Skip to content
on our interactive map

Opinion: Reinstating the Death Penalty Would Be Lethal to Israeli Democracy

On Sunday, February 26, the Ministerial Committee for Legislation committed the coalition to backing a bill to impose the death penalty on terrorists. The bill was part of the coalition agreements that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu signed with his partners in the most right-wing governing coalition in Israeli history. On March 1, the Knesset held the first of four required votes on the bill, which passed 55-9.

Published in Haaretz, May 9, 2023

The bill says that anyone who murders an Israeli “due to motivations of racism or hostility toward a certain group, with the goal of harming the state of Israel and the revival of the Jewish people” shall be sentenced to death. But on March 27, the government was forced to delay further votes on the bill, which is part of the push to weaken the judiciary that has caused mass protest.

Israel abolished the death penalty for murder in 1954, though it’s still on the books for certain other crimes. It can be imposed for war crimes, crimes against humanity, crimes against the Jewish people, treason, and crimes committed during wartime under military law.

In all of Israel’s history, a death sentence has been handed down only twice. The first was in 1948, when Israel Defense Forces officer Meir Tobianski was executed on espionage charges, and later found to be innocent. The second time was in 1962, when Adolf Eichmann, a central perpetrator of the Holocaust and the embodiment of absolute evil, was executed.

To reinstate the death penalty would be to violate every fundamental value on which the state was founded. It would also have a severe and lasting effect on Israel’s international image. It would undermine Israelis’ status everywhere in the world, and deal a blow to the country’s democracy.

It’s important to remember that the death penalty isn’t part of Jewish culture and tradition. Many rabbis, including Chief Sephardi Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef, have denounced legislation like this, in the past and today.

Jewish tradition has always adhered to the position of the 1st-century sage Rabbi Elazar Ben Azariah, who said that a Sanhedrin supreme council that executes people would be a “murderous court,” and that of Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiva in the next generation of Mishna sages, who said that had they been members of the Sanhedrin, they would never have applied the death penalty (state in the Talmud, Tractate Makkot, 10a).

Today, Israel is viewed abroad as a country that has abolished the death penalty de jure, just as 119 other countries have. Another 27 have abolished the death penalty de facto or imposed a moratorium on it. As a result, 75 percent of UN member states are countries where the death penalty has been abolished either de jure or de facto, and the vast majority of these are liberal democracies.

Some will argue that the United States does still carry out executions, but this argument ignores the fact that most American states have also abolished the death penalty either de jure or de facto. In practice, only a handful of states (primarily Texas) still execute people.

Israel is an exception in the Middle East, especially when compared to Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Iran. The tragic news emerging from Iran recently about a major rise in executions is a reminder of how embarrassing and shocking the death penalty is. Reinstating the death penalty in Israel would mean following in the footsteps of the Islamic Republic, which sees it as a tool for suppressing the democratic opposition and the Iranian people’s legitimate aspirations for freedom as embodied in the opposition slogan “Woman, life, freedom.”

The obsession with the death penalty among people in key government positions, who sometimes seem to imagine that bandying about it will bolster their legitimacy, is extremely disappointing. A democracy can’t be based on intimidation, and a law-abiding state can’t be based on discrimination. The death penalty will always be a political tool.

What’s at stake here is an aspiration to placate the fringe extremists, to cultivate our most contemptible instincts. The primitive caveman within us is always seeking to burst out, but we have worked to keep him hidden over the 5,000 years of humanity’s development.

These officials say the goal is to fight the scourge of terrorism. When people say this, they forget that the death sentence is a delusional tactic for fighting terrorism, or at least one that’s patently ineffective. On the contrary: it will make terrorism thrive even more.

In the words of my teacher and mentor Robert Badinter (whose tireless campaign against capital punishment led to its abrogation in 1981, when he served as France’s justice minister): “Capital punishment may deter criminals, but between terrorists and death there is a concealed link, a distorted and worrisome permanent connection. Capital punishment will only further increase the aura of martyrdom.”

Enacting a death penalty law would be a two-edged sword. If it’s applied against terrorists in general, it would also apply to a potential Yigal Amir (Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassin) or Amiram Ben-Uliel (who murdered a Palestinian family in an arson attack). Applying it only to Palestinian terrorists would publicly demonstrate that it’s a racist, discriminatory law. It would be used merely as an act of revenge, never as an attempt for justice.

With this cry, we are trying to awaken public opinion in Israel, calling for action while warning all citizens of the dangers such a law poses to Israel’s security and to the values it holds dear. The repeated submission of such bills, in Israel and in other locations, only serves to illustrate the fragility of countries’ moratorium on capital punishment.

Only a complete revocation of capital punishment would be final. Limiting its application to only some violations of the law, or applying a moratorium, are decisions that can easily be overturned, leaving the public at the mercy of irrational political decisions dictated by fear, hate, shortsightedness, demagogy and extremism.

The final adoption of the bills included in the judicial “reform” was postponed to the new Knesset session, but the government must immediately stop any steps taken toward the return of capital punishment. I believe future leaders must be courageous and finish the process of totally revoking this law immediately. 

The ratification of the second protocol of the UN’s International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights will make Israel a democracy with absolutely no capital punishment – and make it a country marching in the direction the rest of history and humanity are going.

Raphaël Chenuil-Hazan, ECPM director and and president of the French Platform for Human Rights