Sunday, October 18, 2009


One of the most controversial chapters in modern Jewish history is what has become known as the Kastner affair - named after its central character - Rudolf Kastner. Hollywood playwright Ben Hecht wrote about it in the sixties in a book called Perfidy. While he admitted to being completely biased, he nevertheless proceeded to paint both Kastner and early Zionist pioneers like David Ben-Gurion and Chaim Weitzman as monsters - unconcerned with the fate of Holocaust victims at the height of their slaughter.

Kastner was painted as a self centered villain who as a functionary of the Jewish Agency sold out Hungarian Jewry to save the lives of his own family members among 1600 Jews which included the Satmar Rebbe. In short he was accused of collaborating with the Nazis by Malchiel Gruenwald who was then sued for libel by the Israeli government. The trial ended up making Kastner look guilty however - and he was eventually assassinated.

Perfidy is often cited as a source by anti State Charedim as part of their justification for despising the Israeli government. They point to it and say that even a secular Jew like Ben Hecht knew how disgusting those people were – and by philosophical inheritance -the current leaders as well. There are other incidents cited in the book to demonstrate that - but a major portion of the book is devoted to Kastner.

But even after reading his book - I never saw it the way Hecht did. I saw the possibility that Kastner did his best to save as many Jews as he could. To characterize a fellow Jew during the Holocaust who saved many Jewish lives as a Nazi collaborator because so few were saved or because he choose to include his own family is completely unfair. It smacks of a preconceived bias. - a bias by people with an agenda to bash the State.

For Hecht who was a devotee of Ben Gurion’s opposition - that bias was made clear. For certain Charedim whose agenda it is to bash the State Perfidy is a convenient ‘proof’ to their position. Whenever such people can find information to make the State look bad they will glorify and exult in it with an unmitigated sense of self-righteousness. Any facts available to ameliorate circumstances or to see them in other possible contexts will be ignored or purposely omitted.

Thankfully with due diligence the truth generally will come out in the end. Or at least the certainty of previously held assumptions will be strongly questioned. This is what appears to be happening now as a new documentary on the subject suggests. Kastner it turns out may very well have been the hero he was originally thought to be before Malchiel Grünwald accused him of being a Nazi collaborator - which led to his trial . A new documentary re-examines the man and the events that cost him his life.

I tend to think that Kastner did his best under the most extreme of circumstances -a Jew in Europe during the height of the Holocaust dealing with the Nazis - to save Jewish lives. And his demise can probably be attributed to ‘opposition politics’ as much as anything else.

In my mind this brings into question just about all the other accusations against the early Israel pioneers. Accusations like murder, assassination attempts, selling out Holocaust victims, and forced assimilation of religious Jewish children from Yemen and Tehran. One needs to be very careful about the bias of the reporters before coming to any real conclusions.

Now I am sure that a lot unflattering information of what was reported about them at the time is true. But one needs to also recognize that perspective and scale makes all the difference. Two different biases can easily result in two different - even opposite- versions of events. So when an anti Zionist Jews report about Zionist malevolence - one needs to take that with a huge grain of salt. Even if they truly believe what they are saying is true one must realize that there may have been a bigger picture than what they think is the case. This is true not just for religious opponents but non religious political opponents like Ben Hecht as well.

I read Perfidy a long time ago. If and when this documentary makes it to Chicago – I plan to see it and re-read the book.