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)