Reprinted from The Jerusalem Post of August 24, 1999
A MURDERER IS A MURDERER
By Evelyn Gordon
Could anyone believe that blowing up buses or planes full of innocent people is justified in name of a "national interest?"
With another mass release of Arab terrorists growing increasingly likely as a "good-will" gesture to the Palestinians, right-wing circles have once again raised the demand that in the name of "balance," Jews who murdered Arabs be released as well. Justice Minister Yossi Beilin has rightly concluded that acceding to this demand would be a grave error - but for all the wrong reasons.
Beilin's reasoning, in fact, is even more detrimental to the cause of justice than the demand he is opposing, as it would actually justify the commission of additional murders. But ironically, it also provides the best possible illustration of why the Arab prisoner release he does favor creates a travesty of justice.
The correct reason for opposing a release of Jewish murderers alongside Arab ones is simple: Any decent society ought to favor having as few murderers on its streets as possible. The more murderers of any nationality are released, the worse off the rest of us will be. If the government does decide on an unjustifiable release of Arab killers, the situation will not made any better by an unjustifiable release of Jewish killers as well.
But Beilin was not content to leave it at that. Instead, he tried to draw a distinction between Arab and Jewish murderers: The former were justified - or at least condonable - while the latter were not."There is no connection between Palestinian security prisoners, who acted in the service of organizations which have [since] signed an agreement with us, and Jews who were sent by no one, who did not act on behalf of any Israeli national interest and who acted on their own to kill Arabs," Beilin declared last Wednesday.
There are two egregious flaws in this argument. The first is the implication that murdering at the behest of an organization is somehow more justifiable than murdering on one's own initiative. One would have thought that the "I was just following orders" excuse had been laid to rest for all time by the Nuremberg trials following World War II. To see it being revived by an Israeli justice minister, of all people, is little short of tragic.
The second flaw is the implication that any act, no matter how foul, is acceptable as long as it was committed in the name of a "national interest." This, too, is a blatant contradiction of the lesson of Nuremberg: That some actions are simply crimes against humanity, no matter what the perpetrator's motive.
Does Beilin truly believe that blowing up buses full of schoolchildren or planes full of innocent tourists is justified in name of any "national interest?" IF the monstrosity of this assertion is too difficult for Beilin to grasp, perhaps he should try a universal application of this principle. For instance, one must certainly find the Serbs' ethnic cleansing in Kosovo unexceptionable by this standard. They, too, were sent by their leaders in the service of a declared national interest: restoring the greater Serbia that had been lost in the fourteenth century. American southerners who enslaved blacks must also be acquitted under this standard: They were serving the national interest of building up their weak young country's economy.
Indeed, there is virtually no horror that could not be justified under this standard - including, incidentally, the actions of those Jewish murderers whom Beilin so despises. They, too, will claim that they were acting in the national interest: trying to rid the country of hostile Arabs, or trying to ensure Israeli control over the historic Jewish heartland of Judea and Samaria.
Beilin is not the only one in the current government who erroneously tries to present the release of Palestinian terrorists as a natural consequence of Israel's peace agreement with the PLO. Internal Security Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami made a similar statement last week. All peace treaties are followed by an exchange of prisoners, he said. Why should the Oslo Accords be any different?
There is only one flaw in this analogy. Ordinary prisoner-of-war exchanges cover prisoners who were shooting at the other side's soldiers. Under the rules of modern warfare, people who deliberately target civilians are considered not POWs but war criminals. They are not set free to go to home to a hero's welcome; they are tried and punished accordingly.
If the government wants to say that Israel's agreements with the PLO justify releasing Palestinians who killed Israeli soldiers, this would be understandable under the POW model. But there is no justification whatsoever for releasing those who murdered innocent civilians. Like their Jewish counterparts, whom Beilin justly favors keeping in jail, these Palestinians are nothing more than the lowest type of criminal. (c) Jerusalem Post 1999
Evelyn Gordon frequently comments on public affairs.