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Israel's Culture of Martyrdom | The Nation

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Israel's Culture of Martyrdom

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In the 1954 Kastner affair, the carefully policed boundary between victim and perpetrator all but evaporated, upsetting the stability of Israel's entire political system. The controversy broke out after a 71-year-old Hungarian Jew, Malkiel Gruenwald, published a pamphlet in which he accused another Hungarian Jew, 48-year-old Dr. Rudolf Kastner, of collaborating with the Nazis in Hungary between 1944 and 1945. Kastner had assumed various leadership roles within the Jewish community in Hungary and Transylvania before and during the war, including the chairmanship of the "rescue committee" of Jews who escaped from countries occupied by Nazi Germany. After arriving in Palestine in 1946, he became a prominent member of Ben-Gurion's ruling Labor party (then known as Mapai) and was to be its candidate for the Knesset in the coming election. Kastner also occupied several influential positions, including spokesman of the Trade and Industry Ministry, director of broadcasting in Hungarian and Romanian, chief editor of Uj Kelet (a Hungarian daily) and chairman of the Organization of Hungarian Jewry in Israel.

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Baruch Kimmerling
Baruch Kimmerling, George S. Wise Professor of Sociology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is the author of two...

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According to Gruenwald, Kastner, in his capacity as a Jewish community leader in Hungary, had provided indispensable assistance to SS Lieutenant Col. Adolf Eichmann in the latter's efforts to ship a half-million Hungarian and Transylvanian Jews to the extermination camps. At the time Eichmann was head of the Gestapo department in charge of Jewish matters and population evacuation. Eichmann had been largely responsible for the deportation to the East of nearly 190,000 Austrian Jews from March 1938 onward. Eichmann had also participated in the January 1942 Wannsee conference, where the administrative and logistic details of the "final solution to the Jewish problem" were settled. He was not, it must be underscored, a policy-maker in the Third Reich, and his activities and decisions were mostly bureaucratic. Even his negotiations with the Jewish dignitaries and Nazi-appointed or self-appointed Judenräte were aimed at achieving a well-organized and well-run transportation process to the camps. His role, on arriving in Budapest in March 1944, was to send a half-million Hungarian Jews to their death as swiftly and efficiently as possible.

To accomplish this goal, Eichmann needed Jewish collaborators like Kastner, since he was understaffed, with an SS team of 150 men and only a few thousand Hungarian soldiers at his disposal. Eichmann knew that the Jews would not go voluntarily to the so-called resettlement areas at the behest of the Nazis or the Hungarian authorities. The only people they would trust were their own leaders. Here, Kastner played a major role. He and his staff had to make sure that the Jews were not informed of the real destination of the trains. Misled by Kastner and others like him, the Jews showed up dutifully at the trains in the belief that they were merely being resettled. Some even made efforts to get on the earlier trains in order to have a better choice of housing in the new settlements. In exchange for Kastner's help, Gruenwald alleged, the Nazis gave the gift of life in June 1944, organizing a special rescue train for him and 1,600 Jewish notables, including Kastner's relatives and friends.

Charged with slander by Israel's attorney general, Gruenwald hired the services of a young, able and highly motivated lawyer, Shmuel Tamir. Tamir had his own political agenda, as did Gruenwald and the judge presiding over the trial, Benjamin Halevi. All three men were veterans of the right-wing Lehi underground during the British colonial period and were vehement opponents of Ben-Gurion's government, which Kastner represented. During the trial, one of Israel's most dramatic ever, Tamir succeeded in turning the tables on his client's accuser, arguing that the Jewish leadership in Palestine had sabotaged a series of attempts to rescue Jews during the Holocaust. In his verdict, which cleared the accused of slander, Judge Halevi rejected most of Gruenwald's charges against the Jewish leadership (during Eichmann's trail, the judge would maintain a discreet silence about this painful issue), but he accepted the main one: that Kastner had collaborated with the Nazis and "sold his soul to the devil."

Following the Gruenwald verdict, an appeal was submitted to the High Court of Justice, but in March 1957 Kastner was assassinated. Three people were arrested, accused and sentenced for the murder, but even today the assassination is a matter of contention. The official version is that the assassins belonged to a tiny right-wing underground group inspired by the fringe right-wing zealot Israel (Sheib) Eldad. Zertal's account, however, is closer to the alternative version, advanced by extremist right- and left-wing groups, according to which Kaster was eliminated by the state security services because he proved too much of an embarrassment for the government. Posthumously, the High Court cleared Kastner of responsibility for any of the crimes of which Gruenwald accused him, except for that of false testimony on behalf of Nazi officer Kurt Becher at the Nuremberg trial.

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