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Were Jewish collaborators victims or perpetrators?

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Bitter Reckoning: Israel Tries Holocaust Survivors as Nazi Collaborators by Dan Porat (Harvard University Press)

After the Shoah, finding Nazi perpetrators and bringing them to trial was considered a sacred moral duty in western countries. But what about finding and prosecuting those Jews who collaborated with the Nazis, whether by serving as kapos in concentration camps, as members of Jewish police forces or on Judenräte (Jewish councils) in Nazi-occupied countries?

Prof. Dan Porat of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, author of the highly acclaimed book The Boy: A Holocaust Story, has written another gripping Shoah-related book. This time, he addresses a little-known chapter of Israeli history when criminal proceedings against such Jews actually took place.

Bitter Reckoning: Israel Tries Holocaust Survivors as Nazi Collaborators begins right after the Second World War, before the State of Israel existed. Porat describes the horror of some Shoah survivors when they found themselves living in the same European displaced persons (DP) camps as other Jews who had mistreated them in concentration camps, or whom they considered responsible for the death of a relative. At times, vigilante Jews attacked alleged Jewish collaborators and occasionally lynched them, sometimes without even the benefit of a kangaroo court trial. At other times, Jews or DP camp authorities convened “honour courts,” which heard evidence against alleged collaborators without the formal rules of judicial procedure. They imposed “penalties” such as public censure or barring the accused from holding office in the Jewish community.

Porat describes how even before the State of Israel was two years old, the Ministry of Justice introduced the Nazis and Nazi Collaborators Punishment Law in the Knesset to allow proceedings against such Jews to be heard in the state’s criminal court system. (None of the crimes had actually taken place in Israel, but there are examples from other countries of retroactive extraterritorial legislation for crimes against humanity.) This law was mostly used to facilitate trials of alleged Jewish collaborators, although when Adolf Eichmann was abducted and tried in Israel in 1961, it served as the basis for his conviction and execution, too.

For a number of decades, Israel restricted access to the files of these controversial trials. Once the restrictions were lifted, Porat set to work.

Israeli prosecutors in those early years argued that the Jewish defendants were guilty of crimes against humanity, war crimes and/or membership in an enemy organization. Eventually, Israeli courts at some level rejected each of these claims. In one case, a lower Israeli court actually sentenced an alleged Jewish collaborator to death, but a higher court overturned the sentence.

Can a kapo who harmed a few dozen Jews under his or her control seriously be guilty of a crime against humanity? Can someone commit a war crime or belong to an enemy organization when the enemy – the Nazis – did not see that person as being on their side?

Beyond this definitional problem, should Jewish kapos be seen as perpetrators, evil people who cruelly harmed other Jews in an attempt to keep themselves alive? Or were they victims, just like other Jews? Many Jews in the Shoah, not just kapos and members of Judenräte, faced impossible moral dilemmas. Is it appropriate for a court of law to decide whether they were victims or perpetrators?

Formal trials were poor mechanisms for arriving at truth. Defence attorneys must be allowed to cross-examine witnesses vigorously; they cannot tread lightly when their clients’ liberty or even lives could be at stake. Meanwhile, the memories of Shoah survivors of events from a few decades before were inevitably imperfect. Subjecting them to vigorous cross-examination led to ugly scenes in Israeli courts, as Porat describes movingly. Ultimately, he concludes that the informal proceedings used in honour courts, with all their imperfections, would have been significantly better.

Porat puts these trials into a broader framework, analyzing the changes in Israeli attitudes to Shoah survivors over the years. In the earliest years of the state, many Zionists had sympathy only for those Jews who actively resisted the Nazis, disdaining all Jews who allegedly went to their deaths “like sheep to the slaughter.” If Israelis had little compassion for innocent victims who did not fight back actively, how much more so for alleged collaborators. But as the years passed, “a streak of sentimental victimhood” developed, especially after the Eichmann trial. The eloquent prosecutor, Gideon Hausner, whose speeches were broadcasted and listened to widely, painted a picture of the Nazis as the only enemy and “wanted to balance the negative view of (Jewish) functionaries. Within the binary frame that he created of ‘good’ and ‘evil,’ he chose to portray them as righteous.” A few years later, Israeli trials of Jewish collaborators came to an end.

READ: INSIDE ISRAEL’S COURT SYSTEM IN THE WEST BANK

In her controversial book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, Hannah Arendt wrote of Jewish leaders who “co-operated in one way or another, for one reason or another, with the Nazis” during the war years: “The whole truth was that if the Jewish people had really been unorganized and leaderless, there would have been chaos and misery, but the total number of victims would hardly have been between four and a half and six million.” Israelis were angry and scandalized by her argument, even though a decade or so before some of them had said similar things about those same Jewish leaders.

Perhaps the Jews who were forced to collaborate actually contributed to the Nazis’ success, and perhaps the collaborator trials in Israel were unnecessarily cruel. But respect for history should make us evaluate our predecessors with compassion, being grateful that we ourselves have not been put to the test.

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