On May 11, 1960 Ricardo Klement was walking on a street of the Argentinean suburb of Buenos Aires when he was suddenly forced into a car by four men. Klement’s real name was Adolf Eichmann and the four men who abducted him were Mossad agents. The fact that this abduction took place in Argentina was no accident. There was a large German community in Argentina that was friendly to the Nazis during the war. After the war, Argentina opened an escape route for hundreds of Nazi war criminals and Adolf Eichmann was among them.
Safe in Argentina, these war criminals settled into obscurity but for the dogged efforts of the Nazi hunter, Simon Wiesenthal. Wiesenthal uncovered the true identity of Eichmann living under the false identity of Ricardo Klement and passed his information to the Mossad. The Mossad began a period of verification and observation until the four Mossad agents launched what we now call special operations and captured Eichmann on that fateful day in May 1960 and brought him to trial in Israel.
Prime Minister David Ben Gurion was elated that the mass-murderer Eichmann was now in Israeli hands. Ben Gurion had previously made the risky decision that Eichmann was to be captured rather than assassinated. An attempt to capture was much riskier than an assassination (consider the recent parallel experience of this country’s attempted capture of Osama Bin Laden). But now Eichmann was in Israel ready to stand trial. This trial would have international significance since the world would hear the heart-rending testimony of Holocaust survivors and Eichmann’s role in the mass murder of Jews. In 1961, a scrupulously fair trial was held in Jerusalem with Eichmann represented by his choice of German lawyers. The world watched with renewed horror as one Holocaust survivor after another described the indescribable, the breakdown of morality as Germany attempted to destroy the Jewish people. The trial lasted over four months and Eichmann was found guilty of crimes against humanity and sentenced to death by hanging.
Justice done? Not quite that simple. A flustered Argentina entered a charge in the United Nations that its sovereign territory had been violated by Israel when the Mossad secretly abducted Eichmann from Buenos Aires. Argentina further charged that Eichmann’s trial should have been held in Argentina, not Israel. It was up to Golda Meir, then Israel’s Foreign Minister, to defend Israel against the Argentinean charges. Golda was furious upon hearing that, of all countries, Argentina was bringing charges against Israel. Argentina, the country that consistently refused to extradite Nazis for trial. Argentina, the country that provided refuge for Nazis after the war. And Argentina, the country where Eichmann had hid for 10 years without being detected, was bringing charges against Israel!? But Golda, outraged or not, had the responsibility to answer Argentina’s charges in the U.N. International Court of Law.
Golda’s defense was that the people who abducted Eichmann were private citizens, not acting as Israelis. Further, there was strong evidence that Argentina harbored Nazi war criminals and this indicated that Argentina would not have cooperated if Israel had asked to have Eichmann extradited. To the charge that Israel was just seeking revenge, Golda answered that, “This is not a matter of revenge,” and quoting from the Jewish poet, Bialik, “Revenge for a small child, the devil has not devised.” Golda’s impassioned defense was not successful; the U.N. Security Council found Israel guilty and was ordered to pay reparations to Argentina. But Argentina found that it was no victory if you won in a court of law but lost in the court of international opinion.
The world had paid close attention to the Eichmann trial and considered that Israel had carried out a major victory for human justice. Bowing to public opinion, Argentina settled her case with the simple admission that Israel had violated her sovereign space.
Herb Belkin writes and teaches about modern Jewish history, the Zionist movement and the epic story of the founding of the Jewish homeland. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.