Eichmann's Israeli Legacy


The State of Israel vs. Adolf Eichmann
By Hanna Yablonka, translated by Ora Cummings with David Herman
333 pages. Schocken Books. $26.

More than forty years after the event, the 1961 trial of Adolf Eichmann still stands out as a crucial moment in the history of the State of Israel. A great deal has been written about Eichmann’s role in planning the extermination of European Jewry, his capture by Israeli agents in Argentina, and his subsequent trial in Jerusalem and his execution for Nazi war crimes. Hanna Yablonka, a history professor at Ben Gurion University of the Negev, touches on these matters in this book, but her real concern is the social and cultural history of the Eichmann trial: How did the momentous event affect Israelis at all levels of society, and how does it resonate today?

Yablonka relies on documents that few, if any, historians have focused on before, including articles from obscure Israeli newspapers and Holocaust-related teaching materials prepared for use in Israeli elementary and secondary schools. She interviewed surviving participants in the trial, including Holocaust survivors who testified against Eichmann and two of the judges who rendered the verdict of death. Her most important conclusion is that the trial caused a substantial change in Israelis’ perceptions of themselves and of the Jewish people. By giving the survivors their say in a public forum, and by forcing the average Israeli to confront the Holocaust, the trial helped break down the then-common view that Israelis were a new nation, a breed apart from servile "Diaspora Jews" who merited only disdain.

When World War II ended, Yablonka writes, Israelis were focused on building a state from what they saw as the ruins of the Diaspora. Survivors, literally right off the boats, fought and died in Israel’s War of Independence in 1948 and were expected to forget their past. The new state hardly recognized the six million who had perished under Nazi rule. The Eichmann trial changed all that, Yablonka writes: "The survivors were no longer nameless immigrants with a telltale mark on their arms, but people with a personal identity, a unique history, and a tale to tell, to which the nation suddenly had a fierce desire to listen and to embrace. The survivors became the representatives of the lost world of European Jewry, which was transformed at once from 'Diaspora' to 'heritage.'"

Yablonka is convincing and eloquent here, and in other parts of the book, when she tackles serious cultural, intellectual, and social issues. Her description of the various strains of Israeli opposition to Eichmann’s death sentence, for example, is masterful. (She points out that although most Israelis supported the sentence, some opposed it as an act of revenge unbecoming to a Jewish polity, while others saw the death of one man as a trivial and meaningless recompense for the death of millions.)

The book’s lapses all relate to problems with Yablonka’s control over the flow of events. Even though this is a study of the trial’s reception in society rather than a courtroom narrative, Yablonka has unnecessarily drained much of the drama from the trial and some of the interest from her book. She appropriately organizes her material chronologically, from Eichmann’s capture through his execution and its aftermath, yet she never coherently explains the order of the trial or how prosecutors put together the case against the Nazi official. Her descriptions of various witnesses’ testimony are disjointed and confusing. And she does not clearly describe Eichmann’s own trial testimony or the nature of his cross-examination. The book would have been more successful had Yablonka first given a brief narrative of the trial and then moved on to her conclusions about how it changed the Israeli nation.

Still, a knowledge of the past can make the present more understandable, and Yablonka’s careful study of a crucial event in Israeli and Jewish history is enlightening.

Discussion Question

Should Israel have sentenced Eichmann to death? Is it true that “the death of one man” was simply “a trivial and meaningless recompense for the death of millions?” >>