On April 5, 1957, a month after the assassination of Rudolf (Israel) Kasztner, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion placed a gag order on the identity of the Shin Bet security agents to testify in a court case on the issue. On official stationery of the State of Israel, Ben-Gurion, in his other capacity as defense minister, wrote: “For reasons of state security, the identity and addresses of three witnesses are not to be made public in this trial (other than to the judge alone).”
In court, Ben-Gurion wrote, the witnesses would be addressed as “Ploni Ben Ploni, Almoni Ben Almoni and Palmoni Ben Palmoni” – Hebrew variations of John Doe. Finally, he ordered that “they are not to be questioned about their identity, work colleagues or modes of work, other than facts relating directly, and only directly, to the proceedings of this trial.”
Why did the prime minister deem it necessary to intervene so blatantly in a trial that rocked the country? What testimony were the Shin Bet agents going to give in the murder trial?
Sixty-four years later, that question remains unanswered. In a response to the High Court of Justice, the state recently reiterated Ben-Gurion’s contention that state security was involved one way or another in the assassination of Kasztner, who had been criticized for allegedly collaborating with the Nazis during the Holocaust.
Six and a half decades later, on the agenda is a petition filed at the High Court by Nadav Kaplan, who is researching the question of the Shin Bet’s involvement in the Kastzner murder. Kaplan wants access to documents that the agency is concealing from the public so many decades on.
“Since when does a prime minister intervene in such matters?” Kaplan asks. “The issue was extremely sensitive, no doubt. The question is only why and what that tells us about the Shin Bet’s involvement in the episode.”
Researching in the archives, Kaplan found the document bearing Ben-Gurion’s signature. To complete the picture, he perused Ben-Gurion’s diary to see who the prime minister met with around the time of the directive. What he discovered only heightened his suspicions.
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On March 27, about 10 days before the 1957 gag order, the prime minister met with Isser Harel, the first director of the Shin Bet. “Isser came to see me,” Ben-Gurion wrote. “Very concerned about the tricks of the overt and covert terrorists.” To this day, two whole pages of the diary that day are censored, for unclear reasons.
Kaplan stopped at nothing to try to understand the mystery of the assassination that has stoked conspiracy theories, unfounded rumors and mountains of speculation.
“Conjecture and misgivings come to mind, which heighten the great suspicion that there was Shin Bet involvement in the assassination of Kastzner,” Kaplan says. “My motivation in this research is to get as close as possible to the truth. I have no personal or emotional interest in this tragic story, only academic, intellectual curiosity.”
‘Might harm state security even today’
The Shin Bet, meanwhile, in its tenacity in preventing publication, is only ramping up the mystery. At first the agency claimed that, besides the matter of state security, a transfer of the material could generate a heavy workload, so it wasn’t a reasonable request. But then the Shin Bet backtracked and clung only to the state-security argument.
According to the agency, it’s reluctant to declassify the Kasztner file because it might contain “details such as modes of operation of the service, tasks of the service, details on information sources of the service and intelligence targets [informants] whose disclosure might harm state security even today.”
The Shin Bet did not offer a clear answer on how state security in 2021 could be harmed by an episode from 1957. The agency provided additional details to the judges behind closed doors.
On the night between March 3 and 4, 1957, pistol shots were fired at Kastzner – sometimes spelled Kastner – a journalist, senior official at the Trade and Industry Ministry and member of Mapai, the forerunner of today’s Labor Party. The shooting took place next to his home in Tel Aviv. Less than two years earlier, a court had found that Kasztner had “sold his soul to the devil” by collaborating with the Nazis.
In the historical record, Kasztner, a leader of the Aid and Rescue Committee in German-occupied Hungary, comes across as a rescuer of Jews but also as a collaborator with the Nazis – on a scale and under circumstances still not fully known. The deal he cut with Adolf Eichmann enabled 1,685 Jews to board a train to freedom instead of to the gas chambers, but their lives, Kasztner’s critics say, were bought at the price of the murder of hundreds of thousands of other Jews who were not warned of their fate.
Together with the questions about Kasztner’s character and motives during the Holocaust in Hungary – questions not part of Kaplan’s research – many questions remain about the assassination. Kasztner was wounded in the shooting and taken to Hadassah Hospital in Tel Aviv, where he died 12 days later. Ze’ev Eckstein, who was associated with far-right groups, confessed to the shooting and was convicted of murder. Previously, he had been a Shin Bet informant, but when he pulled the trigger he was no longer working for the agency, which realized that he had crossed lines.
Two other people were also convicted in the case: Dan Shemer, a driver, and Yosef Menkes, who supplied the gun. Later, Eckstein claimed that there was another person at the scene, who shot Kasztner.
In 1958, the judges posthumously exonerated Kasztner of the grim charge of collaborating with the Nazis and thus preparing the ground for the murder of so many Hungarian Jews. But, unanimously, they found that he had saved a Nazi war criminal from punishment when he gave false testimony on his behalf and on behalf of three other senior Nazis after the war. Kasztner’s granddaughter, Labor Party leader Merav Michaeli, has been trying for years to clear his name, which continues to stir powerful emotions.
Court hearing this Monday
Kaplan, 76, lives on a moshav agricultural community. A businessman and reserve colonel in the air force, he has a Ph.D. in memory studies from the University of Haifa; he wrote his dissertation on Raoul Wallenberg, who saved thousands of Jews in German-occupied Hungary during the Holocaust.
Regarding the Kasztner case, Kaplan hasn’t given up despite the Shin Bet’s effort to conceal the material. Besides his petition to the High Court, he has obtained very valuable material on the episode – “all by kosher and legal means,” he says. The list includes Kastzner’s medical file from Hadassah Hospital, the autopsy report from the Israel National Center of Forensic Medicine, the police file of the murder investigation and the transcripts of the court proceedings.
He kept asking questions as he analyzed the material, with the aid of experts, among them the head of the center of forensic medicine, Dr. Chen Kugel. He’s not eager to reveal his findings as long as the High Court hasn’t decided on his request to see the Shin Bet material. On Monday another hearing will be held; maybe then the research will advance another step on the way to a forthright investigation and publication.
In the meantime, Kaplan wonders why the Shin Bet is clinging to its argument that the material could harm state security when details about the agency’s methods, tasks, sources and informants were already made public in 2015, when Haaretz published the minutes of a cabinet meeting a few days after the shooting. At that meeting, Shin Bet chief Harel provided a dramatic update on the episode.
Those minutes, parts of which are still classified, raise serious questions such as why Harel sought to pardon the assassins even before they had served their prison terms. (“If we can release the young men on bail by the time the trial ends and they behave all right, the judge will make his ruling, but they can be pardoned later,” he said.)
Another question is why the assassination wasn’t thwarted even though the Shin Bet knew about the intention. (“Those arrested were among the potential terrorists, those who were known to us across various periods from personal conversations, including a plan to murder Dr. Kasztner about a year ago.”)
And how was it that someone who had worked as a Shin Bet informant was the assassin? (“He took part in a plan to assassinate Kasztner in 1955, a plan that was not carried out.”)
Kaplan believes there is no longer any reason to conceal any information. “The High Court must rule whether it received a concrete explanation of the concerns about harm to state security, or whether it will lend its hand to secrecy based on an argument that lacks any evidence,” he says.