'Human Life Is Sacred for Jews': Why Israel Killed the Death Penalty, and Will It Be Resurrected Soon

Uncertainties, Torah quotes and Maimonides' philosophy were all given voice in the newly-declassified 1949 debate about Israel's death penalty. And why Haaretz opposed abolishing it

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An Israeli government meeting at the Hakirya in Tel AViv in 1949. From left: David Ben-Gurion, Ze'ev Sherf, Pinchas Rosen, David Remez and Haim-Moshe Shapira.
Israeli government meeting at Hakirya in Tel Aviv in 1949. From left: David Ben-Gurion, Ze'ev Sherf, Pinchas Rosen, David Remez and Haim-Moshe Shapira.Credit: GPO / Hugo Mendelsohn
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

Last week, the subject of the death penalty was put back on the Israeli agenda. Members of Knesset (the Israeli parliament) Itamar Ben Gvir (Religious Zionism) and May Golan (Likud) were the latest to present legislation to impose the death sentence on terrorists. By complete coincidence, that same week, the State Archive declassified a portion of the 72-year-old minutes of the hearings on abolishing the penalty.

In the six years that passed between the establishment of Israel and its abolition of the death penalty, it set a new norm. The courts might hand the sentence to a convicted murderer, but the authorities would not act on the verdict. The legal statute of the British Mandate obligated the courts to pass down a death sentence, but so long as the public debate continued on getting rid of the death sentence, the parties entrusted with carrying out the sentence chose not to do so until new legislation could be put into effect.

Ben-Gurion emphasized that Israel is different from Denmark. 'There are Arabs here. And there are also Jews who, as far as that is concerned, are Arabs'

And so, the lives of Mufleh Zaarour and Ali Hussein of Haifa, among others, were saved. The two men had been convicted of murder and were sentenced to death, but the sentence was never carried out. In 1948, the two men robbed Ephraim Kosher, a Jewish cigarette merchant from Tel Aviv, and then murdered him. They severed his head and threw his body into a well, where they buried it under a pile of rags.

Thus, Zaarour and Hussein entered the history books: “First death sentence issued in the State of Israel,” read a Haaretz headline. Other media reports from the time indicated that the Prison Service was not at all prepared to receive the sentenced convicts. There were no red uniforms available at the time of their incarceration – the customary color of prison uniforms assigned to death row inmates. Neither were they assigned a special prison cell.

The sensitive government discussion was initiated in 1949. Attendees debated the bill to abolish the death sentence for murder, a statute that had been inherited from the period of British rule. Members of the government quoted Jewish scriptures, cited the philosophy of Maimonides and cautioned against vigilantism.

Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion presented a complex picture, the uncensored minutes show. On the one hand, he supported abolishing the death sentence. He brought up the death of Meir Tobianski, an IDF officer who had been executed by firing squad the previous year, after having been given a field trial for espionage charges. It later came to light that he was innocent. “A very upsetting occurrence,” Ben-Gurion laconically commented.

Meir Tobianski, an IDF officer, had been executed in 1948 by firing squad, after having been given a field trial for espionage charges. He was innocent

On the other hand, the then-prime minister also expressed concern that getting rid of the death penalty would lead to an increase in murders, because “people would take the law into their own hands.” As he put it, “There will be people who will commit murder because they know that even if they are caught, they will not be killed.” Furthermore, he told the meeting, “In our country, there is a matter of reprisals and blood vengeance… We are liable to cause people to be murdered not by the court, but by people who would take the law into their own hands.”

Ben-Gurion stressed that he had not come to terms with his decision, and that he would vote in favor of abolishing the death penalty, “not lightheartedly, and out of uncertainty.” Among other things, he said: “If I were living in Scandinavia, I would easily vote in favor of abolishing the death penalty.”

'A king can kill'

In the course of the hearings, the minutes of which were revealed at the request of the Akevot Institute for Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Research, the participants delved into philosophical concepts, the Torah and the way in which the Jewish people should define themselves.

Meir Tobianski was the first person Israel ever executed. It was later discovered that he was innocent.

Religious Services Minister Rabbi Yehuda Leib Maimon, for instance, also supported abolishing the death penalty, and cautioned against the execution of innocent people. “I know that there have been thousands of cases throughout history where people were executed after being wanted and investigated, but it later turned out that [the charges] did not have a leg to stand on,” he said.

