LAST FALL, the top executives of the Israeli and French national railways signed a wide-ranging accord, deepening their long-term partnership and committing the French to help the Israelis nearly double their rail passenger capacity by 2020. The partnership between Israeli Railways and SNCF, the French railway, dates back to 2000 and has not been the subject of controversy in Israel.
That fact seems to have been lost on lawmakers in Annapolis, who for the second time in three years have embarked on a showy bit of posturing aimed at an offshoot of SNCF, Keolis North America, which is bidding on a major rail contract in Maryland. The ostensible reason: SNCF’s undeniable complicity during World War II in transporting more than 75,000 Jews from France to Germany, where almost all were killed.
Why Maryland lawmakers are more affronted than the Jewish state by SNCF’s Holocaust history is baffling. They want to require SNCF to compensate those Holocaust victims in the United States, and their families, whom the rail company transported. Whatever the reasons, the legislation is self-defeating, and it very probably contravenes federal law. It could subvert Maryland’s chance to secure federal funds needed to build the $2.4 billion light rail Purple Line connecting Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.
SNCF and the French government, which owns it, apologized years ago for the railway’s role in deporting French Jews, and the government has paid more than $1 billion in reparations to victims and their families who were transported on SNCF trains. Nonetheless, those reparations did not extend to the small number of victims and their families in the United States — a couple of hundred perhaps — and that has driven the lawmakers in Annapolis to a state of high dudgeon.
As it happens, French and U.S. diplomats have been working on a solution that would provide reparations to American victims. That’s a sensible approach. Meanwhile, other states have gone ahead with major contracts for rail projects with Keolis, the SNCF offshoot; in January, Massachusetts finalized a $2.7 billion deal with the firm.
Keolis is one of four consortiums bidding to build the Purple Line, which will be dead in the water if it does not secure a $900 million federal grant. Last week a top lawyer with the agency that would award that grant, the Federal Transit Administration, warned Maryland officials that prospects for the federal funding, which would cover more than a third the project’s cost, would be endangered by the legislation. As the lawyer, Deputy Chief Counsel Dana Nifosi, explained, federal rules forbid bidding rules that include “exclusionary or discriminatory” rules like the one targeting SNCF.
Now Maryland lawmakers are backpedaling, acknowledging that torpedoing the Purple Line is not a price they are willing to pay for what was largely a symbolic stance against the French railway. Having postured their way into jeopardizing one of the state’s most important infrastructure projects, it’s time for lawmakers to stand down. The question of reparations properly remains in the realm of diplomacy, not in the legislative corridors in Annapolis.