New York’s Museum of Jewish Heritage has engaged in an act of supreme cultural and political hubris: it is hosting a show consisting entirely of Israeli Mossad artifacts designed to boost the image of that agency and, by extension, Brand Israel. To do this, the Mossad had to go way back in its archive, before it was reduced to assassinating second and third-rate Palestinian activists. That is, it returned to its yesteryear and the kidnapping of Nazi mastermind, Adolf Eichmann in Argentina. A team led by the infamous Mossad spymaster, Rafi Eitan, spirited him from a street, drugged him (under the supervision of a Mossad physician who later committed suicide), and brought him to Israel. There the State tried him for crimes against the Jewish people and executed him by hanging.
There are a plethora of troublesome issues involving this exhibition and the overall subject of Eichmann’s trial and execution. First, why would any serious museum agree to host an exhibit curated by the intelligence service of a foreign country? Would the same museum host a CIA exhibit about the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, the arrest of Nelson Mandela, the overthrow of Mossadegh, or the waterboarding of Sheikh Mohammed? I’m not denying that these are all important historical events worthy of consideration. But why should we permit the intelligence service responsible for the arrest, murder, torture or execution tell only its side of the story? What does a museum owe to such a government agency, which routinely engages in murder and skullduggery, to promote its image?
In short, the New York museum has done a tremendous disservice not just to its audience, but also to the very mission of museums in general. Predictably, the NY Times review of the exhibit offers no discussion of this important issue.
As I mentioned above, it’s clear what the Mossad’s motivation is: to burnish its image, which has grown tarnished by its involvement with shady and failed operations like the assassinations of Khaled Meshal, Mohammed al-Mabouh, and Omar Zaid. It wants to remind the world of a time when it was a white knight on behalf of the Jewish people, and not a seedy assassin murdering defenceless Palestinians.
Now, to get to an even bigger question: Eichmann’s apprehension and execution. Before I enter into this aspect of the matter let’s be clear: Eichmann was a war criminal. Of that there is no doubt. The question is what mechanism should have been used to adjudicate his case? Israel chose precisely the wrong one. Eichmann was a chief engineer of the Holocaust. That is, a Jewish genocide. But even more importantly, he committed crimes against humanity. And his crimes should’ve been considered in that light; and not just as crimes against the Jewish people.
Not to mention that the Zionist response to the Holocaust was, in its way, almost as morally compromised as the response of the Pope and Catholic Church. Ben Gurion famously made clear that the fate of European Jewry interested him only insofar as it advanced the interests of the Yishuv. Further, both the Zionist right and left collaborated with the Nazis to the detriment of Jewish victims. The purpose of such collaboration was to advance the narrow interests of the Yishuv, rather the interests of the Jewish people as a whole or humanity. Such collaboration tainted any future right of the State to judge Eichmann.
Instead, Israel should have arranged for an international tribunal to judge him. By taking on this role itself, it restricted Eichmann’s crime to a narrower one against the Jews alone. The moral lesson should’ve been larger than that. The crimes against Jews should’ve been seen as crimes against all human beings, not just a single people, race or religion.
Personally, I don’t think execution was the proper punishment. When a State executes anyone, even a war criminal, it sinks to the level of depravity of the perpetrator. Justice must be a done on a higher level than state-sanctioned vengeance.
Then there is the more controversial matter of Allied crimes which were never examined, let alone adjudicated. Who gave the U.S. the right to murder 25,000 Dresdeners in a single night during WWII? Or to murder 225,000 Japanese in the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Why has the world not offered a peep about these acts of moral depravity?
Or to enter into even more controversial territory: why has there been no moral and judicial accounting for David Ben Gurion’s expulsion of 1-million indigenous Palestinians during the Nakba? Israel engaged in this foul deed of ethnic cleansing in the very shadow of the Holocaust. One might say that it even used the Holocaust indirectly as an excuse to justify these expulsions. Israel’s crime forever tainted its right to do justice in the case of Eichmann.
For all my criticism of Israel’s historical approach to the Eichmann affair, it must be said that today’s Israel would never have even bothered to take the steps Ben Gurion and Eitan did to prosecute Eichmann. Today, they simply would’ve assassinated him and been done with the matter. It would’ve saved the trouble of transporting him to Israel and imprisoning him for months before trial and then executing him. Targeted killing, a tactic perfected by Israeli intelligence agencies like the Mossad, is far “cleaner.”
Nor does Israel have a monopoly on such odious operations. Barack Obama approved and celebrated the assassination of Osama bin Laden when he had a perfect opportunity to show the world that his crimes were deserving of prosecution and punishment according to the rule of law, not the rule of the jungle.