Buber, Eichmann, and the Death Penalty

As part of the discussion generated by my posts on the death penalty (prompted by the Anders Behring Breivik case; here and here), my colleague, the brilliant Noson Yanofsky, wrote in to say,

This reminds me of Martin Buber’s fight to keep Israel from executing Eichmann. His reasoning was not practical but moral. He lost the fight but generated a lot of discussion.

I’d like to thank Noson for pointing me to that episode in Buber’s life; its details are worth revisiting.

After his capture and kidnapping by Israeli agents in Argentina in 1961, Adolf Eichmann was brought to Israel and placed on trial.  The resultant high-profile prosecution by an Israeli court, needless to say, generated intense debate in both philosophical and legal registers (Hannah Arendt‘s memorable Eichmann in Jerusalem anyone?). Initially, Buber resisted the idea of trying Eichmann in an Israeli court rather than an international one; for him, the ‘victims’ had  mistakenly cast themselves as judges. While making it clear he was not advocating a pardon he suggested too that the idea that Eichmann had indulged in a unique evil was mistaken. Buber met David Ben-Gurion to ask the death sentence not be carried out, who replied that while he personally didn’t care about the sentence, the then Israeli President Yitzhak Ben-Zvi most assuredly did.

Buber’s opposition to the death penalty for Eichmann, unsurprisingly, was grounded in his reading of the Scriptures. In particular, that the Commandment, ‘Thou Shalt not Kill’ applied to the state just as much as it did to the individual. As Buber said, ‘I do not accept the state’s right to take the life of any man.’ He noted that though observance of the Commandments could often be intractable, ‘as far as it depends on us, we should not kill, neither as individuals nor as a society.’ Later, after Time would quote Buber as quoting Rabbi Mendel of Kotsk, “What the Torah teaches us is this: none but God can command us to destroy a man”, Buber wrote in response that the sequel to these words was even more significant: ‘And if the very smallest angel comes after the command has been given and cautions us: Lay not thy hand upon…, we should obey him.’ Buber would also say to Newsweek, ‘The death sentence has not diminished crime–on the contrary, all this exasperates men…Killing awakens killing.’

Notably, Buber believed that executing Eichmann could lead German youth to believe that by this ‘symbolic justice’ they had been relieved of the guilt for the Holocaust. Presumably, this would also relieve them of the need to engage in moral reflection about the larger German role in it, over and above the actions of the National Socialists.

(Source: Maurice Friedman, Martin Buber’s Life and Work, Wayne State University Press, 1988, pp 355-359)

Buber’s opposition, then to the death penalty, invokes theological, practical and moral considerations, the same ones that continue to inform all thoughtful opposition to the death penalty today. While this case is an unusually high-profile one, and the magnitude of Eichmann’s crimes throws Buber’s opposition into particularly sharp focus, the same issues recur in every dramatic, supposedly singular instance of human wrongdoing thought to be punishable by the death penalty.

Update: Noson has pointed me to a very interesting paper by Erica Weiss titled ‘Finding Neo-Israelite Justice for Adolph Eichmann‘. (Journal of Hebraic Studies, Vol. 4, No. 2 (Spring 2009), pp 169–188)

9 thoughts on “Buber, Eichmann, and the Death Penalty

  1. It’s funny that Buber would oppose the death penalty on the grounds of the Biblical Commandmant, “Thou Shalt not Kill,” insofar as there is no such commandment.

    ‘Thou Shalt not Kill” is a straightforward mistranslation of the text, which says “Thous shalt not murder.” Presumably, an excecution of a guilty man, who has received a fair trial, is not murder.

    As I stated before, I am against the death penalty, but not because of arguments concerning some sort of inherent wrongness of killing, the demonstration of which is hopeless, if only because of obvious counterexamples.

    –Dan K.

  2. Dan,

    Perhaps Buber *is* taking the execution of a guilty man even one who has received a fair trial, to be murder?

    By the way, what are the “obvious counterexamples” you have in mind? I’m guessing you are thinking of self-defence, for instance? It’d be nice to get them out here – they’d help inform the discussion that has been taking place.

  3. One reason why it is impossible to construe the Biblical Commandment as prohibiting all killing is because there are literally scores of examples of sanctioned killing in the Biblical narrative itself.

    Secondly, the Hebrew words for “kill” and “murder” are not the same.

    Thirdly, we can all think of indefinitely many examples in which killing someone would be perfectly justifiable and perhaps, even, a duty. Self-defense is one example. Defense of the defenseless is another (if someone is trying to kill my daughter, I have a duty to kill him first (providing there is no other way of stopping him)).

    Certainly there are extreme pacifists out there, but I have yet to hear anything resembling a decent argument for that position.

    This is one of the reasons why I choose the strategy that I have already articulated in opposing the death penalty: because there is no good argument against it, from an absolutist position re: the wrongness of killing.

    –Dan K.

    1. Well, Buber wouldn’t be the first one to misread the Commandments or the Scriptures in general. Seems like creative misreading is almost a requirement on that front.

      I agree in general that you can’t get a good argument against the death penalty by relying on the ‘intrinsic’ value of life or on the ‘wrongness’ of killing.

      1. It really is interesting that Buber based part of his opposition to killing Eichmann on the Bible. The Bible is for capital punishment in the case of murder (Exodus 21:12), kidnapping (Exodus 21:16), bestiality (Exodus 22:19), adultery (Leviticus 20:10), being a false prophet (Deuteronomy 13:5), prostitution and rape (Deuteronomy 22:24) etc etc. Buber spent years translating the Bible with Franz Rosenzweig, so he knew it.

        His other reason (continuing the German guilt) is far more interesting.

        Here is what the Israel poet Uri Zvi Greenberg said about this issue: “I am not speaking on behalf of the Jewish people and not on behalf of the millions. I am speaking for myself. The murder of my father and my mother is my affair. Buber can waive retribution for his parents’ death if they were exterminated by Eichmann, but neither he nor other Bubers can demand amnesty for the murderer of my parents.”

        My opinion on the death penalty is related to his. I am ideologically against it. Not because it is the state doing it, nor because it is irreversible, nor because of the Bible. I just don’t like killing. However, sometimes there are people who deserve it so much that my ideology goes down the tubes and I think they should be killed.

  4. Buber speaking as a Jew is reinforcing all the anti semites in the world who think that mass murdering six million Jews is excusable and does not demand ultimate rertibution.

  5. what an idiot buber is. now i dont regret anymore losing my book by him. as others already pointed out its utter nonsense to oppose capitol punishment based on the bible since the bible itself calls for capital punishment for even the murder of one never mind millions! (besides the commandment is do not murder, it is not do not kill!

  6. The justification for engaging Eichman to labor in Israels farms & create essays on “Choose Life”is to allow him to reflect on his misdeeds. Perhaps it would have succeeded. We will never know.

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