Capital punishment in Israel
Capital punishment in Israel has only been imposed two times in the history of the state and is only to be handed out for crimes committed during war time, such as genocide, crimes against humanity, war crimes, crimes against the Jewish people, treason, and certain crimes under military law.[note 1]
Israel inherited the British Mandate of Palestine code of law, which included the death penalty for several offenses, but in 1954 Israel abolished the penalty for murder. Although a legal option under law, Israel does not use the death penalty. The last execution was carried out in 1962, when Holocaust architect Adolf Eichmann was hanged for genocide and crimes against humanity. The last death sentence in Israel was handed down in 1988, when John Demjanjuk was sentenced to death for war crimes and crimes against humanity; his sentence (and conviction) was subsequently overturned. No death sentences have been sought by Israeli prosecutors since the 1990s.
Israel's rare use of the death penalty may in part be due to Jewish religious law. Biblical law explicitly mandates the death penalty for 36 offenses, from murder and adultery to idolatry and desecration of the Sabbath. However, in ancient Israel, the death penalty was rarely carried out. Jewish scholars since the beginning of the common era have developed such restrictive rules to prevent execution of the innocent that the death penalty has become de facto abolished. Moses Maimonides argued that executing a defendant on anything less than absolute certainty would lead to a slippery slope of decreasing burdens of proof, until we would be convicting merely "according to the judge's caprice". His concern was maintaining popular respect for law, and he saw errors of commission as much more threatening than errors of omission. Conservative Jewish religious leaders and scholars believe that the death penalty should remain unused, even in extreme cases such as political assassination.
When the modern state of Israel was established in 1948, it inherited the British Mandate's legal code, with a few adjustments, and thus capital punishment remained on the books. During the Israeli War of Independence, the first execution took place after Meir Tobianski, an Israeli army officer, was falsely accused of espionage, subjected to a drumhead court martial and found guilty. He was executed by firing squad, but later posthumously exonerated.
In December 1948, it was decided that in the event of further death sentences, all executions would be stayed until the government determined the fate of the death penalty. The first death sentences imposed by an Israeli civil court, against two Arabs who had been found guilty of murder, were confirmed by an appeals court in November 1949, but the sentences were commuted to life imprisonment by President Chaim Weizmann, due to his opposition to the death penalty. The Israeli cabinet first considered abolishing the death penalty in July 1949.
In 1950, seven convicted murderers were on death row in Israel. In 1951 the Israeli cabinet again proposed that the death penalty be abolished. In 1952, the first death sentence for Nazi war crimes under the Nazi Collaborators' Law was imposed on Yechezkel Ingster, who was convicted of torturing and beating other Jews as a kapo, but the court also recommended that the death sentence be commuted. The sentence was commuted to two years' imprisonment. In 1953, another death sentence for murder was imposed. It was not carried out, and the convicted murderer received a presidential pardon six years later.
In 1954 the Knesset voted to abolish the death penalty for the crime of murder. The death penalty was retained for war crimes, crimes against humanity, crimes against the Jewish people, treason and certain crimes under military law during wartime.
In 1962 the second execution—and the only civil execution—in Israel took place when Adolf Eichmann was hanged after being convicted in 1961 of participation in Nazi war crimes relating to the Holocaust.
Throughout the following decades, death sentences were occasionally handed down to those convicted of terrorist offenses, but these sentences were always commuted. In 1988 John Demjanjuk, a guard in a Nazi death camp during the war nicknamed "Ivan the Terrible" by inmates for his brutality, was sentenced to death after being convicted of war crimes, but his conviction was later overturned on appeal. In the mid-1990s the practice of seeking the death penalty for those facing terrorism charges ceased.
In the aftermath of the Itamar attack in 2011, the issue of the death penalty briefly came up again. Israeli military prosecutors were expected to seek the death penalty for the perpetrators, but in the end did not. Even so, the judges seriously considered imposing the death penalty when determining the sentence of one of the perpetrators, but decided not to, as the prosecution had not requested it.
In the March 2015 election, the Yisrael Beiteinu party ran on a platform that included death sentences for terrorists; in July of the same year a bill was proposed, and sponsored by one of the party's members, to allow a majority of presiding judges to sentence a terrorist to death. By a vote of 94–6 the bill was rejected in its first reading.
Calls for imposition of the death penalty
Israeli politicians have sometimes called for the imposition of the death penalty on specific criminals. In 2010 Member of the Knesset Ayoub Kara called for the imposition of the death penalty on the perpetrator of the Tapuah Junction stabbing (2010). In 2017 political figures including Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu called for the penalty to be imposed on the perpetrator of the 2017 Halamish stabbing attack. Representatives in the government plan to introduce to the Knesset a bill which would allow the death penalty for terrorism. In January 2018, 52 of 120 members of the Israeli parliament voted in favor, while 49 opposed, making easier for judges to hand down the death penalty.
|Executed person||Date of execution||Crime(s)||Under President||Method|
|1||Meir Tobianski||June 30, 1948||Treason (posthumously exonerated)||Chaim Weizmann||Firing squad|
|2||Adolf Eichmann||May 31, 1962||Crimes against humanity and war crimes, crimes against the Jewish people and membership of an outlawed organization involving the murder of many Jews.||Yitzhak Ben-Zvi||Hanging|
- Mishnah Makot 1:10
- Moses Maimonides, The Commandments, Neg. Comm. 290, at 269–71 (Charles B. Chavel trans., 1967).
- "Conservative Responsa in Israel - Masorti Responsa - Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies - SIJS". www.responsafortoday.com. Retrieved 2015-07-16.
- Shaul, Hon (1961-02-17). "מיתת־תליה" – חודש הסעיף שבוטל"" ["Bed of hanging" – the clause which was cancelled was renewed]. Maariv (in Hebrew). p. 23. Retrieved 2015-07-16.
- רויכמן, ינון (14 December 2006). "הנידונים למוות" – via Ynet.
- "Abolition of Death Penalty in Israel Proposed by Cabinet". Jewish Telegraphic Agency. 1951-10-30.
The Israel Cabinet last night decided to submit to the Parliament a law proposing abolition of the death penalty.
- "Israel Will Not Carry out Death Sentences Immediately". Jewish Telegraphic Agency. 1953-12-17. Retrieved 2015-07-16.
The Israel Government has no intention of proceeding at this time with execution of death penalties, Minister of Justice Pinhas Rosen told Parliament’s legal committee tonight in a statement [...]
- "First Israeli Sentenced to Death for Torturing Nazi Victims".
- "Israel Parliament Votes to Abolish Capital Punishment". Jewish Telegraphic Agency. 1954-02-17. Retrieved 2015-07-16.
The Israel Parliament today abolished the death penalty for the crime of murder. The vote was 61 to 33, with two abstentions.
- Levinson, Chaim (20 May 2011). "IDF Expected to Seek Death Penalty for Killers of Fogel Family" – via Haaretz.
- IDF court gives Palestinian five life sentences for Itamar murders
- "Knesset votes down death penalty for terrorists 94-6". The Jerusalem Post. Retrieved 2015-07-16.
- "Shomron Honors Druze Soldier Murdered at Tapuach Junction". Israel National News. 22 February 2011. Retrieved 24 July 2017.
- "Netanyahu demands death penalty for Halamish terrorist". Times of Israel. 27 July 2017. Retrieved 27 July 2017.