by Myron B. Kuropas

Yoram Sheftel: Israel's conscience

Yoram Sheftel, the Israeli lawyer who Rovno led the fight to acquit John Demjanjuk of war crimes against the Jews, is an extraordinary man who describes himself as "a lone wolf," and apparently enjoys being typecast as "Satan's lawyer" and "the most hated man in Israel."

He was willing to expose his nation's juridical fault line - at great risk to his own career - in the hope that in doing so, things would improve. In his book "The Demjanjuk Affair: The Rise and Fall of a Show Trial," Mr. Sheftel proves conclusively that in the case of Mr. Demjanjuk, "Israeli justice" is an oxymoron. The book demonstrates clearly that while Mr. Sheftel's goal was justice for Mr. Demjanjuk, practically everyone else in Israel was more interested in a Iynching.

Has anything changed in Israel since the trial? Apparently not. Dov Levin is still a member of the Israeli Supreme Court. And lest anyone conclude that the trial was not "eminently even-handed, righteous and just," the other two judges, Zvi Tal and Dalia Dorner, have recently joined Mr. Levin on the Supreme Court bench.

As I mentioned in my last review, it's impossible to do justice to this remarkable book in a short article. Last time I focused on Israeli justice from the perspective of the Demjanjuk defense. This article is devoted to Yoram Sheftel, the man.

A fervent Israeli nationalist who read books, articles and the poems of the Ukrainian Zionist leader Zeev Jabotinsky since the age of 8, Mr. Sheftel can be best described as Israel's conscience. At one time he defended the likes of Meyer Lansky, a Jewish member of the crime syndicate in America, who was being expelled from Israel, where he sought sanctuary. Mr. Sheftel supported the American Jew not because he was a criminal but because Mr. Lansky had provided financial support for Israel in its early years. When he needed Israel's help in return, the Israelis were willing to turn their back on a fellow Jew. This and other similar events persuaded Mr. Sheftel that much of the Israeli judicial system was politically corrupt.

Soon after Mr. Demjanjuk's extradition to Israel, Mr. Sheftel came to believe that the authorities were not seeking justice but another Nazi show trial. What convinced him was that at the time of his extradition, another order for deportation to the USSR was pending. Had the Israelis not intervened, Mr. Sheftel reasoned, Mr. Demjanjuk would be long dead and "justice" would have been served.

Show trials in Israel are necessary, Mr. Sheftel suggests, in order to erase the horrific memory of Zionist behavior during the Holocaust, especially "their helplessness and their unforgivable failure to act." Show trials, for that reason, are a desecration of the memory of the victims of the Holocaust.

Before offering his services to the defense, Mr. Sheftel had to assure himself that this "Ukrainian goy" was not Ivan the Terrible. After meeting Mr. Demjanjuk, he concluded that he "was the simplest of individuals, with a quite limited intellectual capacity. He seemed to personify," writes Mr. Sheftel, "the descriptions I had heard from my mother of the large-limbed, weather-beaten Ukrainian peasants who lived near Rovno [Rivne], the town where she was born."

Mr. Sheftel became convinced that Mr. Demjanjuk had a very bad memory, or was utterly confused. He had trouble remembering many details about his own life and those of the members of his family. "I ruled out the possibility," he writes, "that this forgetfulness might be deliberate, because he would simply be incapable of such finesses." Nor was Mr. Demjanjuk a Jew-hater. "While Demjanjuk's head might be filled with prejudices about Jews, he is no more anti-Semitic than the average East European goy."

The most persuasive factor, however, was Mr. Demjanjuk's ingenuousness. "I sensed that he was speaking the truth when he flatly denied the allegation that he was Ivan the Terrible, or that he had been to Treblinka," writes Mr. Sheftel. "In this he seemed completely plausible, giving the clear impression of honesty and sincerity."

As the above comments suggest, Mr. Sheftel has no great love for Ukrainians as a group. When fund-raising for the Demjanjuk defense before the Israeli Supreme Court became problematic after the conviction, Ed Nishnic mentioned that some Ukrainians in North America thought that demonstrations might help. Mr. Sheftel's response was unequivocal. "No one, especially the Supreme Court, will be to be bothered by a few thousand Ukrainians demonstrating. No one will get excited by it because our average Israeli, rightly or wrongly, considers the average Ukrainian to be a common anti-Semite."

In describing his tour of North America to raise defense funds, he writes: "I was well aware that I would be speaking before an audience made up mostly of goyim particularly prone to anti-Semitic prejudice." His mother agreed. She laughingly told him that "all the staunchest anti-Semites in America are collecting money for Yoram, my dear Jewish son." Still later, Mr. Sheftel writes: "There were quite a few anti-Semites amongst the North American community who lent their support to Demjanjuk. Their goal was not only to help Demjanjuk, whether or not he was Ivan the Terrible, but first and foremost to paralyze completely, or at least interfere substantially with, the functioning of the Office of Special Investigations."

It is understandable that Mr. Sheftel had a need to mention Ukrainian anti-Semitism and Israeli Ukrainophobia given the fact that he had trashed the Israelis and was, after all, initially writing for a Jewish audience. Given his familiarity with the nefarious behavior of the OSI, however, it is puzzling that he should equate Ukrainian opposition to OSI tactics with anti-Semitism.

Mr. Sheftel remains true to his principles, however. He has little use for Jews who served the Soviets, even those who died fighting the Nazis. During a fact-finding trip to KGB headquarters in Symferopil, he noticed a stone World War II memorial plaque engraved with the names of some 30 Jews. "The best of Jewish youth in Russia, the cradle of Zionism," he concludes, "had sold itself and its soul to the Red Devil."

Can our community learn from the Demjanjuk affair? I think so. Let's discuss it. Soon.

Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, February 4, 1996, No. 5, Vol. LXIV

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