Nadav Kaplan, 75 – a historian, businessman and colonel in the Israel Air Force reserve – reported on Monday to the High Court of Justice. As did members of the Shin Bet security service, among them “Roni,” the code name for the director of the agency’s heritage department. Before a panel of three justices, headed by Supreme Court President Esther Hayut, this group tried to go back 63 years, to one of the most turbulent, sensitive and painful affairs in Jewish and Israeli history.
A little after midnight on March 4, 1957, Israel (Rudolf) Kasztner – journalist, official in the trade and industry ministry and a member of Mapai, the forerunner of today’s Labor Party – was shot and wounded outside his home in Tel Aviv. Less than two years earlier, the Jerusalem District Court had ruled that Kasztner had “sold his soul to the devil,” by collaborating with the Nazis. Kastner was admitted to a hospital in the city, where he died a few days later under still-mysterious circumstances.
Kaplan, who investigated the episode and made some discoveries regarding possible Shin Bet involvement in Kastner’s death, petitioned the High Court to demand the unsealing of still-classified documents held by the Shin Bet and the Israel State Archive.
In its response to the High Court, published here for the first time, the state argues that making the documents public, even decades after the affair, could still endanger national security. There’s another problem, as well. The state admits that a great many documents are involved, and the Shin Bet doesn’t have the resources to review them all before releasing them to the public. According to the state, the material it is concealing about Kasztner’s murder is so extensive and complex that dealing with it could “greatly burden the work of the [Shin Bet] in fulfilling its mission and carrying out its roles according to the General Security Services Law.” The state is willing to provide further explanations to the court “behind closed doors ex parte only.” That is, without the presence of the historian seeking to view the materials and understand why they are closed to the public.
On Monday, the High Court asked the state why the Shin Bet fears that publishing the documents will uncover the organization's methods and harm state security, 63 years after the fact. Justices asked whether these same Shin Bet methods, in use when Kasztner was murdered over half a century ago, still relevant in 2020?
At the end of the closed-door hearing, which lasted a little over an hour, Hayut said that the Shin Bet and government representatives had still not provided the judges with a reasonable answer as to why the files must be kept sealed. The Shin Bet, she ruled, now has 60 days to produce a letter justifying their opposition to unsealing the files.
Kaplan, who was born in Moshav Avihayil in 1945, served as a navigator in the air force and took part in operational flights of Squadron 107, headed former IAF commander Benny Peled’s bureau and headed the IAF planning division. He has called on his background, which made him party to quite a few military secrets, to show that “there is no justification in the world” to use security considerations to prevent historical research into a 63-year-old affair.
Eviatar Knoller, the head of the Tel Aviv law firm Knoller & Co., who is representing Kaplan in the case, adds: “After so many years it seems that security reasons are not relevant.” According to Knoller, the information that would come out would embarrass the security agencies, “but embarrassment is not a reason to conceal, but rather an opportunity to learn and correct. After decades, there is place to tell the public what really happened.”
Kaplan indeed thinks that the state has something to hide, and refers to various hints made public over the years, along with evidence he collected in historical research he conducted himself. The evidence indicates the possibility that the Shin Bet – perhaps acting on behalf of the state – was involved in the murder.
The disappearing suspect
To understand the basis for these claims one must return to the controversial figure of Kasztner, the mention of whose name always brings up the debate of his complicated conduct during the Holocaust. Kasztner, one of the heads of the Budapest Aid and Rescue Committee, is depicted in historical research as having saved many Jews on the one hand, but on the other as having collaborated with the Nazis – to an extent and under circumstances that have not been fully revealed. His detractors conceded that the deal he signed with Adolph Eichmann made it possible to save 1,685 Jews, who were put on a train to freedom instead of being sent to the gas chambers. But they also complain that these lives were bought at the price of the murder of hundreds of thousands of other Jews.
Along with the questions surrounding Kasztner and his motives, many questions also remain open regarding the murder, which shocked the country, and particularly the involvement of the Shin Bet in it. The right-wing figure who was a Shin Bet informer, Ze’ev Eckstein, who confessed and was convicted of the murder, still claims that there was another man at the scene, who was never arrested. Kasztner’s family has also claimed in the past that another person ambushed him at the entrance to his home. Kaplan became aware of these claims during his research in recent years on Hungarian Jewry during the Holocaust. (His doctoral thesis, at the University of Haifa, was on Raoul Wallenberg). When he first came across the open questions in the Kasztner affair, he decided to devote time to this as well, despite the many books, articles and documentaries on the subject. When he dug deeper, he discovered that the state was still hiding a great deal of material, and so naturally the historical research was far from complete.
