Saddam on Trial: Lessons from the Eichmann Case

by Dr. Rafael Medoff

As the United States prepares to put Saddam Hussein on trial, it may find it useful to examine Israel’s experience in bringing a notorious war criminal to court.

In May 1960, Israeli agents captured Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in Argentina and flew him to Israel to face trial for his senior role in the genocide of six million European Jews. Israel immediately faced a torrent of international criticism.

The United Nations Security Council voted unanimously –with U.S. support– to condemn Israel for “endanger[ing] international peace and security.” The Washington Post asserted that Israel’s capture and planned prosecution of Eichmann were “tainted by lawlessness,” and that Israel had no right to act in the name of Holocaust victims or the Jewish people as a whole, which the Post called an “imaginary Jewish ethnic entity.” Time magazine accused Israel’s leaders of “inverse racism” for their position that Israel could speak for the Jewish people.

The New York Times rejected the Israeli claims that Eichmann’s role in the Nazi genocide justified Israel’s intrusion into Argentina, on the grounds that “no immoral or illegal act justifies another.” The Times also denounced the idea of trying Eichmann in Israel. It preferred that he be brought before an international tribunal since “it was not against Israel but against humanity that his crimes were committed.” This position echoed the Times’ policy during the Holocaust of deliberately obscuring the Jewish identity of Hitler’s victims. Times publisher Arthur Hays Sulzberger believed that American Jews should keep their Jewishness as hidden as possible, and made it clear to Times editors that their coverage of Nazi atrocities should likewise play down the Jewish angle. They faithfully complied.

Some U.S. church publications were particularly bitter in their attacks on Israel’s prosecution of Eichmann. An article in The Unitarian Register compared “the Jew-pursuing Nazi and the Nazi-pursuing Jew.” The Catholic newspaper The Tablet said the Eichmann trial was a reminder “that there are still some influential people around who–like Shylock of old–demand their pound of flesh.”

Some leaders might have wavered under such withering attacks. President Bush may start to have second thoughts if he faces strong criticism for his handling of Saddam. But Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion was unbending. “American journalists, who have not suffered from the Nazi atrocities, may be ‘objective’ and deny Israel’s right to try one of the greatest of the Nazi murderers,” Ben-Gurion rebuffed his challengers. “But the calamity that the Nazis inflicted on the Jewish people is a specific and unparalleled act–an act designed for the utter extermination of the entire Jewish people…Historic justice and the honor of the Jewish people demand that this should be done only by an Israeli court in the sovereign Jewish State.”

As the opening of the Eichmann trial approached, the critics took aim again. State Department officials “deplored” the prosecution of Eichmann because, they claimed, the trial was making some Western democracies “less responsive to the Berlin crisis than desired.” An editorial in the Times of London warned that while the trial might be fair, it was tainted because it “springs from an admittedly illegal act–the abduction of Eichmann from Argentina.” The Times warned ominously that the trial would have “profound effects [on Israel’s] relations with the rest of the world [and they] will not necessarily be good.”

Yet another round of criticism erupted after Eichmann was convicted and sentenced to death. The New York Times asserted that “Eichmann’s crimes are so enormous” that “hanging becomes meaningless.” Novelist Pearl Buck urged that Eichmann be kept alive so that he might be studied. The Central Conference of American (Reform) Rabbis declared its opposition to all capital punishment as a matter of principle. Martin Buber and a group of fellow-Hebrew University professors argued that some young Germans had recently shown humanistic tendencies, and executing Eichmann would “retard” the flowering of their humanism.

The New York Times’ final editorial on the subject, published following Eichmann’s execution, went so far as to argue that while Eichmann was guilty, others were also guilty of “murderous hatred”–citing the Soviet Union, Franco’s Spain, and even “our own country, where the power of the Federal Government has had to be invoked to secure equal justice for a racial minority.”

Not many pundits today will compare the United States to Saddam Hussein as the N.Y. Times compared the U.S. to the Nazis in 1962. But President Bush will surely find himself challenged for having Saddam prosecuted and punished. What remains to be seen is whether he will follow Ben-Gurion’s example and stand fast, or bend to the pressure of his critics.

(December 2003