Having seen both a documentary and narrative film about Hannah Arendt that focused on her famous (and to some, infamous) reporting on the Adolf Eichmann trial in Jerusalem for The New Yorker magazine, I was curious to see what “Operation Finale” had to say. Directed by Paul Weitz, who is best known for commercial work like “American Pie” and “The Twilight Saga”, it chronicles the kidnapping of Adolf Eichmann in May 1960 by a team of Mossad agents led by Peter Malkin, who is played by Oscar Isaac. Ben Kingsley co-stars as Eichmann and makes a trip to your local movie theater worthwhile. Matthew Orton’s screenplay develops the Eichmann character close enough to Arendt’s “banality of evil” to have provoked the Times of Israel to fulminate:
Having barely outlined Eichmann’s role in the genocide, the film proceeds to humanize him with the assistance of the Mossad team. Eichmann is spoon-fed like a bird, toasts a L’Chaim with Malkin, and performs calisthenics. There’s also a scene with Eichmann on the toilet bowl, during which he makes the Mossad agents laugh by telling Nazi jokes.
I doubt any actor could have done a better job than Kingsley who steals every scene, something not hard to do in a film that has not much to work with dramatically. Making a film about the abduction of Eichmann is hardly the stuff that would draw Mission Impossible fans to a theater. Even if “Operation Finale” devotes an inordinate amount of time in fleshing out the technical details in an elaborate plot to evade Argentina’s police, there is no suspense in a film that has a preordained conclusion.
Instead of being a roller-coaster ride with car chases and gunplay, it is much more of a two-character play between Malkin and Eichmann to determine whether the Mossad agent would be able to get him to sign an extradition document that was necessary to transport him to Israel for the trial. Malkin convinces his associates that the best way to get him to sign the paper was to treat him kindly rather than to torture him. The main body of the film consists of Malkin discussing Eichmann’s past with him calmly and even warmly despite his flashbacks of a sister and her children being murdered by the Nazis.
When the Times of Israel refers to Eichmann toasting his captors with “L’Chayim”, that is not the half of it. The creative team clearly lacked the nerve to develop a character even more in line with Arendt’s article:
Eichmann’s account, during the police examination, of how he was introduced into the new department—an account that was, of course, distorted but not wholly devoid of truth—oddly recalls this fool’s paradise. The first thing that happened was that his new boss, a certain von Mildenstein, who shortly thereafter got himself transferred to Albert Speer’s Organisation Todt, where he was in charge of highway construction (he was what Eichmann pretended to be—an engineer by profession), required him to read Theodor Herzl’s “Der Judenstaat,” the famous Zionist classic, which converted Eichmann immediately and forever to Zionism. From then on, as he repeated over and over, he thought of hardly anything but a “political solution” (as opposed to the later “physical solution,” the first meaning expulsion and the second extermination) and how to “get some firm ground under the feet of the Jews.” To this end, he began spreading the gospel among his S.S. comrades—giving lectures and writing pamphlets. He then acquired a smattering of Hebrew, which enabled him to read, haltingly, a Yiddish newspaper—not a very difficult accomplishment, since Yiddish is basically an old German dialect written in Hebrew letters, and can be understood by any German-speaking person who has mastered a few dozen Hebrew words.
Since the film is narrowly focused on the technical details of the kidnapping and the “soft cop” tactics of Peter Malkin, you’d have to look elsewhere to put these events into historical and political context. Since my main motivation in seeing the film was to help me provide that context, let me share what I discovered with you.
David Ben-Gurion, Prime Minister of Israel in 1960 and who appears briefly as a character (Simon Russell Beale) sending off the abductors to Argentina, gave the green light to this patently illegal violation of Argentina’s sovereignty to stave off a domestic crisis in Israel rather than to render justice for those who had suffered during what historian and CounterPunch contributor Arno Mayer called the Judeocide.
In the chapter on Eichmann in Tim Holt’s aptly titled 2017 book “Selling the Holocaust: From Auschwitz to Schindler; How History is Bought, Packaged and Sold”, you can find an analysis that gets beneath the Zionist rhetoric. Holt begins by describing the Judeocide as something the Zionist establishment considered a problem for the Diaspora. The creation of the state of Israel meant the creation of a new kind of Jew, the muscular Sabra who was in control of his destiny and prepared to defend the land he had stolen fearlessly unlike the Jews of Eastern Europe who had gone meekly to the death camps.
Leftist historian Tom Segev recounts the story of one survivor who upon joining a Kibbutz “felt shunned by the young people…she sensed arrogance, even mockery and hostility”. They were constantly being bombarded with questions like “Why did you not revolt?” This attitude took the most extreme form in a tendency dubbed “Canaanism” that rejected any links between the Sabra and the Diaspora Jews. Indeed, even remarkably, they began to identify more with Israeli Arabs, something that clearly worried Ben-Gurion.