Kaplan’s curiosity intensified after he was able to obtain Kasztner’s hospital records from Hadassah Hospital on Tel Aviv’s Balfour Street, where Kasztner died 12 days after he was shot. He was able to speak to a laboratory assistant who worked in the surgical department where Kasztner was hospitalized after his condition improved.
According to the material Kaplan collected, which at this point has not been verified from other sources, a nurse found Kasztner dead in his bed with a pillow over his face showing that a struggle had occurred. Moreover, scrutiny of Kasztner’s medical file, Kaplan says, “presents questions that raise the theoretical suspicion that the file may have been rewritten to some extent.”
So as not to be dragged into the realm of theoretical conspiracies, Kaplan has asked the Shin Bet to disclose the material it has, which, hopefully, would confirm or rule out the claims of its involvement in the murder.
“In Kasztner’s murder no use was made of any technology the uncovering of which would endanger state security,” Kaplan says, noting that Kasztner was shot with a pistol. He dismisses the claim that Shin Bet operatives whose names might appear in secret documents could be compromised. “The Shin Bet can publish the documents after redacting the names of people who might still be alive. The names themselves are not important, but rather the matter itself,” he says. He present’s the tough question: “Can it be that the State of Israel, the prime minister and the Shin Bet chief, for their own considerations, decided to send someone to shoot Kasztner, and when they were unable to kill him, sent someone to the hospital to make sure he was killed?” Can it be that they said that this man had to be silenced so he wouldn’t talk?”
What did Kasztner know?
At this point, we return to the High Court of Justice, which in 1958 absolved Kasztner of the grave charge of collaboration with the Nazis that laid the groundwork for the murder of the Jews of Hungary. However, the court ruled that Kasztner had saved a Nazi war criminal from punishment after the war when he gave false testimony in the man’s favor. The man, Kurt Becher, was in charge of looted Jewish property in the Holocaust and took part in negotiations with Kasztner over saving Jewish lives in exchange for goods.
Becher eventually became a millionaire and even conducted business with Israel – the nature of which was not made fully public. From that day to this, questions have remained over the involvement of Mapai, on whose ticket Kasztner ran for the Knesset, in rehabilitating the name of the Nazi criminal by doing business with him. Questions also rose as to the fate of the property of Hungarian Jews, which was looted by the Nazis and made its way into Becher’s hands, and perhaps from him to others.
“This is not a particularly fine record for the party, if it comes out that itself it did business with the devil,” Kaplan says. In this context he raises the supposition, unfounded at this point, that Kasztner was murdered by the state so that he wouldn’t tell what he knew. “The state’s insistence not to reveal the documents is scandalous, and shows that the Shin Bet wants to hid something to prevent embarrassment if it turns out that it sent the Shin Bet to finish him off,” Kaplan says.
As if this were not enough, Kaplan also mentions that the three men convicted in Kasztner’s murder, Eckstein and two accessories were pardoned and went free in 1963 after the intervention of Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. “This is also a point that raises many questions and has not so far been clearly addressed,” Kaplan notes.
Yaara Winkler-Shalit, a lawyer at Knoller & Co. who is also working on the case, says there is a trend in the world “of preferring the public interest in receiving information over security reasons.” Recently, Winker-Shalit says, thousands of documents have been made public in the United States about the involvement of the government and the administration in Afghanistan in the early 2000s, not in the 1950s. “The world has changed and old security concepts are being replaced with new ones, who conform to a reality in which everything is documented, photographed and conveyed in seconds to the whole world.” Such old information, she says that is “so important, it can’t be hidden from the public.”
On Monday the High Court also addressed a different affair with similar characteristics: a petition by the historian Shay Hazkani of the University of Maryland (represented by attorney Avner Pinchuk of the Association of Civil Rights in Israel), to make public Shin Bet documents on the agency’s actions in the 1950s to suppress protest by Mizrahi Jews in Israel. In that case as well, the state responded last week that “many documents have been located” but that “making them public raises a concern of harm to state security still today.” In that case as well, questions come up that behind state security is concern over harm to the Shin Bet’s reputation.
Kaplan and Hazkani hope to crack this mantle of secrecy just a little, in the hope of helping other scholars to resolve historical mysteries still to be addressed. “Faulty history is being written in Israel because huge reservoirs of documents are hidden from the eyes of historians, who as a result must give their readers an unreliable picture of reality,” Hazkani says.
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