62 Years On, Why Is Shin Bet Still Hiding Details on Israel Kastner's Murder?

‘National security and a lack of resources’ is the official explanation for curtailing information about death of Israeli journalist accused of collaboration with the Nazis – but a Holocaust historian is petitioning the High Court to open the archives

Israel Kastner at Kol Yisrael, early 1950s.
Wikimedia Commons

“The requested materials are concealed because they contain information that, if exposed, could harm national security and the operations of the Israel Security Agency. There is no room to reveal these materials.” This was the response of the Shin Bet security service to a historian studying the Holocaust period in Hungary. He had asked for access to materials concerning an impassioned affair that occurred 62 years ago: The murder of Israel Kastner.

The historian was surprised to find that, after so many years and the mountains of words written about Kastner, Israel still has something to hide in regards to the circumstances surrounding the death of one of the most controversial figures in its history.

Dr. Israel Kastner, a journalist and public figure – and grandfather of former Knesset member Merav Michaeli of Labor – was shot at the entrance to his home in Tel Aviv just after midnight on March 4, 1957. He was wounded and died of his injuries on March 15.

Two years earlier, the Jerusalem District Court had ruled that Kastner “sold his soul to the devil” and collaborated with the Nazis during World War II – and indirectly contributed to the destruction of Hungary’s Jews as the price for saving the lives of about 1,700 Jews with “connections,” including a number of Kastner’s relatives and friends.

Ten months after his murder, the Supreme Court cleared his name, but nonetheless stated that he helped Nazis evade punishment after the war. The historical and public debate over Kastner’s image – which hangs somewhere in between traitor and savior – as well as the dispute over how many Jews owe him their lives continue to this day.

He petitioned the High Court of Justice this week, asking them to order the government to release, or allow him to examine, all the materials in the Israel State Archives and the Shin Bet archives concerning Kastner’s murder. His lawyers wrote in the petition that the Shin Bet’s refusal rests on shaky principles, and expressly violates the law and legal precedent regarding the release of public information.

“Many questions remain open concerning this affair, all of which have public, historic, legal and moral importance,” the petition states. “It is hard to imagine a good reason to bury the answers to these questions after over 60 years, and it seems that not only does the public have a right to know the answers, there is an obligation to inform the public.”

The Shin Bet’s website has a detailed account of the murder investigation. It says that the murderer, Zeev Eckstein, waited in ambush for Kastner in a jeep parked near his home. When Kastner returned home from work, Ecsktein approached him and asked if he was Israel Kastner. When he confirmed this, Eckstein took out a pistol and shot him. The first bullet was a blank, the second hit the car door and the third bullet hit Kastner in the upper torso. Kastner tried to escape, but was critically wounded. Eckstein returned to the jeep and quickly fled.

The Shin Bet investigation focused on a group of former Jewish veterans of the Lehi underground, headed by Yosef Menkes and Yaakov Heruti. Members of the group had been tied to other murders and various plans against Kastner. Menkes and number of young people who were thought to belong to the group were arrested that night after Kastner provided a description of his attacker in the hospital.

Eckstein’s alibi did not check out properly after a preliminary investigation and he and Menkes were kept under arrest. Further examination of intelligence information provided the name of another suspect, Dan Shemer. He too was arrested and admitted to knowing Eckstein from their military service together in the paratroopers and that the two had recently met a number of times.

The police tracked down the jeep and found the pistol and Shemer’s fingerprints inside the vehicle. Shemer confessed to being the driver and claimed that Eckstein was shooter. Shin Bet investigator Zvi Aharoni, who rose to fame a few years later for his role in the capture of Adolf Eichmann, managed to crack Eckstein and extract murder confession. Eckstein said Menkes provided him with the handgun and convinced him to carry out the assassination.

Eckstein, Shemer and Menkes were charged with the murder and crimes of terrorism. Eckstein and Shemer admitted to the crimes and were convicted: Eckstein for murder and Shemer as an accomplice.

Menkes continued to claim innocence. He accused the Shin Bet of carrying out the murder and staging the trial against him. The court found Menkes guilty of persuading Eckstein to murder Kastner and of providing the murder weapon. He was convicted of being an accomplice and soliciting murder. All three received life sentences, but were later pardoned and released from prison in 1963.

In early 2015, the State Archives allowed Haaretz, in an exceptional step, to publish a secret document from the Kastner murder file. The document, which had remained classified until then, contained a section of the minutes from a cabinet meeting held on March 11, 1957. It was titled: “The assassination of Dr. I. Kastner.”

“Dr. Kastner’s assassins have been found and confessed,” Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion said at the start of the cabinet meeting. “The individual who did the shooting carried out the work of others. There is an organization that appointed him to shoot. He did not do it of his own accord,” the minutes said.

The then-director of the State Archives, Dr. Yaacov Lozowick, was known for his relatively liberal approach to releasing historic documents. He approved the request from Haaretz to release the minutes to the public, though a few of the lines are still censored. Lozowick retired as state archivist last year.

A look at the minutes only deepens the mystery surrounding one of the most emotional chapters of Israel’s history, and could strengthen the conjecture that the Shin Bet security service was involved in Kastner’s murder.

Reading between the lines of the minutes raises a number of difficult questions. Why did the head of the intelligence, Isser Harel, request that the murderers be pardoned before they completed their prison sentences? Why was the murder not prevented even though the Shin Bet knew in advance that a plan was afoot? And why was the murderer not tried earlier, before the murder, for distributing defamatory leaflets against Kastner?

Eckstein published a book in 2014 that only added to the mystery. Eckstein said that there was another man involved in the assassination, in addition to Shemer and Menkes, who was never apprehended.