During the trial, prosecutor Gideon Hausner emphasized acts of resistance to the Nazis rather than submission, singling out Zionists rather than socialists in these desperate skirmishes. In doing so, he hoped to bridge the gap between the Sabras and the Diaspora Jews. For the Judeocide to serve effectively as a rallying cry for unity between the Sabras and the survivors, it was crucial for the trial to be held in Jerusalem rather than Germany where Nazi war criminals had customarily been tried. That drove the mission to flout Argentina’s national sovereignty above all.
For General Telford Taylor, the chief prosecutor at Nuremberg, the kidnapping undermined the very basis for international law that the Nazi dictatorship had destroyed. In a January 22, 1961 article titled “Large Questions in the Eichmann Case”, he wrote:
The victims of the Nazi “final solution of the Jewish problem,” in which Eichmann is implicated, were in the power of the Third Reich then, just as Eichmann is now in the power of Israel. If Israel as a sovereign nation is not “answerable to any external authority” for its handling of Eichmann, neither was the Third Reich (or Eichmann) for its handling of the Jews.
It is indeed a bitter irony that arguments once used by Hitler are now echoed by those who assume to speak for the people he sought to exterminate. They are based on an absolute nationalism which is irreconcilable with the very idea of international law, and would put beyond its reach the conduct of Eichmann or of Adolf Hitler himself.
Taylor, who worked in several New Deal agencies in the 1930s, was unlike most members of the military brass. He was a deeply principled man who adhered to a single standard of justice. After the Nuremberg trials, he returned to private life and spoke out against Joe McCarthy in a speech at West Point in 1953, calling him a “dangerous adventurer”, branding his tactics “a vicious weapon of the extreme right against their political opponents” and criticizing president Dwight D. Eisenhower for not stopping McCarthy’s “shameful abuse of Congressional investigatory power.” In other words, he was the polar opposite of the military men Trump has made cabinet members, even if he mostly ignores what they say. Taylor also defended several victims of McCarthyism, including labor leader Harry Bridges and Junius Scales, a CP leader who I interviewed about 20 years ago and wrote about in CounterPunch three years ago.
Taylor eventually became a Columbia University law professor and one who refused to sign a statement issued by the Law School denouncing the 1968 sit-in at Low Library as beyond the “allowable limits” of civil disobedience. He attacked the court-martial of Lt. William Calley, because his superior officers were not included. He denounced the 1972 bombing of Hanoi as “senseless and immoral” and visited the city in December of that year with Joan Baez. A remarkable man in every respect.
Taylor clearly saw the direction Israel was going. Deploying various illegal methods, ranging from abduction to death squads, it has used the same rhetoric it used against its enemies—internal and external—that it used against Eichmann. The irony, of course, is that its victims were challenging the lawlessness of a state that arguably was applying the same tactics Eichmann used against the Jews.
The Palestinians have borne the brunt of Mossad and Shin Bet’s Gestapo like tactics but Israelis have suffered as well. The same kind of extra-judicial kidnapping that was used to put Eichmann on trial has subsequently been used to crush an “enemy of the state” named Mordecai Vanunu who spent 18 years in an Israeli prison (11 of them in solitary confinement) for revealing details of Israel’s nuclear weapons program to the British press in 1986.
Israel did not want to abduct him in England since that would jeopardize the close ties that had been built with Margaret Thatcher. Instead, a female Mossad agent lured him onto a boat that headed to Italy for a cruise. When he left the boat to go sightseeing in Rome, three Mossad agents overpowered him and injected him with a paralyzing drug similar to the one that made it possible to transport Eichmann from a safe house to the El Al jet awaiting the party at Buenos Aires’s airport. Vanunu was not permitted to speak to the media so instead he wrote the details of his abduction on the palm of his hands and held them up to the windows of a van transporting him to a prison so that journalists could get his story.
Scientists were able to glean from Vanunu’s data that Israel had enough plutonium to produce 150 nuclear weapons, enough to create a nuclear holocaust. If the Nazis had been capable of the industrial-scale murder of six million Jews, imagine the effect of unleashing such an arsenal.
Given Netanyahu’s threats of using a preemptive strike against Iran, conceivably using a bunker-buster tactical nuclear weapon, the stakes are much higher than they were in the 1930s. A global WWIII using nuclear weapons could have the effect of creating a thousand Auschwitzes. In light of that, the need for international law of the kind that Telford Taylor called for is more urgent than ever. Limited wars can become unlimited very rapidly in an epoch of insane authoritarian rulers like Donald Trump. One can understand why so many on the left worry about him becoming the next Adolf Hitler when the real worry should be about him using weapons that Hitler could only dream of.