What an Israeli small business owner teaches us about criminal justice

Screenshot from the public video showing the break-in that Iluz posted on Facebook

What an Israeli small business owner teaches us about criminal justice

There is no greater human motivator than the will to get even. People will put themselves in harm’s way, spend unreasonable amounts of time and money just to see the person who harmed them suffer. Few can restrain this willpower. One man who can is Avi Iluz.

In the middle of the COVID pandemic, where small business owners are especially hit hard, a group of teenage boys broke into Iluz’s gym and caused tens of thousands of shekels of damage, the owner said. The boys were caught on camera and could be easily identified, tracked down, and prosecuted.

Iluz decided not to report the incident to the police. Instead, he published the following Facebook post and went on national Israeli television asking the perpetrators to come forward:

“I look at these cute kids in this nefarious act and I notice through the camera a ton of charisma, motivation, desire, composure, if only they could channel these qualities in the right way – how far these boys could get. No, I don’t want to file a complaint with the police, these boys are about to be drafted. I would be happy if anyone happened to know them and could connect me with them, the first thing I would like is to talk to them, the second thing is ask them to be part of our team and work with us. Teach them a moment before they are drafted how far they can go down the straight path. And how easy it is to deviate from the track and reach very low places. So if by chance someone recognizes them, let’s help them.

One of the teenagers did indeed come forward and even appeared on television with Iluz a few days later.

“I understand that what I did was wrong,” the teenager said on Israel’s Channel 13 News. “I thank [Iluz] for not filing a complaint with the police … he is really a good person and I am proud that there are people like him in the world.”

This story provides a prime opportunity to examine the premises of the criminal justice system and the reasons for its existence. Three purposes are commonly adduced in the following order of priorities: (1) to protect society, (2) to rehabilitate those who can be rehabilitated (proving whether everyone can actually be rehabilitated is a separate discussion), and (3) to punish wrongdoers. Too often, however, numbers two and three get flipped.

These three reasons are often grouped into a single broad goal: to achieve justice. The problem is nobody really knows what perfect justice is. After all, the Torah tells us, “justice, justice you shall chase.” We can chase justice, but we’ll never end up catching it.

So is it just for this youth to avoid prosecution?

Most would agree that he broke the law, and therefore the answer should be a resounding no. If someone — anyone — breaks the law and offends the sensibilities of society, their actions warrant prosecution.

But there’s a caveat here: There is evidence suggesting that the teenager who responded to Iluz’s post acknowledges his wrongdoing and will no longer be a burden to society. We don’t have enough data on the perpetrators who did not come forward, so let’s leave them out of this discussion. In light of the available information, the more accurate question to ponder is not whether he deserves prosecution, but rather whether convicting him would produce a just outcome.

The answer to this question depends on whether you agree with the order of priority of goals I proposed above. If keeping society safe and rehabilitation are at the top of the list, then there’s no need to file any charges in this particular case. If irrespective of achieving the first two goals punishment is still deemed essential, then we have a long way to go in the journey to justice.

Often we consider forgiveness — pardoning instead of punishing — as an overriding of justice. But at times a pardon is itself in the interest of justice; sometimes forgiveness is more just than punishment. Iluz’s story proves it.

*All quotes by Iluz and the youth have been translated from Hebrew by the author.