Opinion

What Israel Should Learn From the Cases of Adolf Eichmann, Yigal Amir and Kozo Okamoto

Looking back on instances Israel considered employing the death penalty (and did once with Eichmann) makes the current debate on it appear grotesque

Kozo Okamoto in an Israeli court in Lod on July 12, 1972.
AP

In late May 1972, Israel was shocked by a massacre. Three murderers from the Japanese Red Army slaughtered 26 people at the Lod airport (now Ben-Gurion International Airport), including 17 Christian pilgrims from Puerto Rico. The surviving murderer, Kozo Okamoto, was arrested and tried in a military court.

In July 1972, while the trial was still in process, then-Attorney General Meir Shamgar posed a weighty question to the cabinet: Should it uphold a resolution passed after the 1967 Six-Day War, according to which military prosecutors would not seek the death penalty, or overturn it to enable capital punishment for Okamoto?

Most cabinet members vehemently opposed repeal. Yisrael Galili argued that while Okamoto certainly deserved the death penalty, I do not want Israel to provide a martyr for this eccentric and mad organization. He offered both a pragmatic reason — the death penalty doesnt deter this type of criminal, certainly not suicide terrorists — and a principled one: Refraining from the death sentence is one of the hallmarks of Israels liberal, progressive character.

Adolf Eichmann walking in the yard of his cell in Ramle prison, Israel. 'The execution of a terrorist would be a desecration of the sacred — a step that turned Eichmanns hanging from a singular event into a banal one'
John Milli/Israeli Government Press Office

At the end of the meeting, led by Prime Minister Golda Meir, the cabinet voted against repeal. For some reason, its members thought Israels liberal aspect was a substantive value.

The death penalty has arisen once again. But this time, the Knesset gave preliminary approval to a bill to impose the death penalty on terrorists. Aside from the fact that this is a wretched, populist move, which winks at the mob demanding its pound of flesh and blood, this bill ought to be shelved for two main reasons.

The first relates to the man who would be put to death. During all the years of Israels existence, only one man has ever been executed — Adolf Eichmann, who was responsible for the Nazis final solution. From both a historical and a national standpoint, this was unique; it was the murdered peoples final settling of accounts with its murderer. After the hanging, the newspaper Hatzofeh wrote, The entire Jewish people accepted implementation of this sentence as a moral necessity, the inevitable end of the entire trial (June 3, 1962).

The execution of a terrorist, however base and contemptible he may be, would be a desecration of the sacred — a step that turned Eichmanns hanging from a singular event into a banal one.

The second reason relates to the man who wasnt executed — Yigal Amir, the murderer of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. The assassin didnt strike at Rabin alone, but at Israels democracy and the delicate fabric of its society, which is still bleeding to this day. Yet Amir didnt ascend the scaffold, his familys home wasnt demolished and he was even allowed to have conjugal relations with his wife and bring a child into the world.

During the Knesset debate, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asserted that executions have a fundamental justice in extreme situations. Could the murder of a prime minister be considered an extreme situation?

The current debate over the death penalty has two faces, one depressing and the other grotesque. The depressing face is the fact that the Knessets discussion of this step, which could significantly alter the image of our society, contained not even a smidgen of substantive argument. It consisted entirely of internal haggling by right-wing parties, while completely ignoring the defense establishments recommendations. An abyss separates the current discussion from the responsible discussion of the death penalty held by Meirs cabinet 46 years ago.

Today, the ruling party is capable of making decisions on fateful issues without any serious consideration. A salient example was the unanimous decision by the Likud Central Committee to annex parts of the West Bank. One could best describe it with a phrase from an old song by HaTarnegolim — just because.

The grotesque face of the debate is that if the Knesset does grant final approval to the bill, the question of what method of execution to use will arise. Should it be hanging? A firing squad? Poison? The guillotine? Or perhaps an electric chair, which U.S. President Donald Trump would surely be happy to send us as a special present?

A related question is what uniform the executed person should wear. Should it be a red uniform, like the one worn by members of the pre-state undergrounds who were executed by the British? When Eichmann was sentenced to death, he wore a brown uniform rather than a red one, at the request of then-MK Menachem Begin.

The very fact that these morbid questions must be discussed is liable to make our society far more barbaric and violent. Thus in practice, this proposal is a death penalty for standards of reasonability, the rationalism of our society and good taste.