Lessons from the Eichmann trial, 40 years on

By Elli Wohlgelernter

Jerusalem (April 16, 2001) - No one could have known on April 11, 1961, just how much of an impact the trial of Adolf Eichmann would have on Israeli history and society, but the result of that seminal moment was so great that two conferences are being held this week to mark its 40th anniversary.
Last night saw the opening of a two-day symposium jointly sponsored by Hebrew University and Yad Vashem, while tomorrow begins a two-day conference at Ben-Gurion University. Both gatherings will focus not so much on the trial, but rather on how it influenced and forever changed Israeli society, from the educational system to the way Israelis look at themselves.
"One of the impacts on society was the vision of Israel's place vis-a-vis the other nations, Israel's place in the world," said Hanna Yablonka, a lecturer at Ben-Gurion University and author of The State of Israel vs. Adolf Eichmann, just published in Hebrew and due out in English in September.
"The concept that 'all the world is against us,' was very much emphasized during the trial. It was a concept that Israelis have a predestination - they are predestined to be hated, they will never be a normal state among other states."
Until that time, Yablonka said, one of the successes of Zionism was that it gave Jews a sense of normalcy, that despite having enemies like the Arabs, there was never a feeling that the whole world was against the Jews.
"It gave a very pessimistic worldview," said Yablonka, who is participating at both conferences. "It is a key to understanding some of the fears, the existential fears, of Israelis, even today, and to understand some of the decision-making processes in Israel, because those who were in their youth in those days are today holding the country on their shoulders."
One of the most important things to come out of the Eichmann trial, on a universal level, according to Ya'acov Lozowick, director of archives at Yad Vashem, was Hannah Arendt's concept of "the banality of evil," which Lozowick explained as how one "can get caught up in something and not realize what you are doing, not truly realizing what you are doing - you get carried along by the winds of history and peer pressure, all sorts of other things," and not because you subscribe to the ideology of murdering Jews.
"Outside of Israel, that concept is probably the main thing the Eichmann trial is remembered for," he said. "[Arendt] was one of the most intelligent people in the 20th century in the whole globe, but she was wrong on that one.
"Many accept her concept of the 'banality of evil' as something that she was right about. Having read the documents of Eichmann -- not the trial, of Eichmann -- I think she was wrong," he said.
Perhaps the single greatest impact on Israeli society, historians agree, is how the trial brought forward the whole subject of the Holocaust, for Israelis and specifically for survivors.
"It raised the consciousness of Israeli society to what had happened," said David Bankier, head of the International Research Institute of Yad Vashem and a professor at Hebrew University. "Until then the survivors were rather silent about their ordeal - this gave legitimacy to the cultural and political presence of the survivors in Israeli society. Before that they felt ashamed, compared to the heroes, the Israeli sabras, who had fought the Arabs.
"After the trial, their suffering was part of something that could be presented and not be ashamed of."
Survivors felt ashamed, Bankier said, also by the way they were regarded by the Israelis.
"One of the reasons was the way the sabras looked at them - as losers.
"These people just created the state, and beat up seven Arab nations, and suddenly you have these people coming from Europe having achieved nothing, short of surviving."
Yablonka said the trial "really started an historical process, an historical turning point, in the way Israelis knew the Holocaust. They had a lot of information, but most of them, those who were not survivors, knew about the Holocaust for the first time and first-hand during the Eichmann trial."
He said that as a result of the trial, the education system was forced to change.
"The impact of the trial was so profound that the educational system had to adapt, and one of the adaptations it made was putting, slowly, the Holocaust chapter into a central place in the educational system," she said. "Today it's a must, an obligatory course for matriculation.
"After the trial they wrote books to study from - there were no books to study the Holocaust before that. And they started the trips to Poland as a result, in 1963, as an initiative of Holocaust survivors who testified at trial."
The one thing that bothers Yablonka today about the Eichmann episode is that the authorities wouldn't let historians interview Eichmann in jail.
"Many historians applied, and all were denied this very important witness to be questioned," she said. "It was a very big loss for historiography."
Asked to explain Israel's position, Yablonka said, "They didn't want the show to be stolen from them."

The Jerusalem Post, 16 avril 2001. This article can also be read at <>
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