Opinion

Israeli Death Penalty for Terrorists Will Only Put Jews Around the World in Danger

Israeli defense officials say that the death penalty won't avert terror attacks. Here's what the bill is really about

A public hanging of five convicted criminals in Mashhad, Iran, August 1, 2007.
AP Photo/Halabisaz

One of the most frustrating aspects of the public debate over the legislation to introduce the death penalty is the silence of the Israeli left. The main thrust of the criticism has revolved around the government’s problematic behavior in advancing the bill, and the generally accepted view that its enactment will boost Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s standing among his constituency. The insipid character of the arguments offered against the passage of the legislation mirrors the fact that, according to a survey conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute last August, 70 percent of the Jewish public in Israel supports capital punishment for terrorists. Which is to say that, even among those who identify themselves as “left-wing,” there is a readiness to implement a policy of revenge – something that most of the world’s enlightened states have gradually abandoned.

In his 1957 essay “Reflections on the Guillotine,” Albert Camus argued that the death penalty is a “ritual act.” In the Israeli case, that notion is relevant for two reasons. First, experts agree that capital punishment is not effective as a deterrent against hostile actions. In fact, the death penalty is not even a deterrent against murder as such, still less against acts that are perpetrated against a national-religious background, in which the suicide terrorist is in any event willing to lay down his life. Second, the Shin Bet security service has warned that imposing the death sentence on terrorists in Israel will spur abductions of Jews around the world for bargaining purposes. In other words, the only effect of the death penalty will be to adversely affect the security of Israelis and Jews everywhere.

Accordingly, on the assumption that we are not governed by a bunch of clowns – and we’re not – we must seek the explanation for the reappearance of this bill in the political and public arena. Its true aim is to sow fear.

Camus maintained that “capital punishment is to the body politic what cancer is to the individual body.” More pointedly, capital punishment undermines civil society, on the one hand, and heightens the power and authority of the state, on the other. “Our society must now defend herself not so much against the individual as against the State,” Camus summed up (translation by Justin O’Brien).

That is indeed the crux of the matter. Education Minister Naftali Bennett explained this month that the legislation being advanced is “hollow” and is “a ploy at the expense of bereaved families [of terror victims].” In Bennett’s view, Defense Minister Lieberman should have instructed the military prosecution to ease the terms in place in the military law that already allows for the execution of terrorists. Bennett supported the present bill, but observed that it was one more case of “CHCH legislation” – can’t help, can’t hurt: meaning, laws that “have no significance.”

The reverse is true. A law mandating capital punishment is vastly significant, and not only because it tarnishes the society adopting it. The moral debate on this issue has been going on for hundreds of years, and more acutely since the time of Victor Hugo and after him Arthur Koestler. Many wise comments have been voiced on the subject: that the imposition of the death penalty means that society has decided that the convicted criminal no longer has a prospect of being rehabilitated; that the ultimate distancing of an individual from society, based on the claim that he has committed an act of absolute evil, means that society is absolutely good; and that the irreversibility of the sentence amounts to an absolute belief in the court’s ability to arrive at the full truth.

If Bennett is correct in his assumption that – to his chagrin – not one terrorist will be executed, then the debate has to be understood as having significance in a different vein: not in terms of morality but in the political-social arena.

If we presume that the death penalty for terrorists will not deter anyone, and will not enhance security in Israel or abroad, then what remains is to see the legislation as part of the present government’s political agenda. When Yeshayahu Leibowitz asserted, decades ago, that the occupation corrupts, he was cautioning against bestialization and the loss of humanity. He foresaw accurately future developments in the occupied territories: namely, creation of a governmental mechanism by which Jews rule Palestinians. It’s enough to listen to soldiers who have been there to understand that, in practice, Israel is carrying out policing and supervisory work in the West Bank (under the rubric of such neutral-sounding functions as “prevention” and “demonstrating presence”), and that the central means for maintaining control is to sow fear and anxiety in the hearts of millions of Palestinians.

At the same time, because any society that rules over another people cannot itself truly be free, we must understand the ongoing effect of oppression on the oppressor: establishment of a police state, limitation of the freedom of expression, and creation of a destructive cultural regime.

For years, the concerns of right-wing governments have boiled down to one central issue: maintenance and preservation of the ruling structure of the occupation, even if the pretext and the argot are rhetorical or messianic. To preserve the present structure and balance of forces, it’s necessary to wield day-by-day authority and power – over Palestinians and Jews alike.

The central method by which this situation is perpetuated is through the establishment of a violent regime, which leads to a sense of vengefulness on both sides. Because we can assume that the security establishment is correct when arguing that not even one terrorist attack will be averted by the introduction of capital punishment, and that it’s Jews abroad who will be abducted in its wake – we cannot escape the conclusion that those who will directly suffer from the legislation will be precisely Jews, whether in Israel or the Diaspora. Let every Jewish mother know that while her children are backpacking in the Far East or hanging out on the shores of Greek islands, they will be targets for potential abduction. Naturally, every Arab or person of color will be marked as a potential kidnapper; after all, we need to keep increasing the budgets of the security services.

When fear is rampant, vengefulness is prevalent, and the public allows its leaders a free hand to exercise additional force domestically, which means an increase in governmental intervention in civilian life.

The death penalty for terrorists is an extension of the heavy-handed policy that for decades has aimed to ensure that Israel is a society that continues to live by the sword. This policy, which has been directed for the past few decades against specific groups both within Israel and in the territories, has turned into a method of rule: preservation of the existing social and political structure, by way of segregation, which is maintained by force and enjoys the support of a public that has been taught to fear by its leaders. What’s most worrisome is not only that this policy has ardent supporters in the Knesset, but that the Israeli public doesn’t understand that, in this case, it too will be a victim of the legislation.

The enterprise of executions without trial that took place during the “intifada of the knives,” or the criticism that was leveled at the authorities because the Palestinian teenager Ahed Tamimi has “only” been detained and not dealt with “in dark cellars” (as journalist Ben Caspit recommended) are additional evidence of a society that has accepted a process of dehumanization.

Once the argument of “deterrence” falls by the wayside, it emerges that the legislation is not “external” policy but “domestic” policy, with the aim of acting as a pincer movement: to educate the residents of Zion about the necessity of preserving the old system, and to tighten the grip of the state and its mechanisms on the life of the citizen.

Adam Raz is a historian. His latest book is “Herzl: The Conflicts of Zionism’s Founder with Supporters and Opponents,” co-written with Yigal Wagner.