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Judaism's Pro-Death Penalty Tradition By: Steven Plaut
JewishPress.com | Thursday, April 22, 2004


One of the most popular causes among Jewish liberals is opposition to capital punishment. The Religious Action Center, the political SWAT Team of the Reform movement, has long considered opposing capital punishment to be one of its highest priorities. Many other groups of Jewish liberals, and some non-liberals, oppose all forms of capital punishment, supposedly in the name of Jewish ethics and the invariably misrepresented tikkun olam.

Whenever one comes out in favor of capital punishment, one inevitably hears shrieks from such folks about how execution is inhumane, how it violates human dignity, how every human soul, even that of murderers, has been created in God`s image and so should be preserved at all costs.

This is all very interesting. There’s just one little problem, though. The Bible makes it crystal clear that the way one acknowledges that human souls are created in God`s image and deserving of respect and dignity is through capital punishment. Just read Genesis 9:6: "A man who spills human blood, his own blood shall be spilled by man because God made man in His own Image." Not just among Jews, by the way, but among all sons of Noah.

In other words, the preservation of human dignity requires capital punishment of convicted murderers. The position of Judaism is the opposite of the position espoused by liberals. It is precisely because of man`s creation in God`s image that capital punishment is declared justified and necessary. Human dignity requires execution of murderers, not compassion for their souls.

Moreover, capital punishment is regarded by Judaism as a favor for the capital sinner, a form of atonement and redemption. Ordinary murderers are allowed to achieve atonement for their souls in their execution. Only especially vile murderers — such as a false witness whose lies are discovered after the person who was framed has been executed, or a man who sacrifices both his son and his daughter to the pagan god Molokh — are denied execution because they are regarded as beyond redemption through capital punishment. Again, execution preserves human dignity, it does not defile it.

Israelis have for years debated the pros and cons of capital punishment for convicted terrorist murderers. Up to this point, Israel has never had a death penalty, the lone exception being the execution of the Nazi beast Eichmann. Naturally, the Beautiful Left is vehemently opposed to the very idea of capital punishment.

So maybe the time is right to take a deep breath and step back and re-examine the issue. Should Israel have a death penalty?

Opponents of the death penalty say it does not deter terrorism or violence. But how do they know? How do they know the level of violent crime the United States would experience if it did not have a death penalty — or if it had a more widely applied one? How do they know whether the level of terrorism would decrease in an Israel with a death penalty compared to an Israel without one?

Actually, the death penalty should be implemented against terrorists even if it doesn’t deter terrorism. It should be implemented because it represents a great moral statement. It is the moral and ethical thing to do. Executing terrorists makes a statement that they are scum with no claim a right to life. Capital punishment represents a moral and just vengeance. It represents a declaration of good and evil. We do not build statues of heroes and otherwise honor them because we necessarily believe these are utilitarian and will lead to the emergence of new heroes, but rather because we are making a statement as a society regarding our values and what we honor. Executing terrorists is precisely the same sort of societal statement, in the opposite direction.

It is for this moral reason that traditional Judaism unambiguously endorses the death penalty for premeditated murder .It does not do so because of any sociological speculation about the powers of deterrence, and it is clear that the death penalty is viewed as a just punishment even if it deters nothing at all.

Opponents of the death penalty argue that implementing it would represent capitulating to the populist demands and pressures of the public. Huh? That is essentially a concession that the general electorate favors it and so its establishment would be the democratic thing to do. Denying the death penalty is elitist and anti-democratic.

Opponents of the death penalty in Israel argue that Arab terrorists would retaliate by mistreating or killing Jews they capture. One does not know whether to laugh or to cry at this claim. The PLO and its sister organizations already lynch, torture and murder every Jew they can lay their hands on, including children — all this while Israel has no death penalty. So what exactly is there to lose?

Opponents argue that it would be dehumanizing to ask an Israeli to act as an executioner, as the one who would push the button or pull the switch. They worry it would be hard to find someone to play the executioner. My guess, however, is that the number of volunteers for any such switch-pulling would be so large that the Israeli government could balance the budget by auctioning off lotto chances to pull it. Personally, I would offer family members of victims of terrorism first "dibs."

Opponents of the death penalty in Israel and elsewhere argue that errors in judgment might be made and innocent people might be executed. This is a fallacious argument even when discussing execution of criminals, but even more so when discussing terrorists. There is no serious evidence I know of that any innocent person has ever been executed in the United States. But more generally, everything we do (and everything government does) carries some risk that an innocent person might be killed as a result of those actions and policies. Should we shut down the post office because postal trucks sometimes run over innocent people? Should we ground all planes because sometimes innocent people are killed in accidents? Even if there were a non-negligible risk of such errors, that is certainly no reason not to have a death penalty.

Opponents of the death penalty argue that it is expensive to implement. This is absurd. Room and board for terrorists for life in prison are exorbitant. The death penalty is "expensive" in the U.S. only because of America`s judicial system, which allows endless expensive appeals to proceed forever. Israel has no jury system at all. In any case, these costs can be contained by restricting the options of appeals of convicted terrorists.

Opponents of the death penalty in Israel argue that terrorists might resist capture by fighting to the death and so harm police and soldiers. I say let`s take our chances. Better the soldiers than the children on the school buses or the women in the cafes. That is why we have soldiers. I am sure they will cope. And suicide bombers are not exactly likely to turn more deadly because they face the death penalty if captured.

One shouldn’t be shocked that the most vociferous opposition to the death penalty for terrorists comes from the same Israeli leftists who always put the rights of Arab murderers ahead of the rights of innocent Jews. These are the same people who turned most of the West Bank and Gaza Strip into cities of refuge for terrorists, bases for launching murder atrocities against hundreds of Israelis each year.


Steven Plaut is a professor at the Graduate School of the Business Administration at the University of Haifa and is a columnist for the Jewish Press. A collection of his commentaries on the current events in Israel can be found on his "blog" at www.stevenplaut.blogspot.com.


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