There's scarcely an issue in international affairs this year more likely to induce a feeling of moral superiority in Americans than that of the dormant Jewish accounts in Swiss banks. The general impression here -- I would venture to say it's one held by a very high percentage of the public -- is that Swiss bankers ruthlessly filched the deposits of Jews, even as the latter were being transported to concentration camps and murdered by the Nazis. Then, after the war, these same bankers supposedly concealed the deposits from relatives of the dead.

Earlier this month, the Volcker commission -- named for the former chairman of the Federal Reserve -- published its findings on what exactly was in those dormant accounts of the victims of Nazi persecution. It's an imposing document -- some 300-plus double-column, folio-sized pages -- and its actual conclusions stand in truly amazing contrast to the reports -- if such a word can properly be used to describe the shoddy coverage -- that have appeared in many of our national newspapers.

Here's what the Volcker report says, summing up an investigation that lasted about four years, and cost no less than $500 million: "For victims of Nazi persecution, there was no evidence of systematic discrimination, obstruction of access, misappropriation, or violation of document retention requirements of Swiss law." The report also finds that although they weren't able to track down all the records from the period (1933-45) that they investigated, "no evidence of systematic destruction of account records for the purpose of concealing past behavior has been found." In fact, it concludes that the percentage of records they did find (60 percent) was "truly remarkable, especially when one considers that Swiss law does not require business records to be kept more than ten years."

The Volcker Commission did find that the Swiss banks were less than straightforward and forthright in reporting the number of dormant accounts of Holocaust victims. In large part, the Commission attributes this undercounting to technical factors. However, there are a number of points that need to be highlighted.

As far as one can tell, the total in the dormant Swiss accounts for Holocaust victims to survivors could eventually come to as much as $500 million. This is much more than the $32 million acknowledged by the Swiss banks in 1995, but it falls staggeringly short of the $7 to $20 billion claimed by Edgar Bronfman -- head of the World Jewish Congress -- and the lawyers involved in class action suits.

Far more astonishing is the fact that as much in transferable Jewish assets from Nazi-occupied Europe was sent to the United States during the war as went to Switzerland. The Volcker report mentions this several times. For example, on page 2: "The anticipation of war and economic distress, as well as the persecution of Jews and other minorities by the Nazis prior to and during World War II caused many people, including the victims of this persecution, to move their assets to countries deemed to provide safe havens, importantly including the United States and the United Kingdom, despite increasingly tight currency exchange restrictions. In view of neutral Switzerland's borders with Axis and Axis-occupied countries, Swiss banks and other Swiss financial intermediaries were also recipients of a portion of the assets in search of safety."

So where is the hue and cry after U.S. bankers? (Even though the UK gets a mention as a haven, it ranked a low third, after the U.S. and Switzerland.)

It turns out that the American Jewish Committee, in search of dormant Jewish accounts, did do a very superficial and rudimentary audit of only New York banks in the 1950s, and on the basis of this audit, the AJC proposed that $6 million in heirless accounts was owing to Jewish organizations entitled to take custody of the money. In the end, the U.S. government coughed up $500,000. As one honorable individual involved in this audit, Seymour J. Rubin put it to the House Banking Committee in 1997, this "mere $500,000 stood in contrast to the $32 million acknowledged by the Swiss banks even prior to the Volcker inquiry."

In other words, the U.S. record is much worse than that of the Swiss. No intimation of this fact appears in press accounts of the Volcker Commission' s report, or indeed of the whole Swiss bank controversy.

To end on a positive note: The class action settlement for $1.25 billion, which was forced on the Swiss before the Volcker Commission published its findings, includes several categories which are eligible for the compensation money. First, those who held accounts in the Swiss banks. This ruling would also apply to an American settlement. Two, the settlement refers to what it calls "the refugee class" which consists of those fleeing Nazi persecution who were denied entry into Switzerland. Yet, Jews fleeing Nazi Germany who were denied entry into the U.S. (for example those on the St. Louis turned away from these shores before the war) have never been held eligible for compensation.

Finally, the last main class consists of those who performed any slave labor of benefit to the Swiss. Indeed, during the hearings on the Hill, our senators and congressmen kept stating in defense of these demands on the Swiss that there is no statute of limitations on justice. Stuart Eizenstat -- the chief Clinton administration negotiator -- called on the Swiss to pony up yet another $4.6 billion with these words: "It will be an important litmus test of this generation's willingness to face the past and to rectify the wrongs of the past." These worthy sentiments are nowhere to be heard -- unless they are being actively ridiculed -- when it comes to compensation to African Americans for slavery.

Alexander Cockburn is a columnist for The Nation and author of a syndicated column, essays and books. The Times Literary Supplement called him “the most gifted polemicist now writing in English.” To find out more about Alexander Cockburn and read features by other columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at COPYRIGHT 2000 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.