The Eichmann Trial

With the capture of a Nazi officer, discussion about the Holocaust entered the public realm.

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Isser Harel, then director of the Mossad, summed up this notion when he described to his squad the importance of its undertaking: "For the first time in history the Jews would judge their assassins; and for the first time the world would hear, and the young generation in Israel would hear, the full story of the edict of annihilation against an entire people."

The Trial in Israeli Discourse

The Eichmann Trial became the first time in Israeli history that the atrocities of the death camps were publicly discussed. Up until that point, some survivors had spoken of what they had endured, but without significant public impact. The Eichmann trial raised so much awareness that subsequent national conflicts were, and still are, interpreted in relation to the Holocaust as the most extreme of all Jewish catastrophes.

The survivors who followed the trial's proceedings, as well as chief prosecutor Gideon Hausner, also viewed the trial as an opportunity to educate a younger generation of Israelis about the Shoah. Hausner called to the stand 25 witnesses to testify on child abuse, explaining his pedagogical rationale: "I wanted testimony about the fate of young men and women, so that our own young men and women would hear what happened." Interestingly, historian Howard Sachar says the Eichmann trial was also an important educational moment for the younger generation of Germans, who learned through it about the guilt incurred by their parents.    

While informing the youth in Israel--and abroad--about the legacy of the Holocaust, the trial also shifted how the Israeli public saw its nascent official power. Smart, aggressive Jews had captured, tried, and executed a war criminal--these were seen as heroic acts for a newly sovereign people.

Critique of the Trial

Most of the critical discourse about the Eichmann trial is linked to philosopher Hannah Arendt's controversial five-part report on the proceedings, "Eichmann in Jerusalem," published initially in The New Yorker in early 1963. In her work, Arendt leveled criticism against the Israeli court, which in her opinion staged a "show trial" that built its case on what the Jews had suffered in the Holocaust and not on what Eichmann had actually done in his capacity as a Nazi.

Arendt wrote, "Justice demands that the accused be prosecuted, defended, and judged, and that all the other questions of seemingly greater left in abeyance." Many Jewish leaders objected to this, as well as Arendt's claim that the European Jewish councils, called Judenrat, had collaborated with the Nazis in handpicking certain Jews for extermination. Even if this were true, Jewish Americans thought that this public knowledge might exacerbate anti-Jewish feelings.

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Jessica Kraft

Jessica Kraft is a writer, educator, and artist based in San Francisco, CA.