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
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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