Imagine, for a moment, that you run an organization that is staunchly anti-death penalty. Now, to make things interesting, imagine that that organization is the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR). And to make things really interesting, imagine that you just learned that the Israeli courts have confirmed the conviction and death penalty of Adolf Eichmann, who of course played a critical role in the Shoah. What would you do?
Personally, I might have let this one slide. Eichmann’s case was extraordinary and his sentence was largely considered just, especially but not solely by my American Jewish constituency. I need not vocally support his execution, but not condemning it would not in any serious way erode my organization’s opposition to the death penalty.
This, however, was not what the CCAR leadership did. They actually wrote a letter to the Israeli president urging that he commute Eichmann’s sentence:
As the representative rabbinical body of American Reform Judaism, the Central Conference of American Rabbis, which supported Israel’s right to try Eichmann and applauded the [illegible] fairness of the trial, but which is in principle opposed to the death penalty, we appeal to your Excellency to commute the sentence to life imprisonment. (One report of the text here.)
It turned out to be not only ineffective but also deeply divisive. Twelve Reform rabbis (including, coincidentally, Rabbi Louis Satlow who we believe is a distant relative of mine) immediately sent off a cable to the Israeli president protesting their leadership’s statement, calling it “unauthorized.” Later that month, though, these rabbis were rebuffed: “the convention and the CCAR executive board” supported the plea for commutation, as the leadership acted “in accordance with the standing policy of the CCAR regarding public statements endorsing accepted CCAR principles.” That is, the CCAR’s president and vice-president did not need special authorization to send the appeal, as they were simply acting in accord with a principle the CCAR already accepted.
The principle won, but I doubt that a lot of people felt very good about it.