Palestinian victims of the 1948 Nakba could benefit from a landmark legal ruling by a French court which ordered a painting to be returned to the family of the Jewish art collector from whom it was looted during the Second World War. The decision follows numerous legal disputes over property looted from Jews by the Nazis which were later sold on to unsuspecting new owners. Of the estimated 650,000 art pieces stolen during the war, about 100,000 have yet to be returned, according to some experts.
Hailing the French court decision, lawyer Cedric Fischer, who acted for the Jewish family in question, said that the ruling "gives victims of the savagery committed by the Vichy government the right to recover their looted possessions, without a time limit."
The painting, by Impressionist master Camille Pissarro, is said to be worth several million pounds. Originally belonging to Simon Bauer, his grandson Jean-Jacques Bauer, 87, says that it was included in an official French list of looted artworks during the Vichy period of the Nazi occupation.
Campaigners for Palestinian rights, meanwhile, say that the decision has set a precedent which should now apply equally to victims of the Nakba, the ethnic cleansing of Palestine by Zionist militias and the nascent Israeli state. Mick Napier, a co-founder of Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign and representatives of three major organisations in Scotland issued a joint statement on the issue: "We welcome the recent widely reported decision of the Paris court ordering those currently in possession of a valuable painting that was looted in 1943 from its rightful owners by the French Vichy regime to return the property to the Bauer family."
Richard Haley of Scotland Against Criminalising Communities, Khaled Khalil of the Association of Palestinian Communities in Scotland and Wael Shawwish, Scottish Friends of Palestine, as well as Napier, are now calling for similar restitution for Palestinian victims of the Nakba. "The Paris court ruled that a plea that pillaged property was obtained in good faith is no defence against claims by family descendants of the original owners because the French government after 1945 ruled that onward sales of all goods looted from Jews by the wartime pro-Nazi regime were null and void."
They pointed out that many Palestinian families have an equally unanswerable case for the restitution of property seized from them in 1948, five years after the looting of the Bauer family's artwork. "The UN General Assembly annually 'Re-affirms that Palestine refugees are entitled to their property and to the income derived therefrom, in conformity with the principles of equity and justice'. No less than the Bauers, Palestinians claim the status of 'victims of acts of barbarity' committed in their case by the State of Israel and its precursor militias."
Napier now wants to launch legal challenges in jurisdictions around the world on behalf of Palestinians who lost property, art works and other valuables during the Nakba. "Every French citizen knows of the German Army's 1944 slaughter of 642 men, women and children and the burning down of the village of Oradour-sur-Glane," explained the veteran human rights campaigner. "The Palestinians have many Oradours, massacres of defenceless civilians by an armed force. One future Prime Minister of Israel carried out a third of an 'Oradour' in Deir Yassin in 1948, according to UN investigations. And another future Prime Minister organised the equivalent of three Oradours in a few days in Sabra and Shatilla Palestinian refugee camps in 1982. What's more, the Israeli army carried out more than two Oradours in January 2009, almost four in summer 2014, and many others between 1948 and the present."
The Vichy regime was the anti-Semitic government which collaborated with the Nazis during the Second World War. It was complicit in the seizure of 93 paintings belonging to Simon Bauer. The businessman, who made his wealth from the manufacture of shoes, narrowly escaped death when a train drivers' strike stopped him from being sent to a concentration camp. He recovered a few of his paintings after the war but La Cueillette, which Pissarro painted in 1887, remained missing. This month's ruling now paves the way for the Bauer family to retrieve La Cueillette, which during the court case was kept locked up by the Musee d'Orsay.
While Palestinians are not regarded as equals with Jews in Israeli courts, they are in many other jurisdictions around the world and will have legitimate claims for their property to be returned, insists Napier. "I want to support the struggles of the Palestinians to secure the same rights as the Bauer family." Any Palestinians who think they may have a claim, regardless of where they are now living in the world, should contact him by email at [email protected] outlining the details.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.