“Another shot thundered at the very instant of my third shot, followed by agonizing cries. Apparently someone was there who, in any event, carried out confirmation of the kill and, as a true professional, did not miss even in the dark,” he wrote.

“Many questions, and eventually a great many questions, have been gathered in the reservoir of questions-not-asked, and if they were asked, they were not answered,” Eckstein wrote in his book.

Kastner’s daughter Suzi told a similar story to Haaretz in 2015. She says she clearly remembers “a torn piece of paper, a small note,” on which the family took down Kastner’s words as he was taken to the hospital in an ambulance. Kastner spoke of another person who was involved in the shooting. That person was never arrested.

“My father got out of the car. Eckstein tried to shoot him and didn’t succeed. My father fled, ran into the building, but somebody prevented him from going in. He ran out again, and took a bullet in the back,” Suzi Kastner says, recalling her father’s words, adding “I’m sorry; I don’t remember today where I laid that piece of paper.”

Suzi Kastner says she believes the mysterious other man, who confirmed the kill, was a Shin Bet agent and that a senior Shin Bet official was behind the murder as revenge on Kastner for not saving his family in the Holocaust.

This may be a baseless conspiracy theory, like countless others that pop up with every controversial affair, but the Shin Bet’s unwillingness to release the Kastner murder file only encourages such theories.

Ironically, in the petition against the State Archives, the historian and his lawyers have based their case on things written by no less than the former State Archivist, Lozowick, in a report from 2018.

Ironically, the historian and his lawyers have built their case on the writings of none other than Lozowick, the former state archivist, in a report from 2018. Lozowick wrote, “Concealing information for reasons of foreign affairs and security is an intentional act of hiding parts of the truth. Even more so, the concealment is carried out when it is itself hidden from the citizens and without public oversight; and it is conducted by people with a security background whose world view and professional way of thinking are influenced by their training and experience.”

The High Court petition criticizes the Shin Bet for seemingly violating the law on state archives, because it has not opened them to the public even though the statutory time limit on secrecy has ended.

According to the regulations, the Shin Bet must open its archives on its own initiative and release documents that are more than 50 years old, Lozowick told Haaretz this week. This is an internal Israeli affair from over 60 years ago, maybe it also has political aspects but it is not related to the Israeli-Arab conflict and does not involve Israel’s enemies,” he added. “So it isn’t out-of-line to request access to the files as the petition asks, on the condition that there are any such files at all, of course,” said Lozowick.

The High Court petition raises a matter of principle for public debate, beyond the desire of a specific historian to examine material on the Kastner murder. His lawyers claim that the burden of proof lies with the Shin Bet – and not the petitioners. They must show that publication of the requested information would harm national security and cannot rely on a foggy and generalized claim of such harm.

According to the petition, Supreme Court precedent has shown a number of times that the term “security concerns” cannot be used as a “magic wand,” allowing the government to impose confidentiality on any and all public information that a specific authority does not want to reveal.

Haaretz has published a number of examples from recent years, in which it has been proven, beyond any reasonable doubt, that hiding behind claims of “national security” often serves to cover up information that would embarrass a certain person or institution or damage Israel’s image.

“Security is not a goal in its own right, but it is a means, while the goal is the existence of a democratic government that realizes individual freedom,” wrote the lawyers. “Not all information constitutes a potential security threat and therefore not all security information is entitled to confidentiality. There are other public interests alongside security, and sometimes they should be given preference as part of the obligations of a democratic country.”

The State Archives and Shin Bet have recently provided other justifications besides national security for not releasing the Kastner murder file: “There is significant difficulty in locating all of the materials in the databases on this matter and such [work] would require significant resources of time and manpower,” said the Shin Bet in its response to the original request. “Releasing the requested materials would require an unreasonable allocation of resources.”

The Kastner murder case is not the only security affair that is still being kept from the public eye, even after decades, to reach the courts.

In 2017, historian Adam Raz filed suit in the Military Court of Appeals asking to order the IDF Archives to open for review classified documents related to the 1956 massacre in the Israeli Arab town of Kafr Qasem. The IDF opposes releasing these documents. On the eve of the Sinai Campaign in 1956, Border Police officers who were enforcing a curfew shot and killed 47 Israeli Arabs who had not yet been informed about the curfew.

The IDF said during the court proceedings that “at this time” the release of documents on the matter would “harm the country’s national security, its foreign relations and in certain cases also the privacy or welfare of an individual, with certainty, that from a legal aspect does not allow the exposure.” The court has not yet issued its ruling in the case.

The government is hiding materials related to other bloody events, such as those that occurred in 1948 during the War of Independence in the Arab village of Deir Yassin, on the western outskirts of Jerusalem. Today, 71 years later, historians and researchers are still debating whether it can be called a “massacre.”

Haaretz appealed to the High Court on the matter of the documents from 1948, too. The government said that releasing the photos of the residents of Deir Yassin who were killed by Etzel fighters during the capture of the village could harm not only Israel’s foreign relations but also would be disrespectful of the dead. The justices examined the photographs and ruled in 2010 in favor of the government.

The state is also refusing to release materials unrelated to the Israeli-Arab conflict. For example, the Shin Bet is still refusing to declassify materials documenting its operations in the temporary transit camps that were set up after the establishment of Israel to house mass numbers of new immigrants.

In this case, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel petitioned the High Court, in the name of historian Dr. Shay Hazkani, to release historical documents about activities in the transit camps that were intended to quash immigrant protests over difficult living conditions. The Shin Bet rejected Hazkani’s requests for “considerations of protecting national security.” The High Court has set a date for a hearing in October in the case.

The State Archives told Haaretz that it had not received the High Court petition and would comment on it as part of the legal proceedings.

The Shin Bet said the matter is pending in the Supreme Court and therefore they could not comment on it at this stage.