50 years later, Eichmann trial seen as Israel turning point
Fifty years ago this month, Israel seemed to grind to a halt as people huddled around radios, listening to testimony in the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann.
Captured by Israeli secret service agents in Argentina in 1960, Eichmann was tried, and eventually executed, as a chief architect of the Holocaust, in which 6 million European Jews were killed.
The trial became a social and political turning point for the young nation. Even Eichmann’s iconic glass witness booth has been preserved in an Israeli museum.
Israeli author Tom Segev, author of “The Seventh Million,” explained how the Eichmann trial helped the Jews of Israel confront a dark past and forge a national identity that dominates the country’s actions and attitudes today.
Fifty years later, what’s the most important legacy of the trial?
Until the beginning of the trial, the Holocaust was almost taboo in Israel. Parents wouldn’t talk to children about it. Children wouldn’t dare ask. With the trial, Israeli society began to cope with the Holocaust, and the Holocaust became what it is today: a very central element of Israeli society.
At the time, a quarter of Israelis were Holocaust survivors. It’s surprising that there was such a reluctance to confront the issue. Survivors even complain that they encountered some subtle resentment.
The society as a whole had many difficulties with it. There was guilt and shame on both sides. Israelis would look down upon survivors and think, “Why didn’t you defend yourselves?” Survivors would look at Israelis and say, “Why didn’t you do more to save us?”
In everyday life, how do you live with someone who has a blue number on their arm? What do you say to them? It’s difficult to live with that trauma. So everyone agreed to not talk about it.
How did the trial change that?
For the first time, survivors were told: We need your evidence, your memories. The country needs you for this trial. In Cabinet meeting minutes three or four days after Eichmann’s capture, [Prime Minister] David Ben-Gurion talks about the need to bring the Holocaust closer to the new Israeli generation, which knows nothing about the Holocaust. Most of the meeting dealt with PR.... All the details are related to selling two ideas: A, this is a sovereign country with a right to judge the criminal who hurt our citizens. And B, that Israel represents the Holocaust victims. Israel may not represent the entire Jewish people. This would be too sensitive, especially vis-a-vis Jews in America. But it does represent the 6 million victims.
So in a sense Israel was taking “ownership” of the Holocaust?
It took a monopoly on the Holocaust, which means the world owes us something. This is what it was really about. The trial formulated Israel’s official attitude to the Holocaust, which is still relevant today. The attitude says the establishment of Israel is the only response to the persecution of the Jews. In this way, the Holocaust is used as the ultimate proof of Zionist ideology: Israel as an answer to the Holocaust, and never again.... Basically the Eichmann trial says: This is our story.
Is there a risk or downside in that kind of identification?
There is a great risk. Memory is a political issue. Israel has to decide. Do I say that the lessons of the Holocaust are: Never again, Israel must be strong, Arabs are the new Nazis and Israel can never violate human rights because we are the victims? Or do you say: The Holocaust commands us to fight racism, defend democracy and defend human rights? You find both ideas in Israel today. But I think the first, the nationalist aspect, is stronger. Racism in Israel is much more part of the consensus. As far as I’m concerned, we have not drawn the right lessons from the Holocaust, and it started with the Eichmann trial.
You’ve argued that Israel’s engagement in the 1967 Mideast War was shaped by the trial.
There is a clear link. Because the trial, just a few years earlier, opened the Holocaust and made it part of the identity of so many Israelis, many genuinely feared a second Holocaust in 1967. [Egyptian President Gamal Abdel] Nasser said he was going to destroy Israel and Israelis believed it. So it was out of fear and weakness that Israel decided to take action against Egypt.
Didn’t Ben-Gurion also view the trial as a way to foster national unity in Israel, particularly at a time when the young nation was coping with fragmentation?
Ben-Gurion said he didn’t even care about the punishment. He cared about the trial. He could have just ordered the Israeli secret service to shoot Eichmann in a dark alley. But he said, “I want the trial.” The major task for Ben-Gurion was nation-building and it wasn’t working so well. Here was a nation of people from 100 different countries, speaking 100 different languages. There were problems with religious and nonreligious. There was social violence. Also, Ben-Gurion was just beginning to lead Israel toward reconciliation with Germany. It was an extremely sensitive issue. He needed to show that he was not indifferent to the Holocaust by bringing this criminal to justice.
Since Eichmann, Israel has not put anyone else to death. Why?
There was a feeling that the death penalty should only be applied for a major Nazi criminal. Legally, we could also put terrorists to death, but we never have.
You find some Israelis today who bristle at the suggestion that, as you said, the foundation of Israel was the answer or outcome of the Holocaust. Why?
If Israel was created as a result of the Holocaust, which by the way, it says in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, then Arabs might have a case to say, “Why are we paying the price?” The whole existence of Israel would become rather coincidental.
If the trial served as a kind of national healing and catharsis, why do Holocaust survivors still complain that Israel has failed to provide them with adequate social and financial support? You find survivors in homeless shelters and at soup kitchens.
Prior to Eichmann, Holocaust survivors were kind of an interest group. But after the Holocaust became a national issue, survivors as a group become much weaker. Everyone owns the issue, so the voice of the survivors is weaker. The Israeli Finance Ministry is just waiting for them to die. It’s appalling.
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