Opinion

In Israel, the Death Penalty Is No Blank Bullet

Allowing it for terrorists, or anyone, will mean the crossing of a red line; Israel will have ceased to be Israel

Yigal Amir, center, the confessed killer of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, wears a white bullet proof vest, as he glances down at a memorial in honor of the late Prime Minister, on November, 16 1995.
AP Photo/Nati Harnik, File

“Blank, blank, blank,” Yigal Amir yelled as he fired the three bullets that killed Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the beating heart of the peace camp. Then, as now, the right fired bullets into Israel’s body politic while yelling “blank, blank, blank.”

Amir’s cry of “blank” was meant to foil Rabin’s bodyguards’ instinct to react. Amir sent them a reassuring code word, misleading them into thinking that this was just a dry exercise like the ones held countless times before. He cunningly concealed the reality.

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The question is whether something is really happening. When the left screams “fascism,” the right replies that it’s nonsense, that nothing has changed, that the nation-state law reflects “the state’s ideological core” (as my Haaretz colleague Israel Harel wrote on August 3), that at most a few “mediocre” artists will stop receiving public funds, that the Arabic language, which no one uses in an official setting anyway, will cease to be an official language.

The radical left, too, chimes in, saying that things were always this way (“Zionism is racism”). And if they were always this way, how is it possible to say that something has changed?

The cries of “fascism” and the talk of “processes” are becoming devoid of meaning. The greater their frequency and intensity, the more the public doesn’t know what to think. Either it’s all nonsense, and “the reality is the diametric opposite,” as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu likes to say, or it really is fascism, but if so, maybe that bugbear isn’t so terrible.

The problem is that there isn’t an unequivocal historical yardstick to let us know whether all the laws the right wants to legislate and the terminology it has adopted (governability, overriding the Supreme Court, loyalty, traitors) combine to create change in Israel, or whether it’s all just nonsense – all just blank bullets.

One of the key “blank bullet” traps is the shared insistence on analogies to Germany in the ‘30s, because this prism distorts the significance of the new terminology and laws. After all, people don’t feel the same danger in reality as they do from the description. The right seems to be exploiting this analogy to belittle the amount of power – both political and intellectual – that the liberal left possesses and to show it, time after time, the degree it’s captive to its own rhetoric and incapable of shaking the feeling that the rightist threat is a blank bullet.

Thus the key questions facing opponents of Israel’s current government are the following: Is this really happening? When is it happening? When has a line been crossed?

In fact, this Wednesday, the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee will discuss a bill allowing the death penalty for terrorists. Here we have a bill that could serve as a good concrete yardstick: If Israel starts executing terrorists, there’s no longer any question. The death penalty is concrete.

Of course, the moment we label the death penalty a red line whose crossing means fascism, we’ll immediately hear learned arguments that even in the United States, the leader of the free world, the death penalty exists in many states. Some people will also insist that Israel crossed this line long ago when it executed Adolf Eichmann, or even before that when it executed Meir Tobiansky (after the wrong verdict).

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But their claims will be like Amir’s shout of “blank.” The death penalty in Israel is no blank bullet.

We must label the death penalty a red line, one whose crossing means that Israel has ceased to be Israel. The moment there are nooses and scaffolds here, the moment we start hanging people in the town square, we will no longer be what we once were. We won’t be able to recognize ourselves in the mirror, we will have betrayed the legacy of our founders and visionaries, the fathers of the country. The death penalty isn’t us.