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Transformative Justice: Israeli Identity on Trial.

Transformative Justice: Israeli Identity on Trial, by Leora Bilsky. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2004. 378 pp. $24.95.

Leora Bilsky in her book Transformative Justice: Israeli Identity on Trial combines an outstanding grasp of historical subject matter and an original insight into the role four outstanding trials played in shaping Israeli collective identity. The book is engaged with four trials: the Kastner trial (1954-58), the Kufr Qassem trial (1956-57); the Adolf Eichmann trial (1960-62), and the Yigal Amir trial (1996). She describes these trials not as show trials but as political trials where there is a presence of an "element of risk to the authorities." Even though the book is devoted to the analysis of Israeli society, this work is a thought-provoking contribution which can be valuable for a philosopher, literary critic, or political scientist as well as legal practitioner. The main question she addresses in the book is, "Can Israel be both Jewish and democratic?" She writes, "This book will trace the constant tension between the Jewish and democratic values in Israeli society through four dramatic political trials that helped shape the Israel collective identity and memory over a period of forty years." Bilsky's book reflects a renewed interest in the foundational myths of the State of Israel as the Jewish State faces a new crisis of identity over redefinition of physical, social, and psychological borders between Jews and Arabs which started with the Oslo process in 1993 and has just passed another test with the evacuation of Jewish residents of the Gaza Strip.

The book also reflects on the subject of collective memory of Holocaust in Israel as recently published important books Death and the Nation: History, Memory, Politics by Idith Zertal and In the Shadow of the Holocaust: The Struggle Between Jews and Zionists in the Aftermath of World by Yosef Grodzinsky indicate. In her book Bilsky does not flinch from exploring what would be for a young Israeli nation the most painful and traumatic public encounters with witnesses, collaborators, and perpetrators of Holocaust. This issue was prominent in Israeli courts in the 1950s as a result of the passage of the Nazis and Nazi Collaborators (Punishment) Law, in 1950.

In the beginning, the author focuses on the Kastner and Eichmann trials. Although Bilsky describes the Kastner trial as an "almost forgotten trial," it has not been forgotten by subsequent writers: it makes an appearance in Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem; it features prominently in Tom Segev's The Seventh Million (1991); Yehuda Bauer's Jews for Sale? (1994) attempts to defend Rudolph Kastner and to refute the charges against him; and it inspired two novels--Amos Elon's Timetable (1980) and Neil Gordon's cerebral thriller The Sacrifice of Isaac (1995). Further, Bilsky focuses on two trials (the Kfur Qassem trial, which involved a murder of forty-nine Arab civilians by Israeli Border Police, and Yigal Amir's trial over the assassination of Prime Minister Itzhak Rabin in 1995) that reflect an identity crisis in Israeli society caused by a clash of two incongruent visions of the state of Israel, one vision inspired by an ethno-national view of the character of the state and the other informed by ideals of Western liberal democracy.

As an analytical tool Bilsky employs the transformative justice approach; as she points out, "A central issue that the book addresses is the ability of a trial to serve as a consciousness-transforming vehicle: what kind of politics is advanced by it and how can it be used to promote the formation of a democratic society." She juxtaposes a binary or adversarial character of the Israeli court system, based on the Anglo-Saxon model, with societal and political contexts which court decisions produce. Bilsky stresses societal aspects of a court as a scene of personal drama where historical and political discourses collide. She skillfully highlights the importance of the philosophical and literary works these trials inspired. In particular the author focuses on Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem and the famous (in Israel) poetic response of a national Israeli poet Nathan Alterman to the Kastner trial.

To make her case the author quotes Nathan Alterman's judgment, which delves into the possibility of resolving a complex story of Jewish communities in Nazi-occupied Europe. She writes, "Criticizing the judge for focusing on the events in Kastner's hometown of Kluj, in isolation from the historical context, he [Alterman] argues that in so doing the judge in no way helps the nation to learn the necessary lesson. He makes no contribution at all to knowing and comprehending the reasons for the historical processes.... The cerebral and seemingly rational structure rests on a single chapter, thus distorting the content [of the whole] ... and perhaps even distorting the chapter itself...." The link between the two trials, one of Kastner and one of Eichmann, is especially relevant for understanding of Israeli collective identity, since in spite of his initial discomfort with the subject and his insensitivity toward survivors, Ben-Gurion sought to turn the Holocaust into the central pillar of Israeli identity and to use it as the main basis upon which to legitimize the Zionist project.

Bilsky sets out to demonstrate how four court cases shaped the identity of Israeli society and its self-understanding. But she neglects to bring collective memory into the discussion, specifically Jewish collective memory. Undoubtedly her analysis of public discourse and the rhetoric of judges, attorneys, and defendants in these seminal cases contributes to the current debate and crisis of identity in Israeli society. But since the author emphasizes the role of literary allusions and broader historical narrative in the shaping of Israeli society, it is unfortunate that the Holocaust, which cost six million (Jewish) human lives, serves essentially as a backdrop rather than a tragic precursor to the narrative of the creation of Israel, avowedly a Jewish state. Bilsky seems to accept this on a normative level as she minimizes the guilt of some Zionist leaders, including David Ben-Gurion, the first Israeli national leader, for their callous treatment of Holocaust survivors who came to Israel as refugees. Her post-Zionist credentials are clearly evident in her accusation of the judges in the Yigal Amir's case in producing the "Jewish-particularist" narrative instead of the "civic-universalist" narrative preferred by post-Zionists.

Given Bilsky's intention to highlight the role of literary narratives of historical trials in molding Israeli national identity, another historical illustration comes to mind. Jud Suss, by Lion Feuchtwanger, exemplifies the many times courts in the history of humankind have reached decisions tainted by politics and popular sentiment in cases involving Jews. In his novel, based on an 18th-century German historical chronicle, Feuchtwanger describes the career and trial of Jew Suss. As a court Jew in the town of Wurtemberg, Suss used his influence to establish significant contacts and numerous illicit relations with prominent women of this German mini-state. As a result of a schism between Catholics and Protestants, his political patron dies a violent death. The Christian ruling elite want to get rid of an uncomfortable witness, and Jew Suss is condemned to death, but it is a political decision, not one based on justice. By using as an illustration historical events in a German city, Feuchtwanger showed that Christian Europe was not concerned with the pursuit of justice in its dealings with Jews, but with the preservation of communal peace. In Feuchtwanger's novel, it was better that a Jew should be illegally hanged than be left alive to agitate the country.

The death of Rudolph Kastner under suspicious circumstances after the first trial in March 1957 raised many questions about the complicity of Zionist leaders in negotiations with Nazi leadership and their lack of commitment to saving Jewish lives in Nazi-occupied Europe. Obviously this potential complicity of the founders of the Jewish state in the death of Jews during the Holocaust penetrates the core of the Israeli national myth. So the critical questions remain unresolved--whether leadership of the State of Israel is up to the task of responding to a profound human drama unleashed by the Holocaust. And whether the dualism of Bilsky's thesis is warranted by the history of the Jewish people.

Alexander Murinson

School of Oriental and African Studies

University of London
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Author:Murinson, Alexander
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2006
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