This Day in Jewish History

1948: An Israeli Army Captain Is Wrongly Charged With Treason and Shot

Meir Tobianski was the first person Israel ever executed, only unlike Adolf Eichmann, the second, he was innocent.

Meir Tobianski, Israel Defense Forces captain who was charged with treason after a perfunctory investigation, found guilty and shot that same day - and exonerated a year later.
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On June 30, 1948, Israel Defense Forces captain Meir Tobianski was charged with treason after a perfunctory investigation, before being hastily tried and found guilty by a drumhead court martial. That same day, with no legal representation and no recourse to appeal, he was executed by firing squad.

A year later, Tobianski was rehabilitated and his conviction reversed, after it became clear that the evidence against him was scanty and his prosecution trumped-up.

Meir Tobianski was born on May 20, 1904, in Kovno (now Kaunas), Lithuania. He grew up both there and in Bratislava, Slovakia, and studied at Kovno’s Hebrew Gymnasium, graduating in 1920.

Leaping to conclusions

After engineering studies in both Russia and Lithuania, Tobianski emigrated to Eretz Israel in 1925. Initially he did physical labor of many varieties and then, in 1926, he entered a training program to be a policeman for the British mandatory government.

During World War II, in the context of his service in the Haganah, the pre-state militia of the Jewish community in Palestine, he enlisted with Britain’s Royal Engineering Corps, reaching the rank of major by the end of the war.

After the Haganah and the other Jewish militias were merged into a single army, Tobianski, whose civilian job by then was as an engineer with the British-owned Jerusalem Electric Corporation, was sworn into the IDF on June 28, 1948.

At the time, Jordanian artillery had scored several precise attacks on water-processing plants in Israeli-held parts of Jerusalem. Simultaneously, an officer in the departing British police force was found to be in possession of a list of sites connected to electricity production.

Isser Beeri, the head of the newly established Military Intelligence unit of the IDF put two and two together and got five: He decided that someone from inside the electric company was leaking technical information about the precise location of strategic sites to the Jordanians, perhaps via British sympathizers.

Not only that, but he believed that the spy must be Meir Tobianski.

On June 30, Tobianski traveled for army business to Tel Aviv, where Beeri ordered him detained. Brought to an army location, Tobianski was interrogated by Beeri and three other senior officers – Benjamin Gibli, David Karon and Avraham Kraemer.

Tobianski apparently acknowledged that he maintained good relations with some of his British colleagues, something he thought could only benefit the Jewish forces, and even admitted that he had shared with them a list of industrial customers in the Jerusalem area – although it later became clear that these lists did not reveal any sensitive military information.

Shot by a 6-man squad

Beeri and his colleagues informed Tobianski that they were charging him with espionage, and immediately had him transported outside Tel Aviv to an abandoned school building between the destroyed Arab villages of Bayt Susin and Bayt Jiz, near Kibbutz Hulda.

His trial lasted all of 45 minutes, at the end of which he was summarily found guilty, removed from the schoolhouse and shot to death by a six-man firing squad that Beeri had organized even before Tobianski’s arrest. His body was dumped in a hole and covered up with soil.

Several months later, in an unrelated case, MI head Beeri was tried for the unlawful killing of an Arab-Israeli army informant whom he suspected of being a double agent. By now, Tobianski’s widow had begun making a lot of noise in her effort to learn her husband’s fate. The military advocate general used the opportunity of Beeri’s trial to investigate the Tobianski case.

Beeri, Gibli, Karon and Kraemer all acknowledged their role in Tobianski’s trial and execution, but only Beeri was put on trial – for manslaughter. He was convicted, and sentenced to a day’s imprisonment – before being immediately pardoned by President Chaim Weizmann.

At least that ended Beeri’s army career. Gibli went on to become the head of military intelligence himself, and a central figure in another military scandal, the so-called Lavon Affair; Kraemer, who Hebraized his name to “Kidron,” later became the director general of the Foreign Ministry; and Karon went on to have a long career in the Mossad.

On July 1, 1949, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion sent a letter to Tobianski’s widow informing her that his conviction had been posthumously reversed, his rank restored, and his body would be reinterred, eventually at Mt. Herzl military cemetery, in Jerusalem.

No other suspect was ever charged with the crimes for which Tobianski had been executed. Thus Tobianski became, though no fault of his own, the only man other than Adolf Eichmann to have had a death sentence carried out against him under Israeli law.