On March 26th, 2023, Straus Scholar Yaakov Willner (YC ’25) was invited to present on his paper The Eichmann Trial and Rousseau’s Social Contract at the eighth annual Undergraduate Judaic Studies Conference at the University of Chicago. Each year, the UJS Conference features outstanding undergraduate-level research in the field of Jewish studies. Students from across the country are invited to share and discuss their findings in areas ranging from biblical interpretation to modern Israel.
Summarizing his term paper for Dr. Douglas R. Burgess Jr., Associate Professor and Chair of History at Yeshiva College, Yaakov’s presentation considered the 1961 trial of the notorious Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann in the context of Western political theory. Yaakov submitted arguments in defense of the long-contested legitimacy of the Eichmann trial, which sought to prosecute a foreign national smuggled out of Argentina by the Israeli secret service. At the time, many challenged the trial’s legitimacy based on Israel’s improper extradition of Eichmann under international law. However, Yaakov demonstrated that from a perspective of securing human rights and correcting moral wrongs committed against the Jewish people, Eichmann’s unusual extradition was ethically sound.
Moving on to the trial itself, Yaakov explained the prosecution’s intention to establish Eichmann as a willful mass murderer who consciously committed genocide. In doing so, the prosecution prevented Eichmann from framing himself as a meek underling “just following orders.”
Finally, Yaakov examined the trial according to divergent political theories, including Cicero’s notion that the function of law is to protect the collective. In Yaakov’s estimation, the theory of the Eichmann trial more closely aligned with Rousseau’s version of Social Contract. In Rousseau’s conception of the Social Contract, each citizen relinquishes some of his or her own individual rights to the state so that the state will protect the rights of collective. In other words, the state and society speak with one voice with regard to what is considered morally reprehensible. Throughout the Eichmann Trial, Holocaust survivors were invited to their testimony of Nazi atrocities before of the world and thus joined the state in presenting a united case against Eichmann. Yaakov concluded that it precisely because of these broader questions of Natural Rights and sovereignty that the Eichmann Trial remains such a critical moment in education about the Holocaust.
To learn more about the Straus Scholars program, click here.