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.