Reading about Adolf Eichmann during Israel’s latest turmoil

By Jayson Jacoby June 04, 2010 11:37 am

The Israeli commando team’s deadly raid on a flotilla delivering aid to Gaza happened, coincidentally, just a couple of days after I started reading a book which influenced my reaction to the tragedy.

The title of the book, by Neal Bascomb, is “Hunting Eichmann.”

In case the name Eichmann is not familiar, the subtitle explains the context: “How a band of survivors and a young spy agency chased down the world’s most notorious Nazi.”

That being Adolf Eichmann.

Although Eichmann did not conceive the Holocaust — that infamy belongs, of course, to a different Adolf — he was beyond question the most prolific practitioner of the Final Solution.

Eichmann was to genocide what Henry Ford was to the manufacture of automobiles.

Eichmann was rather more clever — and, perhaps as important, luckier — than many other Nazi leaders who were captured by the Allies after World War II and convicted of war crimes at the Nuremberg tribunal.

Eichmann eluded his pursuers for 15 years. He lived in Argentina for most of that period.

A team of agents from Israeli’s Mossad and Shin Bet — security agencies roughly analogous to the American CIA — kidnapped Eichmann near his Argentine home in May 1960 and brought him to Israel to stand trial.

Eichmann was convicted and sentenced to death by hanging.

Although he avoided the ignominy of Nuremberg, Eichmann came to epitomize what is known as the “Nuremberg defense” — he was merely doing his job, in service to his fatherland, and it was not his fault that that job required the extermination of six million people.

Such policy matters were, as we might say today, “above his pay grade.”

In one sense Eichmann seems a more frightening character than even Hitler, whose wild-eyed malevolence is so blatant that we can reassure ourselves that such creatures come along but rarely, like tornadoes or tsunamis.

Eichmann, though, was perfectly ordinary, the sort of man you’d pay to calculate your taxes or write you an insurance policy.

It’s a scary thought, indeed, to realize that such a man can transition so seamlessly from banal bureaucratic tasks to the monstrous crimes of Auschwitz and Dachau and Bergen-Belsen.

Eichmann was defiant to his captors, literally to his last breath.

As he stood on the gallows in 1962 he yelled “Long live Germany!”

Anyway, as a result of Bascomb’s book I had been pondering the Holocaust and its repercussions when I heard about the Israeli commandos killing nine people on the flotilla.

The reactions were as predictable as cumulus on a hot summer afternoon.

Habitual critics of Israel denounced the raid as state-sponsored terrorism.

Israel’s apologists deemed the bloodshed a necessary act to defend the Jewish nation from those who yearn to destroy it.

I doubt that either of those definitions is precisely accurate.

The flotilla was hardly the Spanish Armada, certainly. But neither was the mission as undeniably benign as a Red Cross operation.

The Danish Institute for International Studies contends that the Turkish organization that sponsored the flotilla has ties to al-Quaida. That organization is not on America’s list of terror groups, however.

You don’t have to be a conspiracy buff, in any case, to acknowledge the plausibility of a purported humanitarian effort which has aims that aren’t wholly peaceful.

Still, the formulaic “defense of Israel” claim seems to me a less than satisfying explanation in this case.

It reminds me, in fact, of the sinking of the British ocean liner Lusitania by a German submarine in 1915, the second year of World War I.

Although subsequent investigation proved that the British ship was carrying ammunition for the Allies, as Germany claimed, the incident still carries the stigma, as well it should, that attends any massacre of innocent civilians by military forces.

I think Israel is entitled to protect its citizens.

And I believe it is presumptuous for the country’s critics to reflexively assume that in every bloody clash the Israelis were the aggressor, motivated by some undefined desire for conquest and vengeance rather than by any legitimate defensive grounds.

The Eichmann book reminded me, with the brute truth of a tale well told, that the the scale of evil exemplified by the Holocaust is so extreme that its effect is immune to the erosive power of time.

To pretend otherwise is akin, it seems to me, to suggesting that black Americans ought to just get over the whole slavery thing.

And yet I think it is equally insipid for Israel’s staunch supporters to act as though the nation is incapable of mistakes, and sometimes fatal ones.

No one, save those whose intellect is overwhelmed by their hatred, would insist that the experience of the Nazi death camps should not still inform Israel’s response to its enemies.

To argue otherwise is not merely to deny history, but rather to diminish one of its more malignant chapters.

But neither does the unconscionable treatment which the Jewish people have endured excuse Israel when it violates the basic standards of a civilized society.

It seems to me disingenuous to even imply that the handful of modest vessels that Israel targeted, regardless of the flotilla’s real purpose, constituted a significant threat to a nation that has, many times over its 62 years of existence, defeated vastly more dangerous foes.

Israel, of course, has never sacrificed its security so as to cultivate popularity among the world’s nations.

And I doubt this latest episode will accomplish anything except to further inflame those who brand Israel as either villain or victim.

The great lot of people, though, I expect will remain ambivalent.

I imagine I will too.

When Israel kills for a reason that is not above reproach, I will, I suspect, wonder initially why the nation didn’t exhibit the very brand of humanity that was so brutally repressed when monsters such as Adolf Eichmann terrorized Europe.

But then I’ll remember Bascomb’s book, and the vast library of even more revolting stories it joins.

And I’ll remind myself that neither I, nor anybody I’ve loved, ever had a number tattooed on an arm, or was ever forced to pass beneath a gate and walk toward the long, low, brooding buildings, and the tall brick towers belching black, ashy smoke.

Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.