In what may be his last appearance at a Jewish event as a United States senator, Alfonse D’Amato received an honor from the Knesset last week while praising the Holocaust survivors for whom he has attained wartime restitution.
“In the case of so many I spoke to, it was not a case of dollars and cents, it was a case of justice,” said D’Amato, speaking at the Manhattan offices of the World Jewish Congress Friday, where he was honored for his role in forcing Swiss Banks to settle the claims of Holocaust victims and their families.
“This was a question of some measure of justice, some acknowledgment that this horrific act had taken place; that not only did they lose their loved ones, but thereafter those they entrusted to guard their assets engaged in this giant conspiracy that went on for so long.
“Several hundred that I interviewed personally all had that same pained feeling.”
D’Amato, a Republican who has been New York’s junior senator for 18 years, was defeated last month by Democratic Rep. Charles Schumer of Brooklyn. He has made few public appearances since his defeat.
The hastily organized and poorly attended ceremony and press conference at the WJC’s Manhattan offices was arranged to confer on D’Amato the Knesset’s Conscience and Courage Award, presented by Member of Knesset Abraham Hirschson of the Likud party and WJC executive director Elan Steinberg.
D’Amato, chair of the Senate Banking Committee, had been invited to receive the award in Jerusalem, alongside fellow recipients Alan Hevesi, New York City’s comptroller; WJC President Edgar Bronfman; and U.S. Undersecretary of State Stuart Eizenstat. D’Amato was vacationing in Puerto Rico during the ceremony and, according to his office, was advised by a doctor not to travel to Israel.
“If Al D’Amato couldn’t come to the Knesset, we brought the Knesset to Al D’Amato,” said Steinberg. “The Swiss banks settlement, and in general the issue of Holocaust asset restitution, could not have been done without Sen. D’Amato.”
Along with Steinberg and Hirschson, the ceremony included Neil Levin, superintendent of the New York State Department of Insurance, and Holocaust survivors Kalman Sultanik, vice president of the WJC and Sam Bloch of the American Gathering of Holocaust Survivors.
“Your efforts to restitute some of our possessions went a long way to revive the memory, to bring about the commitment of the community to remember,” said Bloch.
The senator seemed relaxed, but somewhat downbeat during the ceremony, a rather different image than that often seen during his campaigns, in which he lashed out at Schumer for missing congressional sessions and for responses to Jewish issues he deemed insufficient. In fact, despite the efforts of the Swiss government to pressure Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu against honoring D’Amato, he extended an olive branch rather than a sword.
“This was never against the Swiss people,” D’mato said in a response to a question. “There are those politicians who will use this to stir up emotions, to say this was aimed against them, but that happens not to be the case. I think now we can get to the process of healing and going forward, and I think that is taking place more than those who are seeking recriminations.”
D’Amato also declined to criticize Jewish voters, only 23 percent of whom supported him in November, as opposed to 41 percent in his last race in 1992. Asked if he felt the Jewish community was grateful enough for his efforts, D’Amato said he hadn’t thought about it.
“When you undertake a battle to obtain justice you don’t undertake it because you’re seeking favor or disfavor with one group or another,” said D’Amato, who produced a campaign commercial featuring the endorsement of one Swiss bank plaintiff and Holocaust survivor, Estelle Sapir. “You do it because it’s the right thing. The assessment of how people feel about it or don’t feel about it, Jews or gentiles is irrelevant.”
D’Amato said he would continue to be available as a private citizen to help in continuing restitution efforts.
“I certainly have an abiding interest in seeing to it that this matter is closed,” he said.
D’Amato also said he was relishing having more time to spend with his family, and offered his first commentary on congressional impeachment proceedings against President Bill Clinton. He called the proceedings “a joke,” and suggested that congressional censure was more appropriate than impeachment, a view contrary to that of many of his fellow Senate Republicans. “I don’t think the president deserves a gold star for his conduct [but] most people say enough is enough. We’ve got important areas to deal with. This can’t result in anything good for our country.”
The senator also reserved his options for 2000, when Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan will retire, declining to rule out a comeback attempt.
Although D’Amato was less than cheerful, he seemed not to have lost his sense of humor.
When a reporter asked if he regretted any aspect of his recent campaign, he responded “Yeah, that I didn’t win,” before rising to leave the event.