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Kastner Affair

Israel (Rudolf) Kastner (1906–1957), who was of Jewish-Hungarian origin, was a clerk at the Ministry of Trade and Industry and a candidate on behalf of Mapai in the elections for the Second Knesset. In 1953 he was accused by Malchiel Gruenwald of collaboration with the Nazis during the Second World War: The allegations included concealing information on the extermination plans of the Jewish community in order to save approximately 1,700 of his friends and family, partnering with Nazi war criminal Kurt Becher, and testifying in his favor in the Nuremberg trials.

Kastner sued Gruenwald for libel, and Gruenwald was defended by attorney Shmuel Tamir. The District Court Judge who dealt with the lawsuit was Benjamin Halevi (both Halevi and Tamir were later Members of the Knesset). Developments in the trial brought about the involvement of Attorney General Haim Cohen. In June 1955, Justice Halevi ruled that Gruenwald’s allegations of Kastner’s collaboration with the Nazis were founded and that “Kastner sold his soul to the Satan.” He also declared that Kastner committed perjury in Becher’s trial in Nuremberg. Kastner’s supporters claimed he was a hero, acting to save as many Jews as he could – despite the objective risks and emotional difficulty in collaborating with Nazis such as Adolf Eichmann.

Since the trial had implications on the Mapai party, the Government decided to appeal on Kastner’s behalf to the Supreme Court. On May 28th 1955, Herut and Maki factions presented no-confidence motions, in which the General Zionists, a coalition member, abstained - leading to Prime Minister Sharett’s resignation.

In the ensuing uproar, while ongoing discussions on the appeal were held, Kastner was shot in March 1957 by young nationalist extremists. He died of his wounds two weeks later and his murder is considered to be the first political assassination in the State of Israel. In January 1958, the Supreme Court, in a majority of 3 to 2, overturned the judgment against Kastner. The Court’s decision continued to say that under certain circumstances, a leader is obligated to withhold information from the public. On the other hand, all five justices ruled that Katsner had committed perjury in his 1947 testimony, which led to the acquittal of a senior S.S. officer.

The affair continues to be of interest to the Israeli public and is the subject of many articles, books and plays.

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