The Jewish Philosopher Who Tried to Convince Israel Not to Try Eichmann

Letters from Isaiah Berlin, preserved in Israel's State Archive, appear in a newly published book about his life and work.

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
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Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

On July 27, 1960, legendary Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek, who, at the time, was director general of the Prime Minister’s Office, received a letter from the renowned British-Jewish philosopher, Prof. Isaiah Berlin. In the letter, which opens with “Dear Teddy,” Berlin wrote, “I see that there is no avoiding a trial. What is its political purpose? To remind the world about the slaughter?” He was referring to the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann, which would open in Jerusalem the following year.

Two months earlier, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion made a dramatic statement in Israel’s parliament, the Knesset. “I must notify the Knesset that, some time ago, Israel’s security services located one of the most infamous Nazi war criminals of all, Adolf Eichmann, who, together with the Nazi leaders, was responsible for what they called “The Final Solution of the Jewish Question,” that is the annihilation of six million of Europe’s Jews. Adolf Eichmann is already behind bars in Israel and will soon be placed on trial in Israel in accordance with the law regarding the prosecution of Nazis and their collaborators.”

In a cabinet session six days later, Ben-Gurion outlined the framework in which he wanted the trial to be conducted. “The main thing is not the punishment, because no punishment can be heavy enough for such a crime. Is it sufficient punishment to just hang an individual who murdered millions of children, women and elderly persons? I see great importance in the trial itself … It should not be a trial simply of Eichmann but rather a trial in which the entire story of the Holocaust can be told.”

The Prime Minister added: “The main thing is not just Eichmann. Everything that the Nazis perpetrated against the Jews must be revealed at the trial and must be described in detail. It is essential for us; there is a new generation that has heard something [about the Holocaust] but which did not live through it…. It is essential not just for us but for the entire world. The world wants to forget what happened and is even tired of hearing about it.”

Like many other intellectuals, Berlin believed that Israel must not try Eichmann. In his letter to Kollek, which is addressed to Ben-Gurion, Berlin wrote that this is a political trial driven by revenge and wonders what lies behind it: Is the purpose “to remind the Jews that they are one and that they are in danger in the Diaspora?” He answered his own question, stating that “they either know or don’t know this; and this won’t convert anyone.” Is the trial intended to “remind the world about the slaughter?” In his view, the world is already irritable about the “efforts to bring up the ghosts of even the recent past” and “it will stop its ears to half the guilt of the guilty – German, British, etc.?” He questions, “Justice for its own sake?” and replies that “then the victims may not sit in judgment.” According to Berlin, the victims – namely, the Jews – “can take reprisals, assassinate, punish but not try.”

The holding of the Eichmann trial, in his opinion, would be “politically unwise for a state.” It is “a luxury in which individual Monte Christos can indulge but not communities.” Berlin, who understood that the trial would nonetheless be held expressed the hope that, after the verdict, Eichmann would be transferred to other hands – to Germany or Egypt: “Nothing in the world would make so deep an impression on the world, I am quite sure, as an act by a small and deeply wronged people which refused to plunge the dagger to the hilt.”

He wrote: “so something of this kind (I should be delighted to see the Egyptians welcome Eichmann at the border!) would stop the mouths of many a critic. Gestures are not without effect even in our world.”

The letter opens the third of four volumes of Berlin’s letters that have been published by Chatto & Windus and which document his life and work between 1960 and 1975. During those years, momentous events took place: the Cuban missile crisis, the assassination of U.S. President John F. Kennedy, the Six Day War, the Watergate affair and the Vietnam War. Berlin was a renowned and highly respected intellectual, a professor at Oxford University and a much sought after lecturer.

“I suppose it [is] all in B.G.’s [Ben-Gurion’s] almighty hand,” he tells Kollek in the letter and notes: “I know there is boiling public opinion, the victims of the camps, the people with branded limbs, etc.[,] etc. [S]till their baffled desire for revenge or even justice can be braved.” In the letter he sums up his proposals: “(a) spare E. [Eichmann] and (b) expel him... Public political trials and the people’s justice… only [arouse?] doubts about the motives of the executioners.”

The Eichmann trial began on April 11, 1961 before a special panel of judges in the Jerusalem District Court, presided over by Supreme Court Justice Moshe Landau. Seven months later, on December 15, Dr. Robert Servatius, a West German lawyer representing Eichmann, submitted an appeal of the court’s verdict; however, in May 1962, the appeal was rejected by a panel of five Supreme Court Justices. On the night of May 31, 1962, Eichmann was executed.

Berlin was not the only one who asked Ben-Gurion and President Yitzhak Ben-Zvi not to try Eichmann. Many intellectuals followed suit. After the trial, the wave of protest was renewed, this time, in the form of requests that Israel not execute Eichmann. On May 30, 1962, after Eichmann’s death sentence had been carried out, President Ben-Zvi's office received a petition demanding that the Nazi war criminal not be executed. Among the signatories were philosophers Martin Buber and Schmuel Hugo Bergmann, Jewish mysticism scholar Gershom Scholem, poet Leah Goldberg and painters Aaron Aricha and Yehuda Bacon, the latter also a Holocaust survivor.

Berlin’s letter has been preserved in the State Archives in Jerusalem. His handwriting in English is barely legible and Kollek, who was a friend of his, jokingly refers to this fact in a letter he sent on May 1, 1961 and which is also preserved in the State Archives. “Firstly, let me point out that you have broken a solemn promise by not typing your letter. Maybe my grandchildren will appreciate your laxity when your handwritten notes will bring tremendous prices on the market. Anyway, it’s much better to receive a handwritten letter from you than none at all,” he wrote.

Prof. Isaiah Berlin.Credit: Sophie Bassouls / Sygma / Corbis

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