The early 1960s was more than simply the revelry of TV’s “Mad Men.” It was also a time when international justice held court, and a certifiable madman found himself at the center of the world’s judgment.
In 1961, a young American president read James Bond novels, while high-stakes espionage dominated popular culture and fed global anxieties. Neighbors suspected one another of being double agents. Meanwhile, down in Argentina, Adolf Eichmann, the Nazi with the most Jewish blood on his hands, was one of those neighbors leading a double life. One day, while living in a suburb of Buenos Aires under an alias, Eichmann was spirited away from his street, drugged and dressed up as an El Al flight attendant and smuggled to Israel to stand trial. Suddenly, the CIA and the KGB had competition. The Mossad and Shin Bet, Israel’s secret intelligence agencies, instantly became the new rage in cloak-and-dagger.
For many, it was the world’s first exposure to Israel’s spy networks and crack commandos, long before Operation Entebbe and the Six Day War. But the Eichmann trial — its 50th anniversary is this month — did much more than give Israel its own credentials in covert operations: It endowed Israel with an altogether different national identity from the one it had so triumphantly achieved in 1948.
No longer was Israel merely a safe haven for Jews, a refuge where death camp survivors could return to life. It was now a Jewish state with a dramatically activist Holocaust agenda. In addition to the kibbutz movement with its bronzed sabras and blooming deserts, Israel — plucky and full of grit — suddenly played like a superpower when it came to bringing justice to the Jewish people. And it all started with the Eichmann trial, which showcased Israel’s justice system and the curious sight of a man standing trial in a bulletproof glass booth. Israel captured not only Eichmann but the world’s attention as the crimes of the Nazis were gruesomely recalled and telecast from an Israeli courtroom. The trial lasted 14 weeks and featured 100 prosecution witnesses, the vast majority of whom were concentration camp survivors. Depositions written in Eichmann’s defense were delivered by diplomatic couriers from 16 different countries, and more than 1,500 documents were entered into the record.
Indeed, it was perhaps the first time the world was willing to take an unvarnished look at the Holocaust. The Nuremberg tribunal had happened too soon; the survivors themselves were too traumatized to speak, or felt silenced; and “The Diary of Anne Frank,” whose English translation appeared in 1952, was too universal and life affirming. The Eichmann trial, 16 years after the liberation of the camps, was of the right moment, and it captured the right mood. And, perhaps most important, by holding the trial in Jerusalem with judges and prosecutors who were Jews, it localized the Holocaust as a particular Jewish tragedy and a crime against the Jewish people.
Eichmann was, unquestionably, the perfect defendant for this spectacle. After directing the transport of millions of Jews to their deaths, he managed to escape detection after the war, slipping past the Americans and living in Germany and Italy before finally decamping to Argentina, where he remained hidden for 10 years as Ricardo Klement, an unassuming water engineer and rabbit farmer. Now, he was the one transported to a Jerusalem courtroom — for judgment and to await his own death.
“Front page articles all over the world,” recalled Nobelist Elie Wiesel, whose Holocaust memoir, “Night,” was published in English months before Eichmann’s capture. “People were suddenly interested in the Holocaust, even before the word had any meaning. The world was actually beginning to speak about the murder of European Jewry and to listen to the testimony of survivors.”
The “never again” ethos that informs, if not inflames, Israel’s national character was made real with the trial. Along with its global achievements in science and agriculture, Israel exported an attitude of national toughness — avenging all crimes committed against its people. Nowhere could a fugitive from Jewish justice hide, not even tucked away in a suburb of Buenos Aires. The targeted assassinations of those responsible for the murders of Israel’s Olympic team members in Munich, a little over a decade after Eichmann’s execution, was no doubt a byproduct of the trial.
For Israel’s defenders, the country’s later global isolation as designated pariah at the United Nations gave the Eichmann trial further lasting significance: If Israel didn’t pursue justice for itself, the world surely would not provide it. The Eichmann trial was quickly transformed from a judicial proceeding to a national metaphor. And all this from a country that was a mere 13 years old, as if the trial had served as Israel’s bar mitzvah.
In recalling the significance of the Eichmann trial, Israel’s ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, seems to agree that Israel’s lightning response, once it realized where Eichmann had been hiding, remains a reliable template for national policy today. “As the nation state of the Jewish people, Israel reserves the right to act on behalf of Jewish security and justice worldwide, to redress past atrocities and prevent future ones,” Oren said. “In that sense, seizing and trying Eichmann was no different than airlifting Jews from Ethiopia or preempting Hamas terror.” One can even see the fingerprints of Eichmann’s capture in the more recent but equally dramatic abduction of Dirar Abu Sisi, the Gaza engineer who mysteriously vanished from a train in Ukraine on February 19 and now sits in an Israeli prison facing charges of having developed rockets and missiles for Hamas.