“I think that the reborn state should show the entire world that we are a people that reviles murder, and that human life is sacred for us,” he added. “There are Arabs in the country of whom I am not so fond, but at a time when we have to decide to kill them, I would not raise a hand, because they are human beings as well.”

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Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett said that he believes that “the human race should aspire to a moral level at which it would be forbidden to take human life.”

Police Minister Bechor-Shalom Sheetrit, though, voiced dissent. “Abolishing the death penalty in a country signals complacency in its internal security," he said. “In terms of Jewish law, the death penalty existed for things that we [now] see as trivial." He quoted from the book of Exodus: “He who trikes his father or his mother shall be put to death" and "He who insults his father or his mother shall be put to death.”

Ben-Gurion noted that according to Maimonides, “A king can kill. And who is a king? The state.”

Yehezkel Ingster was sentenced to death after he had been convicted of crimes against humanity as a kapo serving in concentration camps. Credit: The State of Israel Archives

Sheetrit stated that in the six months leading up to the debate, 20 murders had been committed in the country. He expressed concern that abolishing the death penalty would only encourage this phenomenon to grow. Ben-Gurion emphasized that Israel is different from Denmark, where only those at the margins of society were liable to kill people. “There are Arabs here," he warned, "and there are also Jews who, as far as that is concerned, are Arabs.” He did not elaborate.

Demjanjuk was spared, Eichmann wasn't

The debate continued for several years. It was not until 1954 that the Knesset voted to abolish the death sentence. That same day, Haaretz reported, several inmates who had been sentenced to death were ushered into the office of the director of Tel Mond Prison, dressed in red uniforms. “I am here to inform you that the death penalty has been abolished. I am hoping that you will properly appreciate this important step taken by the Knesset,” he told them.

The lead editorial that appeared in Haaretz that day, under the headline “Sanctity of human life,” took issue with the abolition of the death penalty. “The most horrific crime necessitates the most horrific punishment – in light of the sanctity of human life,” it read.

Besides Zaarour and Hussein, other Israelis who had been sentenced to death but were then saved from the hangman’s noose included David Yakobovich, who in 1950 was convicted of a murder in Meir Park in Tel Aviv, but the Supreme Court reduced his murder conviction to that of manslaughter.

Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann was the first and, to date, only individual to be executed by the State of Israel.Credit: Israel Government Press Office

A year later, Yehezkel Ingster was sentenced to death; he had been convicted of crimes against humanity as a kapo serving in concentration camps. Ingster was the first person sentenced to death on the basis of the Knesset’s 1950 law punishing Nazis and their collaborators, but his sentence was reduced to jail time following an appeal to the Supreme Court. A decade later, Adolf Eichmann was sentenced to death on the basis of the same law. He was the first and, to date, only individual to be executed by the State of Israel (the killing of Tobianski was later considered as murder, not execution).

At present, the law permits the state to sentence someone to death for treason in wartime or for Nazi crimes, subject to a hearing with a panel of two district court judges and one Supreme Court justice. The latter clause was the basis for the death sentence handed to John Demjanjuk in 1988, but he was acquitted on grounds of reasonable doubt on an appeal to the Supreme Court. He was later convicted in a German court as an accessory to mass murder, but died while awaiting his appeal.

And as for Zaarour, he found himself back in the headlines 40 years after the 1948 murder. Doron Leitner, a historical researcher who specializes in people who have died or been murdered, recently delved into the historic Jewish media archives and investigated his story. It turns out that he was convicted of the murder of another Jew from Haifa, whom he had also robbed just beforehand, in 1986.

“Elderly man of 70 suspected of murder,” the headlines read. “Violent pensioner,” one newspaper called him. The indictment charged that Zaarour had committed the robbery as an emissary of the murder victim’s son-in-law; the victim’s daughter had told her husband that her father had U.S. dollars and jewelry in his apartment. While preparing for the trial, Zaarour’s defense attorney was stunned to realize that the man sitting across from him was the same defendant in a case that he himself had prosecuted 40 years earlier.

Zaarour died in prison in 2011, at the age of 96 – “the oldest convict,” as he was known in the Prison Service. “I am sorry for everything that I have done in my life, but what can I do?" he said in an interview with Yedioth Ahronoth. "It is impossible to restore what once was. Sometimes I cry to myself and ask why. The answer that I give myself is that everything is from Allah."



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