For many Knesset members over the years, a law to impose capital punishment on terrorists has been analogous to the strange uncle you have to invite to your Passover seder because you just can’t leave him out but very quietly, you do everything you can to make sure he won’t show up unexpectedly and spoil the family get-together.
A quick survey of the Knesset website reveals that over a period of almost two decades, until the present Knesset, bills on this topic were submitted no fewer than 22 times by a diverse assortment of coalition and opposition MKs. Only once, however, did such a bill pass on a preliminary reading, only to evaporate into thin air later.
The first initiator and sponsor of such a bill was MK Arye Eldad; in 2004 he submitted a bill, “Security Regulations (emergency) (Amendment: Capital Punishment for Terrorists).” However, it was not until 2018 that the legislative process gained momentum. Yisrael Beytenu MKs Robert Elituv and Oded Forer were able to win the approval of their bill on a preliminary reading (by a vote of 52 to 49).
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed the idea and said that, “there are extreme situations in which people commit horrible crimes and do not deserve to live. I said that we will change the law for such situations.” However, astonishing as this is, the bill never came back for its first reading in the plenum.
But what was once the case is not necessarily what will be. The modus vivendi that prevailed for years has been shattered in recent months by the new Knesset. For some sectors of the public, it is moving toward the realization of their wildest dreams, which once seemed to be forlorn hopes that would never come to pass.
For others, the Knesset is realizing their deepest fears, nightmares they never thought they’d have to face in daylight. What is common to both groups is their belief that we are moving towards a substantively different constitutional future than anything we have known thus far.
NOW, THE Knesset is pushing the bill forward full-steam ahead. MK Har-Melech’s harsher bill to impose the death penalty on terrorists passed its preliminary reading, with 55 yeas and only nine nays. The coalition factions voted in favor and were joined by Yisrael Beytenu MKs. On the coalition side of the aisle, only the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism (UTJ) abstained from the vote.
UTJ’s abstention was not a shock. In the days leading up to the vote, some of its members publicly expressed their opposition to the bill. They were joined by members of the Shas party. In fact, back in 2018, when the previous version of the bill was taking shape, Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef stated his vigorous objections to the idea. Despite the public opposition of the most important Sephardi spiritual leader and the reservations of the party’s MKs, in the end, they voted – then as now – in favor of the bill.
The fact that even though they officially subscribe to the same principled position, UTJ abstained but Shas voted in favor, stems from the profound differences between their constituencies with regard to two key points: their political identification and their attitude toward the Israeli state.
The difference between UTJ and Shas
As for their political identification, Shas voters tend to be at the farthest right edge of the Israeli political map. The supporters of UTJ are more diverse: some are moderate rightists and some even spill over into the center.
However, when it comes to the deep-seated differences between these two constituencies, the crux lies in their view of the state of Israel. The Ashkenazim – both the Lithuanians and the hassidim – subscribe to the idea that the state is just one more station in the exile of the Jewish people, an exile that will end only with the arrival of the Messiah. The belief that our survival in the Middle East depends on IDF bayonets appalls their rabbis, who emphasize time and again that we are still in exile.
As long as we are in exile, we must be careful not to stir up the anger of the goyim because we do not have the capacity to defend ourselves against them. By contrast, the Shas community and even some of the Sephardi rabbis see the Jewish people’s return to their homeland and the establishment of the state as the end of the exile.
They want the Jewish people to stand tall in their land and demand their due. Rabbi Mazuz, for example, reiterates that, “our honor has been recovered from the humiliation of exile,” and, “this is the first stage of Israel’s redemption.”
In the coming months, we will find out whether UTJ plays the role of “Shabbos goy” (a non-Jew employed by Jews to perform certain types of work that Jewish religious law prohibits) for coalition MKs who want to oppose the bill but fear their voters’ wrath – and the bill is frozen on the grounds that UTJ vetoed it. Or will Yisrael Beytenu tighten its bear hug of the coalition leaders and support the bill through its third reading and then rub its hands with pleasure when Netanyahu has to deal with the harsh international reaction to this extreme legislation?
The writer is a research assistant in the Ultra-Orthodox Program of the Joan and Irwin Jacobs Center for a Shared Society at the Israel Democracy Institute and a doctoral student in Jewish thought at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.