Thursday 4 February 2010

No-Questions-Asked-Antique-Torah Seller has Questions to Answer

A while back I wrote a post here about a story about the apparently dodgy origins of a Torah scroll in the New York Central Synagogue in Lexington Avenue allegedly coming from Poland (see here and here for the background of this post). To recap, the finder claims the object concerned was dug up in a place where a permit would have been needed to dig, and no such permit was sought or issued, and the finder would have needed an export licence to take out of the countr and no such licence seems to have been sought or issued. Now I see from Peter Tompa's blog that two Washington Post journalists also thought this story was fishy and looked into it in more detail than was able to at the time. They have recently published an article detailing their findings ( Washington Post article). This is ironic as it was Tompa who was criticising me not so long ago for opposing the reported removal of the Iraq scroll by the Save a Torah Foundation (which is a 501(c)3 tax exempt organization with its base of operations in the Washington, DC metropolitan area).

The Washington Post article treats the subject carefully and falls short of accusing the Foundation's members of fraud, though other commentators have not been so careful:

James Fanelli in the New York Post: Torah trouble for 'Rabbi Indiana Jones' (“A Baltimore rabbi could be turning a false profit”);
Ben Harris Is the Holocaust Torah rabbi a fraud?

There is obviously big money involved in peddling Jewish memoribilia - the black and not so black markets in central Europe are full of it, much of it fake - and Youlos is one of a number of merchants selling the stuff. What however is so characteristic here is the way that buyers have been parting with cash without asking the right questions about their origins. Like those ones Youlos admits "smuggling out of the [source] country in false bottomed suitcases", or under hs coat. By what RIGHT do the people who buy this stuff knowing the manner in which it was removed (because it is part of the sales patter) imagine they have to buy it? We are talking about illegally exported cultural property. The dealers' lobbyists have a whole set of arguments to justify their claim they have more "right" to keep in their homeland illegally exported cultural property than those from whose territory they were surreptitiously removed. Nevertheless the bottom line is illegal IS illegal. Whether or not the scroll in question in New York's Central Synagogue actually came from Auschwitz is debatable, what is not debatable is that the object seems to have been bought and presented to the congregation without anyone asking for proof that the items ad been legally acquired. That is what is so disturbing here. If they were stung, then (frankly) I am of the opinion that it serves them right.

Meanwhile the Save a Torah website carries this front page "Rabbi Youlus has been performing an enormous service for the Jewish community in rescuing Torahs that have survived the Holocaust and restoring them for use in Jewish communities around the world. We request that the public not be misled by innuendo in one published report, and reserve judgment until after Rabbi Youlus is given a fair opportunity to respond. Save A Torah is turning to independent experts in the field to verify the origin of donated Torahs". It is a shame that the scrolls in question seem to have (all?) been sold without any means of the buyers verifying for themselves their origins. But such is the nature of the no-questions asked market in cultural objects. The independent experts could ask of course to see the export licences as a first step to determining the origin of the Torahs the foundation has sold since 2004.

UPDATE 4/2/12
Martha Wexler and Jeff Lunden, "Maryland Rabbi Pleads Guilty to Fraud in Torah Scheme", Washington Post, February 3, 2012.
Appearing before Judge Colleen McMahon, Youlus said that “between 2004 and 2010, I falsely represented that I personally obtained vintage Torah scrolls from Europe and Israel,” including sacred fragments in a metal box buried in Auschwitz. He admitted to defrauding more than 50 victims — many in the Washington area, including private equity billionaire David Rubenstein. “I knew what I did was wrong and I deeply regret my conduct,” the frail-looking Orthodox rabbi said in a quiet voice. [...] Preet Bharara, U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, said in a statement that the guilty plea is “a fitting conclusion to his story, and he will now be punished for his brazen fraud.” Each of the two counts carries a maximum of 20 years, although sentencing guidelines call for between four and five years for each. McMahon scheduled sentencing for June 21. Youlus will also be required to pay restitution to his victims. He admitted to defrauding the charity and its donors of more than $862,000. Prosecutors said he used donations for personal expenses and investments.

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