Balfour, Mossad, Peres

Mosaic has asked its regular contributors to recommend three books: two new ones published in 2020, and a classic. Below is my contribution. For all of them, go here.

Just when we think we know all there is to know about the modern history of Zionism and Israel, a new book deflates our confidence. Here are two new ones that did just that in 2020, and a classic that did that long ago.

Shimon Peres remains one of the great enigmas of Israel’s history. He was a high-flying statesman of international caliber who kept falling to earth. Israelis saw in him the glimmer of a visionary à la Herzl, so they kept him in public life. But this indulgence came with a condition: he would always be “number two” to someone else, and he would have to propitiate this “number one” to get his work done.

Avi Gil, trained as a diplomat, ended up as an adviser to Peres for 28 years. His Shimon Peres: An Insider’s Account of the Man and the Struggle for a New Middle East (I.B. Tauris, 264pp., $26.95) caused a stir when it appeared in Hebrew in 2018. Other advisers had written reverential memoirs about their political bosses. Gil, by contrast, is admiring of Peres’s strengths, but unsparing when it comes to his faults, above all his preening ego. It wasn’t always clear what drove him: vision or vanity.

Whatever one thinks of the Oslo Accords (Gil thinks more of them than you probably do), they represented a double triumph for Peres. To maneuver Yasir Arafat into an agreement, he first had to outmaneuver his nemesis, Yitzḥak Rabin. The backstory of how Oslo got made isn’t pretty, replete as it is with lies and betrayals. But it’s also riveting.

This year was the 60th anniversary of Israel’s 1960 capture of Adolf Eichmann. (I wrote about an aspect of it for Mosaic back in June.) But that wasn’t the end of Israel’s hunt for Nazis. In 1965, Herbert Cukurs, a Latvian collaborator involved in the murder of 30,000 Jews, turned up dead in Uruguay. A statement attached to his body, stuffed in a trunk, denounced him for his crimes against Jews. Years later, the Israeli who lured him to his death revealed that it had been a Mossad assassination.

The journalist Stephan Talty has retold the story with verve in The Good Assassin: How a Mossad Agent and a Band of Survivors Hunted Down the Butcher of Latvia (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 320pp., $28). The chief Israeli agent, Jacob (“Mio”) Medad, whose parents perished in the camps, first revealed the details in a memoir published over twenty years ago. But Talty greatly enriches the context of the Mossad operation. We learn in depth about the Holocaust in Latvia, the inspiring life story of a key witness, and the strange personality of Cukurs. A famed long-distance aviator before the war, he descended into unspeakable cruelty. Suffice it to say, he was no desk murderer. So he got what Talty calls “a certain kind of killing. . . . [T]here would be no trial, no lawyers or judges, no legal niceties, no essays by Hannah Arendt in The New Yorker.” The deception involved in the operation was ingenious, but the denouement wasn’t very tidy. No more spoilers.

And something classic? The Balfour Declaration by Leonard Stein appeared in 1961. (Simon and Schuster published the American edition.) I still find its 700 pages invaluable, despite the appearance of later studies based on archives that weren’t open to Stein in the 1950s.

This was meticulous history, written by an amateur. Stein, a graduate of Balliol College, Oxford, and a veteran of World War I service in Palestine, became a tax lawyer and a Zionist activist. Yet he deftly uncovered and untangled the interests that converged in the declaration. His main discovery, obvious today but not realized 60 years ago: British interests, not pro-Jewish sentiment, underpinned the declaration. Indeed, some of the Balfour Declaration’s chief British proponents were (shall we say?) less than enamored of Jews.

Stein died in 1973, at the age of eighty-five. The Balfour Declaration is a sturdy monument.

Eichmann: Arendt, cinema, power

Mosaic now has published all three responses to my essay on the capture of Adolf Eichmann in film, and how it’s distorted our image of him. Yaacov Lozowick (former director of archives at Yad Vashem) revisits Hannah Arendt, and finds in my essay some reason to rethink his past approach to Eichmann’s “banality.” Walter Reich (former director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum) reminds us not to expect too much of Holocaust cinema, but underlines the enduring significance of the Eichmann trial itself. Jonathan S. Tobin (editor-in-chief of argues that attempts to balance portrayals of Eichmann reflect “the discomfort Jews themselves have with the use of power,” especially by Israel.

All of these responses are thought-provoking, and I’ll have something to say about each in my final word, next week. In the meantime, read them all.

Embed from Getty Images

Starring Adolf Eichmann

Sixty years ago, on May 23, Israeli prime minister David Ben-Gurion stood before the Knesset and announced that Adolf Eichmann had been brought to Israel to stand trial. It was an electrifying moment in the history of Israel, Jewry, and the world. Eichmann was executed fifty-eight years ago today, on June 1, 1962.

Where does our image of Eichmann come from? Years ago, it would have been the trial itself, for those who watched it, and Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem, for those who read it. But for many younger people, it emerges from the mass-market television movies and films about Eichmann’s capture, and what he purportedly said during his nine days in Argentine captivity. This reached its apex a couple of years ago in the MGM production Operation Finale, starring Sir Ben Kingsley as Eichmann.

Kingsley is an irresistible star. Did he make Eichmann into one too? In a new monthly essay for Mosaic, I argue that he did. But this was only the latest stage in an evolution, traceable to a supposed dialogue between Eichmann and one of his Israeli captors. All the major dramatic treatments have based themselves on this secret ping-pong between captor and captive. But it’s most likely a fiction—full of drama, empty of truth.

Read my argument here at Mosaic. There will be responses posted on the site by other authorities all through June, and a last word by me. I’ll keep you posted as the exchange unfolds.