation that regularly demolishes the houses of people based on their ethnicity, then refuses to grant them building permits, in effect cleansing them from their native land. This grotesquely unjust system has nothing to do with Israel’s “security” or “defense” and everything to do with acquiring more “living space” for the “superior” race. In Hitler's Mein Kampf, he claimed that the “superior” German people needed Lebensraum ("living space") that was to be taken by force from “inferior” people. The Nazis went on to ethnically cleanse, enslave and kill Jews, Gypsies, Poles, Russians and other Slavs. Incredibly, unthinkably, Israel has chosen to copy Hitler’s methods — using military power to steal land, homes and property from “inferior” people, while employing a gigantic propaganda machine to assure gullible people that the whole sordid operation is somehow “kosher.” Granted, Israel’s walled ghettoes and concentration camps lack gas chambers and ovens, but what about the quality of life inside those terrible walls for innocent women and children?
How can “justice” that is so one-sided, so blind and so cruel be called “justice”? If Jews and Christians truly believed in justice, surely they would put down their Bibles and join the great march for equal rights, freedom and justice for everyone — and not just the “chosen few.”
Michael R. Burch is a Nashville-based editor and publisher of Holocaust poetry and other “things literary” at www.thehypertexts.com.