Israel's Culture of Martyrdom | The Nation


Israel's Culture of Martyrdom

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Zertal's preference for the unofficial version of Kastner's assassination is not incidental. This version reinforces the link she makes between the Kastner trial and the extraordinary trial that followed it, that of Adolf Eichmann, whose capture by Israeli agents in Argentina Ben-Gurion announced in the Knesset in May 1960. According to Zertal, there were several motives behind Ben-Gurion's decision to bring Eichmann to trial in Israel. The first and most immediate was to correct the impression left by the Gruenwald-Kastner trial, namely that the Jewish leadership in Palestine failed to undertake any serious rescue efforts on behalf of their European brethren during the Holocaust. Second, in spite of his initial discomfort with the subject and his insensitivity toward survivors, Ben-Gurion sought to turn the Holocaust into the central pillar of Israeli identity and to use it as the main basis upon which to legitimize the Zionist project. Third, the Eichmann case could be used as a tool to equate Israel's Arab enemies with the Nazis. Fourth, the trial helped cast Israel as the representative and savior of world Jewry.

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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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The trial lasted from April to August of 1961. Eichmann was sentenced to death and executed in Ramleh Prison in May 1962. It was a show trial, not because the accused was innocent--Eichmann was responsible for staggering crimes against humanity--but because the trial was a grand attempt to shape Jewish and Holocaust history and memory by a single man, Ben-Gurion, and because it had far less to do with the task of proving Eichmann's guilt. (Ben-Gurion went to great lengths to keep post-Holocaust Germany--the "New Germany," as he called it--and the West German leadership out of the trial, so as not to embarrass Israel's new military and economic ally, West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer.) The entire narrative was set in motion from the very first statement made by Attorney General Gideon Hausner:

When I stand before you here, judges of Israel, to lead the prosecution of Adolf Eichmann, I am not standing alone. With me are 6 million accusers. But they cannot rise to their feet and point an accusing finger toward him who sits in the dock and cry: "I accuse." For their ashes are piled up on the hills of Auschwitz and the fields of Treblinka, and are strewn in the forests of Poland. Their graves are scattered throughout the length and breadth of Europe. Their blood cries out, but their voice is not heard. Therefore I will be their spokesman and in their name I will unfold this awesome indictment.

Over four months, day after day, witnesses recounted the horrors of the death camps, the heroism of Jewish partisans and soldiers who fought the Nazis, especially the hopeless uprising in the Warsaw Ghetto. As Zertal observes, the Jewish resistance was presented as having been organized and led solely by Zionist movements and their leaders, while the role of the Bundists, Beitarists and Communists was either downplayed or ignored. Marek Edelman, one of the heroes of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and the deputy commander of the uprising under Mordechai Anielewicz, was not even mentioned. Edelman, who represented the Jewish Socialist Party (Bund), opposed Anielewicz's decision to commit suicide (accompanied with the murder of one's relatives). After the war, Edelman rejected the very idea that one could draw "lessons" from the Holocaust, as well as the notion that Zionism provided the "answer" to the Jewish question. He remained in Poland and achieved fame as a leading cardiologist and a key figure in the Solidarity labor movement of the 1980s. In 1946 he published one of the first accounts of the ghetto uprising, The Ghetto Fights, in Polish, Yiddish and English. The book was translated into Hebrew only in 2001.

The Eichmann trial received extraordinary attention in Israel, where much of it was broadcast live on state radio (the country's only radio station at the time), which functioned, in the words of media expert Elihu Katz, as Israel's "tribal campfire." The state radio supplemented its live broadcasts with follow-ups and daily and weekly summaries and comments. For most of Israel's Jewish population, the trial provided a rite of passage, imbuing them with the sense that they were all, in a way, Holocaust survivors and that another Holocaust might be imminent. Had it not been for the Eichmann trial, Zertal suggests, Israelis might not have seen the 1967 war as an "existential threat" of Holocaust proportions but as a secular war over disputed land.

The trial also attracted considerable attention abroad. Hundreds of foreign reporters descended on Jerusalem to cover the remarkable story. (Adding to the drama--and raising questions about the trial's legality--was the fact that the accused had been kidnapped in Argentina by the Israeli secret service, and that the Israeli law was invoked retroactively.) Among these reporters the best-known was the political philosopher Hannah Arendt, who had recently achieved fame for her 1951 tome The Origins of Totalitarianism. A German Jew who had studied under Heidegger (with whom she had a brief affair), Arendt had a long, troubled relationship with the Jewish state. In her early 20s she was a Zionist. In the 1940s, as she became a critic of any form of nationalism, she drew close to the tiny Brit Shalom movement, which espoused an Arab-Jewish binational state in Palestine. In 1945 she published an article titled "Zionism Reconsidered"--which forecast most of the wrongdoings of Zionism while still demonstrating a deep emotional and intellectual concern for the future of Israel and its people.

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