Ben-Gurion in 1951: Only the Death
Penalty Would Deter Jews From Gratuitous Killing of Arabs
'Until a Jewish soldier is hanged for murdering
Arabs, these acts of murder won’t end,'
not the justice minister, I’m not the police minister and I don’t know all
criminal acts committed here, but as defense minister I know some of the
crimes, and I must say the situation is frightening in two areas: 1) acts of
murder and 2) acts of rape.” So declared Prime
Ben-Gurion was speaking at
a cabinet meeting on abolishing the death penalty. Jewish-Arab tensions were
high following the 1948 War of Independence, and there was also a problem with
infiltrators: Arab refugees seeking to return to the homes and fields they left
during the war. Consequently, Jewish murders of Arabs had proliferated, and
some ministers considered the death penalty necessary to solve this problem.
The cabinet discussion of
66 years ago is particularly interesting in light of this week’s very different cabinet discussion about a soldier who killed a wounded Palestinian terrorist in
Hebron after he no longer posed a threat.
“In general, those who
have guns use them,” Ben-Gurion asserted, adding that some Israelis “think Jews
are people but Arabs aren’t, so you can do anything to them. And some think
it’s a mitzvah to kill Arabs, and that everything the government says against
murdering Arabs isn’t serious, that it’s just a pretense that killing Arabs is
forbidden, but in fact, it’s a blessing because there will be fewer Arabs here.
As long as they think that, the murders won’t stop.”
Ben-Gurion said he, too,
would prefer fewer Arabs, but not at the price of murder. “Abolishing the death
penalty will increase bloodshed,” he warned, especially between Jews and Arabs.
“Soon, we won’t be able to show our faces to the world. Jews meet an Arab and
The cabinet first
discussed abolishing the death penalty – a legacy of the British Mandate – on 28 June 1949, at the urging of Justice
The bill then went to the
Knesset, where the Constitution Committee held lengthy deliberations. A year
later, Rosen presented the cabinet with a problem: Seven prisoners were on
death row, but their executions were being delayed until the Knesset made up
its mind about the death penalty.
As the cabinet discussed
this issue, Ben-Gurion stunned his colleagues by saying he no longer supported
abolishing the death penalty, primarily due to an increase in killings of Arabs
by Jewish soldiers.
“With great regret I’ve
become convinced that abolishing the death penalty is inconceivable,” he
announced, noting that even countries “which are immeasurably more humane than
we are – I’ve spent years there and I live here – maintain the death penalty.”
The main reason for his
U-turn, however, was “the crimes that have happened and are happening week
after week, especially in the army,” including some that weren’t public
knowledge. Sociopaths might not be deterred by the death penalty, Sharett
admitted, “but that Jewish chap who kills two Arabs he met on the road, I’m not
willing to say, without trying it first, that he’s a killer by nature and won’t
fear the death penalty.”
Some Jews, Sharett said,
think “every Arab is a dog, a wild dog that it’s a mitzvah to kill.” And “to
save them from killing human beings, it’s a mitzvah to have the death penalty
here. As long as we don’t have it, these murders will continue, and we’ll be
held accountable, and it will create moral corruption here.
“I’ve giving a speech of
repentance and confession here,” he continued. “I’ve learned from experience
that in this country, the death penalty is necessary... We made a mistake when
we stopped hanging... If all the crimes committed in this country were reported,
terror would grip the public and lynchings would start. I’d shoot a Jewish chap
who wanted to shoot an Arab passerby if that were the way to save him.”
Sharett then described one
case in which three Arabs were killed and a fourth saved only because a Jew
threw him into a hut, and another case in which two Indian Jews were almost
killed by fellow Jews who thought they were Arabs until they shouted “
“There have been worse
cases,” Ben-Gurion responded.
In the end, the death
penalty was abolished – but only three years later, in 1954.