Eichmann United the Jewish People

The trial of Adolf Eichmann was a seminal event which long ago should have been included in school curriculum.

The trial of Adolf Eichmann, who oversaw the Nazi extermination of European Jewry, opened in Jerusalem in April of 1961. It was a seminal event which long ago should have been included in the school curriculum.

It is not an easy subject to deal with. David Ben-Gurion always said that Adolf Eichmann the individual was of no interest to him. Punishment of Eichmann did not require a trial. He could have been assassinated in Buenos Aires.

Ben-Gurion, however, wanted a trial. He thought that Israeli society, which at the time was still far from cohesive, needed the trial, as did the country's foreign policy, Ben-Gurion's Mapai party and Ben-Gurion himself.

The trial was to unite Israelis in a sweeping, collective experience of patriotism and purification providing a national catharsis. It was to project the message to the outside world that the State of Israel represented the entire Jewish people and that the country's existence was a response to the extermination of Jews in the Holocaust. For that reason, the nations of the world had an obligation to support Israel and help it defend its existence and security.

Ben-Gurion needed the trial to prove that the relations which were beginning to take shape between Israel and Germany, including reparations and compensation agreements, did not reflect indifference to the legacy of the Holocaust.

The trial was also designed to dispel the accusations leveled against Ben-Gurion over the failure to save European Jewry during the Holocaust. Such arguments were at the center of the earlier trial over the alleged collaboration of Israel Kastner, a trial that created the first fissures in the unity of the Mapai government.

Prior to the Eichmann trial, the subject of the Holocaust was nearly totally taboo in Israel. Parents didn't dare tell their children what they had gone through and the children didn't dare ask. Among the reasons for this was mutual accusations between Holocaust survivors and other Israelis, in addition to feelings of shame, guilt, arrogance and alienation.

The Eichmann trial became a kind of therapy for an entire society and the Holocaust began to become a central element of Israeli identity.

It was a political and ideological trial. The choice of witnesses was designed, among other things, to underline the unity of the Jewish people and the suffering of the victims, and to deal with and obscure a series of problems stemming from Holocaust scholarship, such as the activities of the institution of the Judenrat, the Jewish-run councils that the Nazis established, and the deeds of some other Jews who were forced to cooperate with the Nazi extermination machine.

There was also the true nature of the Jewish revolts and other resistance to the Nazis, differences of opinion among various political parties over Holocaust remembrance days and the battle over the lessons to be drawn from the Holocaust.

All of this is very appropriate to teach and to elucidate in schools. It is a sensitive, political and ideological subject, as was the Eichmann trial itself, and it requires teachers with great integrity.