One nation’s righteous commitment to justice is another’s extraordinary rendition, however. Did Eichmann and his execution perhaps set a precedent to which the Israelis feel morally bound, regardless of its potential conflict with international law? After all, Dirar Abu Sisi, even if he is ultimately found to be the architect of Hamas’ rocket program, as Israel alleges, is surely not in the same league with the architect of the Final Solution. On the other hand, wouldn’t Hamas gladly fire up the ovens of Auschwitz if given a chance?
While it is tempting to view all of Israel’s derring-do as the natural offspring of its abduction of Eichmann, it is important to distinguish between targeted, undercover assassinations and a public trial conducted before the world, adhering to the rule of law. Abu Sisi, like Eichmann before him, will have his day in court. Such trials, however, are rare occurrences — even in a liberal democracy such as Israel. Many prior targets of Israeli assassinations left this world without any judicial review.
International law experts continue to debate the legality of spy adventures such as Israel’s hits on the Munich Olympics murderers (which led to the accidental killing of a Moroccan waiter in Norway), or President Obama’s current authorization for U.S. forces to assassinate Anwar al-Awlaki, the Yemen-based radical Muslim cleric — and U.S. citizen — who is allegedly linked to several terrorist attacks in the U.S. But in contrast to these extraordinary cases, Israel’s enemies never seem to bother with trials or show any concern over whether they have the right target. Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was summarily decapitated because he was a Jew; and Gilad Shalit sits in a Gaza prison without a trial date, a lawyer or even a visit from the Red Cross.
The paradox, of course, is that while the kidnapping of Eichmann might have violated international law, the trial itself may have redeemed the act by serving as a landmark of international justice.
This was a trial, for example, in which Eichmann was afforded two attorneys of his choice, paid for by Israel. But adding even more drama to the proceedings, Eichmann conducted much of his own defense. He argued that he was just “following orders,” a defense strategy that failed at
Nuremberg, as well. During cross-examination, Gideon Hausner, the chief prosecutor and Israel’s attorney general, asked Eichmann whether he was guilty of the crimes charged. “Legally not, but in the human sense… yes,” Eichmann replied. Wiesel, who covered the trial for this paper when it was a daily and published only in Yiddish, remembered how shocked he was to see Eichmann looking so “visibly human,” given all the evil he had done.
But Wiesel was quick to note that Eichmann’s shrunken appearance did not distract him from realizing that the glass booth was actually serving as a cage for a true monster. One person who was apparently confused by Eichmann’s manner was Hannah Arendt, the German Jewish philosopher who herself narrowly escaped the Holocaust. She is credited with coining the catchphrase “the banality of evil,” which became the subtitle for her book “Eichmann in Jerusalem.”
Unfortunately, the idea that murderous acts can become normalized and routine — and that, therefore, no one is inherently evil — is an oddly comforting notion. The banality of Arendt’s argument, however, is that it is the system that must be blamed and not the people who simply become introduced to a new moral order.
In making this case, Arendt trivialized Eichmann’s true anti-Semitic nature, diagnosing him instead as a mere bureaucrat who followed orders like a cog in a machine, stripped of his moral core because of his exposure to Nazism. The darker truth, however, was that the evidence against Eichmann and his facility with true evil was self-evident and self-condemning. He was no mere cog; he cynically and knowingly deployed his anti-Semitism in the hope of advancing his career. “It is deeply regrettable that the canard that Eichmann was only a follower of orders continues to find acceptance,” said Eli Rosenbaum, who for many years has been America’s chief Nazi hunter and today is the director of the human rights and special prosecutions section of the Department of Justice. Rosenbaum, speaking only in a personal capacity, told the Forward that the phrase “banality of evil” resonates “mostly because few who write about the case seem to have bothered to read the trial record, which is replete with evidence of Eichmann’s proactive and seemingly indefatigable efforts to eliminate the Jews.”
Eichmann was hanged without expressing a word of remorse. It was the first and last time Israel’s justice system resorted to capital punishment, and this, perhaps, is as it should be. After all, despite Arendt’s claim, there was nothing ordinary or banal about Eichmann and his evil. He was a special case, a self-styled specialist when it came to the logistics of mass murder. Even in Israel, where acts of terrorism are so commonplace, Eichmann’s crimes will always stand apart.
With the Holocaust receding in memory and cultural significance, Israel may one day no longer view the Eichmann trial as a signature moment. A half century ago this month, however, the world was watching only one trial, one notorious defendant and a tiny nation that stood tall for justice.
Thane Rosenbaum, a novelist, essayist and law professor at Fordham University, is the author of “The Myth of Moral Justice.”