Is Holocaust Rail Bill Protectionism?

AUGUST 26, 2010

By KATY GRIMES

Legislators want to require companies competing for contracts to build California’s new high-speed rail system, to disclose involvement in deportations to concentration camps during World War II, as well as disclose any restitution made to survivors.

What started out as an Assembly bill dealing with transportation department delays in 2009, was eventually completely gutted and amended by the Senate, requiring companies participating in the bidding process for high-speed rail, to disclose involvement in the transportation of people to concentration camps.

Called “The Holocaust Survivor Responsibility Act,” and authored by Assemblyman Bob Blumenfield, D–San Fernando Valley, Blumenfield’s Assembly Web site reports, “AB619, would require companies seeking to be awarded high-speed rail contracts to publicly disclose whether they had a direct role in transporting persons to concentration camps, and provide a description of any remedial action or restitution they have made to survivors, or families of victims. The bill requires the High Speed Rail Authority to include a company’s disclosure as part of the contract award process.”

Blumenfield has said, “In awarding contracts for the largest public works project in California history, we should look at the entire history and experience of companies vying for our tax dollars. Any company that has failed to take responsibility for its participation in mass genocide should be made to disclose this fact before being considered for these lucrative contracts,” said Blumenfield, and that he hoped it would encourage companies to acknowledge past wrongdoing.

Assemblyman Chris Norby, R-Fullerton, voiced his opposition to the bill even though he said he was “torn by it.” “We cannot lay down the burdens of the past on high-speed rail,” said Norby. He said the bill was clearly targeted at a French railroad company, which had already acknowledged and apologized for involvement in the holocaust.

Supportive of the bill, Assemblywoman Bonnie Lowenthal, D-Long Beach, said that it was largely symbolic. “We take many actions that are symbolic representing Californians. It is symbolic, but we need to move forward by reconciliation and action,” said Lowenthal. “The French railroad carried people to their deaths.”

“Are you going to include the Vietnam War and Pol Pot, or World War ll and the Kaiser, or Stalin? How far back are we going to go?” asked Assemblyman Dan Logue, R-Linda. “And why just World War II atrocities?”

Blumenfield said that Holocaust survivors approached him, and that the bill was for the purpose of “trying to get the French company to take responsibility for its actions.”

Assemblyman Chuck DeVore, R-Irvine, offered his support for the bill, but gave a history lesson to explain the support. “If any of the French railroad employees had refused their orders, they would have been shot or shipped to a concentration camp.”

DeVore said that the French word “sabotage” actually originated during World War II because the French railroad workers deliberately sabotaged their own rail system to slow down the deportation of Jews to concentration camps.

“The fact is, the company supports the decision,” said DeVore, referring to the French railroad. DeVore expressed his support for the bill “because we are dealing with government contracts. But completing the historical record makes it a worthy effort.” DeVore added that he does not support high-speed rail.

The Independent UK reported that in 2000, the French railroad commissioned and released a study of its wartime operations, which included providing trains, personnel and logistics to the Nazis. But the study concluded that because French railroad was taken over by the Nazis during the German occupation, railway workers were acting under duress when they transported people to concentration camps.

Blumenfield disputes the duress claim, saying the company should pay restitution to survivors.

Many victims of Nazi Germany and Vichy France have sued the French national railroad, claiming it profited by delivering more than 72,000 Jews and others to German death camps. One report states that there are at least 200 new lawsuits against the French railroad for their role in the Holocaust.

Senate staff analysis states that there would be additional workload created by the bill’s requirements for the High Speed Rail Authority exceeding $50,000, and that Japanese and European firms with high-speed rail experience will be affected by the bill’s disclosure requirements.

Notably, Senate staff analysis said, “Although the discussion around AB619 has focused on Europe, this bill applies to all firms, including participants in partnerships, consortium or other business relationships, who may submit bids for contracts with HSRA. It, therefore, applies to the Asian-Pacific Theatre of WW II.”

The bill was amended to remove language that would have allowed a company to be disqualified from bidding on a contract, and even authorized civil penalties. That language was replaced with “require(s) the authority to acknowledge and note the importance of complying with this certification, as provided.”

Critics of the bill call it “special interest driven.” One Capitol insider said, “The Holocaust was horrific, but it was 60 years ago. No one currently at the French railroad agency was responsible for the decisions to transport people to concentration camps — three generations ago, maybe, but not today.” Because of the sensitivity of the Holocaust, and fear of being called bigoted, those critical of the bill did not want their names used in the story.

The bill’s supporters, as stated in Senate analysis, comes from the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, Jewish Family Services of Los Angeles, “30 Years After,” and the Bet Tzedek The House of Justice.

The California Chamber of Commerce wrote an opposition to the bill stating, “The bill places the High Speed Rail Authority in the position of having to take into consideration the role a company played in the Holocaust. It is our belief that this has protectionist effects.”

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