Israel Chief Rabbi Comes Out Against Death Penalty for Terrorists

The Sephardi ultra-Orthodox Shas party, which initially supported the legislation, may now to oppose it

Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef participates in a service at the Knesset synagogue, February 14, 2017.
Itzhak Hariri / Knesset spokesperson

Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef expressed opposition on Saturday to a bill that would make it easier to impose the death penalty on terrorists. The chief rabbi’s opposition is expected to make it less likely that Shas, the ultra-Orthodox party whose base is in the Sephardi community, would support its passage in the future – although Yosef’s position is not binding on the party.

Last Wednesday, the Knesset backed the death penalty bill in a close 52-49 preliminary vote. Another three rounds of voting are required for the bill to pass.

The Shin Bet security service has also voiced its objection to the bill, warning that it could trigger a wave of kidnappings of Jews by terrorist groups around the world for use as bargaining chips to free militants in Israeli jails.

Current military law allows the death penalty to be imposed for murder committed as part of a terrorist act, but it is conditional on the unanimous support of the sentence by the judges. In practice, the only execution carried out in Israel was that of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann. If the bill passes, an ordinary majority of judges would suffice to sentence a terrorist to death. The bill would not force the military prosecutor to seek the death penalty, instead leaving it to the prosecutor’s discretion. It would also broaden the death penalty beyond military courts to civilian courts, and not allow a final death sentence to be commuted.

“All of the security personnel are saying that there is not much gained from this. We need to use judgment,” Yosef said. “Putting someone to death is in the hands of the Lord. From handing down a death sentence to carrying it out, there will be a fuss in the world – Spain, France. It’s not related to right wing or left wing. What is the gain from this?”

Yosef made the remarks during his weekly sermon in Jerusalem. He also made reference to the 2015 firebombing of a Palestinian family’s home in the West Bank village of Duma that killed three members of the Dawabsheh family, including a baby boy. Amiram Ben-Uliel, a 21-year-old from Jerusalem, has been charged with three counts of murder in the case.

“The person who burned the boy in Duma ... deserves to be put to death. He should get a disease or get into a car accident. Putting him to death is in the hands of the Lord. Can you kill him? Are we a Sanhedrin?” Yosef remarked, naming the ancient judicial system in Israel. “Will they kill a Jew? It’s against halakha,” the chief rabbi added, referring to traditional Jewish religious law.

The chief rabbi’s opposition is not expected to directly determine Shas’ future stance on the bill because party policy is made by the head of the Shas’ Council of Torah Sages, Rabbi Shalom Cohen. However, in light of it, the party leadership will be required to consult with its rabbinical leadership on its future votes on the bill.

Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz voiced opposition to the bill at a cabinet meeting, although he voted in favor in the preliminary vote, as did Shas lawmakers. Members of the other ultra-Orthodox party in the Knesset, United Torah Judaism, were absent for the vote.

Prior to the preliminary vote on the bill, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took the Knesset rostrum to express his full support for it. “We aren’t doing this without seriously considering it, but there is basic justice [for the bill] in extreme cases,” he said. “Considering its usefulness, whether we would gain or lose, is a serious consideration, but in extreme circumstances, a person who slaughters and laughs should not spend his life behind bars but be put to death.”