“About Executing Eichmann”

The Arguments

Amos Lassen

On December 15, 1961, in Jerusalem, Adolf Eichmann was sentenced to death for crimes against the Jewish people and against humanity. Eichmann had been a major player in the mass deportation of Jews to Nazi extermination camps, and the judgment of the court was largely met favorably. However, a group of Holocaust survivors and intellectuals, including Hannah Arendt, Hugo Bergmann, Martin Buber, Yehuda Bacon and Gershom Scholem, called for Eichmann’s sentence to be commuted. By opposing Eichmann’s execution, they felt they were defending the values of Judaism, and raised questions about Jewish morality, and the very nature of a Jewish State.

“About Executing Eichmann” examines their arguments, bringing together texts, eyewitness accounts, archival footage, audio recordings, and materials from the time, along with discussions amongst contemporary Israeli historians and philosophers, including historians Anita Shapira and Hanna Yablonka, and philosophers Moshe Halbertal and Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin.

Not many remember this debate but it was central to its time and shows how relevant the issues continue to be today, and why we should revisit them.

Florence Jammot’s riveting documentary explores the moral and philosophical questions raised around Adolf Eichmann’s trial and execution. The film juxtaposes the two overarching themes of vengeance and justice as it explores the drama behind the attempt of a group of Jewish intellectuals to spare Eichmann’s life. Using letters, court footage, and eyewitness testimonies, Jammot reveals the astonishing true story of Buber, Scholem, Arendt, Bacon, and others who lobbied Israeli Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and President Yitzhak Ben-Zvi not to execute Eichmann, but rather to commute his sentence. Their thoughts revolved around how could death of one man atone for the deaths of six million and if Israel had the authority to pass judgment on behalf of all Jews. Since Eichmann’s indictment was (for the most part) crimes against the Jewish people, how could he receive a fair and unbiased trial in Israel? Jammot explores each of these questions interview style, and allows her speakers generous time to make their points. Her choices of commentators make the film.

In the film there are two important informational omissions: Eichmann’s trial was the first one to be televised in history and that Eichmann has been the only person in Israeli history to be executed.

Jammot’s film is not for the novice, as it provides little background information. It assumes that the viewer has knowledge of not only the Holocaust and Eichmann’s role in it, but also of the various Israeli statesmen and intellectuals involved. For those who are familiar with these events of the early 1960s, the film is a wonderful work. Particularly moving is the large segment given to painter Yehuda Bacon, an Auschwitz survivor, who conquers his own demons and petitions for Eichmann’s life to be spared.

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