Universal Norms & Murdering Arabs in Israel (1951)

ben gurion

The news from Israel is full of the tension between norms and practice –the universal norms of a democratic polity versus the dehumanizing practice of military occupation. Recent video footage shows an Israeli soldier in the occupied city of Hebron shooting to death a Palestinian man lying prone on the ground; the Palestinian had been wounded by other soldiers in the course of a knife attack on them, but he no longer posed a threat to anyone. The soldier who killed him is going to be charged with murder. In a politically craven act meant to appeal to his political base, The Prime Minister has since sought to walk back his initial condemnation of the act.

Apropos to that ongoing story, Haaretz has this article about an Israeli cabinet debate in 1951 about striking the death penalty from the country’s legal code. It’s here in English and here in Hebrew. The historical context would seem to be the attempt by Arab refugees from the War of Independence to return to their lands, and their murder in cold blood at the hands of young Israeli men. While opposed in principle to the death penalty, the Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and other members of his government, including Minister of Labor Golda Meyerson, worried that nothing less than that, nothing less than hanging a Jew for murdering an Arab would deter and stem the rash of killings in the early days of the State.

From the article, the government ministers express a realist appraisal that in the general public Arabs were considered not just unequal to Jews, but something less than human. To a person, the ministers were horrified by these acts of violence, which hung over their deliberations. Ben-Gurion makes mention of those who think it’s a “mitzvah” to murder Arabs so that there would fewer of them in the country. The story suggests just how violent a place the country has always been, the extreme antipathies between Jews and Arabs, and the depth of anti-Arab racism in Israeli society. The difference seems to be that, unlike today, government ministers back then saw clearly as their moral and political responsibility the upholding of basic human norms.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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4 Responses to Universal Norms & Murdering Arabs in Israel (1951)

  1. “the Palestinian had been wounded by other soldiers in the course of a knife attack on them” Helpful rewrite from The Elements of Style: Palestinians can take a verb – “The Palestinian attacked the soldiers with a knife and they shot him”. More importantly: was the Palestinian a racist just looking for an opportunity to kill some Jews? Oh, that sounds to simplistic! So now, reality check: did the soldier who shot the wounded Palestinian act out of racism? Oh no, perhaps also not so simple? Could it be that he was really pissed off that this guy had just tried to murder his comrades? Could it be that he was troubled by the thought that the person who had just tried to murder his comrades might likely be released from jail next time Israel frees terrorists in order to restart negotiations or in trade for hostages? I think these are the considerations animating public support for the soldier, plus (more importantly) the concern that extra Israeli lives will be lost when soldiers and police hold back their response to attackers out of fear that they will be the ones on trial. I’m not saying that those are valid reasons for killing a terrorist who has already been subdued, but they have nothing to do with “racism” or “the occupation”. Finally: there is. of course, that pesky second video in which we clearly hear someone shouting about the possibility that the wounded terrorist might be wearing a suicide explosive belt on him and also the pictures showing the terrorist wearing a jacket on a rather hot day with a bulge underneath it. Again, I would not be at all surprised if the investigation concludes that the soldier involved was wrong in killing the wounded terrorist and that the soldier will be found guilty in an Israeli court of law. But before you make a whole derasha about it, try to relate fairly to the actual case at hand.
    Like · Reply · Just now

  2. dmf says:

    Reblogged this on synthetic zero.

  3. dms1999 says:

    Why surprise?
    At feelings on either side?
    There is a war going on.

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