The impending release of more than 100 murderers of Jewish men, women and children by the current Israeli government is putting all of us in grave spiritual danger. Simply put, the way we treat murderers, whether Arab or Jewish, is an expression of the value we attribute to the innocent lives taken.
With our willingness to house and lodge proven murderers, we signal our own spiritual uncertainty about our right, as a nation and as a state, to avenge the blood of the innocent.
We’ve all heard the counter argument on the death penalty for Arab terrorists: if we hang them, they’d become national heroes, martyrs admired by young an old, thus perpetuating the endless cycle of Arab youths resorting to violence.
Personally, I’m willing to take that chance, and I’m also pretty sure that many of these Arab youths would also choose not to murder anyone, for fear of being hanged. But I’m willing to accept the alternative offered by the state, to let them rot in prison for the rest of their lives.
Except the state lies. Time and again, in “confidence building gestures,” or as part of a trade for captured Israelis, alive or dead, a succession of Israeli governments have broken the promise of locking up the murderers and throwing away the key. In fact, if you murder an Israeli civilian, chances are you’ll be out, marching in a victory parade in Gaza or Ramallah in less than a decade.
How’s that for the “don’t hang them lest they become martyrs” argument? I can’t think of a more enticing invitation to kill Jews and not pay much of a price than these group-deal releases.
I’m not entirely sure about the practicality of what I propose here, namely, starting to impose the death penalty in earnest, in cases of terrorist murders. But I assure you that my concern for the martyrdom of hanged murderers is negligible, compared with my real fear of what the release of these Jew killers says about our own reverence for Jewish life.
Alas, it appears the Benjamin Netanyahu government has lower regard for the sanctity of Jewish life than do the terrorists. They are prepared to lose their own lives pursuing Jewish souls. The Netanyahu government isn’t even prepared to resist an E.U. partial boycott and a presumed U.S. pressure.
So, what does that tell us about the value of Jewish life in the Jewish State today?
In Genesis, God Himself defines the all-permeating damage the world incurs after one man murders another:
…And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel and killed him. Then God said to Cain, “Where is Abel your brother?” He said, “I do not know; am I my brother’s keeper?” And God said, “What have you done? The voice of your brother’s blood is crying to Me from the ground. (Gen. 4:8-10)
In Leviticus 24, the Torah sets up the famous “eye for an eye” construct, dealing with physical damages, which our sages have taught us really means “the price of an eye for an eye,” introducing five categories of damages for which compensation must be paid: the damage proper, pain, loss of wages, cost of healing, and the shame caused by the damage.
But the same paragraph in Leviticus makes no such allowances for murder: Whoever takes a human life will certainly be put to death. (Lev. 24:17). You can’t pay your way out of the death penalty for a proven case of murder.
The Torah and the Talmud are, obviously, careful regarding procedure in murder cases. Capital cases require a court of 23 judges; an acquittal requires a one-vote majority, but a conviction must have a two-vote majority; there are many structural delays inserted into the process to prevent an overzealous use of the death penalty. There is also in place a system of shelter cities where people who killed unintentionally may escape the revenge of their victim’s family. But in the end, whoever takes a human life will certainly be put to death.
The Torah reveals the connection between the original statement from God regarding the blood of the victim crying to Him from the ground, and the role an unavenged murder plays in society, in the mysterious ceremony of the “Beheaded Heifer” (paraphrased for easier reading):
If a person is found slain, lying in the field, and it is not known who killed them; then the local elders and judges must measure the distance from the corpse to the nearby towns. In the city which is nearest the slain man, the elders will take a heifer—which has not been used for any labor—to the bank of a running river, which is not plowed or sown, and break the heifer’s neck there, under the direction of the priests. Then all the elders of that city will wash their hands over the dead heifer and say: “Our hands have not shed this blood, neither have our eyes seen it. Please, God, forgive your people Israel, and Suffer not innocent blood to remain in the midst of Your people Israel.” Then the spilled blood shall be forgiven them. (Deut. 21:1-8).
The elders and judges in this vignette are the local Sanhedrin. They follow the discovery of an unsolved capital crime with a proclamation of their innocence, lest the unredeemed blood of the slain stranger stain their town.
Does anyone suspect that the elders of the town had anything to do with the murder? According to American law, the answer is a resounding No. But in Jewish law, the elders are, indeed, responsible. Not because they spilled the blood—the entire ceremony is intended for occasions when there are no witnesses and no basis for such an accusation— but because the blood was spilled on their watch. And if they don’t wash their hands of this blood, they’ll face dire consequences, namely the ire of God.
In many ways, the proceedings of the court of 23 judges is likewise intended to put away the innocent blood from the community’s midst.
The stain of the spilled blood of the innocent on the spiritual well being of society is the main reason I support the death penalty. I believe we all pay the price of all human suffering in our midst, and worst of all the suffering of the slain. Our entire social contract is in jeopardy every time a murder goes unpunished.
Likewise, our spiritual well being is in jeopardy with every wrongful execution. Moreover, it could be said that the effect of an individual murder on society is marginal compared with a wrongful execution by the state, which receives consent for its actions from you and me.
This is the reason the capital-crime Sanhedrin is so obviously skewed in favor of the accused: we shudder at the thought of society adding the blood of an innocent defendant to that of the victim. Why else would we make it near impossible to execute murder suspects?
Returning to the issue of imposing the death penalty on Arab terrorists, I’ll be the first to admit that if the Netanyahu government had the spiritual depth required to appreciate the consequences of their letting murderers go free en masse – they would have long ago been able to solve many of Israel’s daunting problems.
Nevertheless, I’ve been feeling this spiritual angst ever since the start of Netanyahu’s signaling that he is prepared to show “good will” by abandoning every conceivable aspect of the fundamental contract between government and citizens, namely: you will elect me and I will maintain law and order. I couldn’t help feeling that Prime Minister Netanyahu believes that the value of life in general and my own life in particular is inconsequential.
But the life of the innocent is not inconsequential. It cries out to God from the ground, and God, in God’s time, restores it to its honorable place, and, I pray, avenges the callousness of thoughtless political hacks.Yori Yanover
About the Author: Yori Yanover has been a working journalist since age 17, before he enlisted and worked for Ba'Machane Nachal. Since then he has worked for Israel Shelanu, the US supplement of Yedioth, JCN18.com, USAJewish.com, Lubavitch News Service, Arutz 7 (as DJ on the high seas), and the Grand Street News. He has published Dancing and Crying, a colorful and intimate portrait of the last two years in the life of the late Lubavitch Rebbe, (in Hebrew), and two fun books in English: The Cabalist's Daughter: A Novel of Practical Messianic Redemption, and How Would God REALLY Vote.
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