Shock for an eye, awe for a tooth: so much for lex talionis in Gaza

Smoke rises after an Israel air strike in Gaza Strip, December ...
After spending an hour reading the news about Gaza, there’s a lot of different blog posts I could write. I could write about the numbness and despair I feel as I watch the video camera meandering through the corpses of Palestinians. I could tell the stories I heard from Israelis and Palestinians when I went with a CPT delegation to Palestine in 2003. I could call on Hamas and Israel to give up on the myth of effective violence.

Instead, I’m going to lower my ambitions. I don’t think the Israeli government (or the leadership of Hamas) is going to reconsider their use of violence anytime soon. So what if we measure them by standard of lex talionis or an eye for an eye? This is a controlled system for retribution found in Islam, Judaism and Christianity. In traditional societies, escalating revenge led to vendettas and feuds that could quickly dominated the social landscape.

An Israeli army soldier prays next to a tank near the northern ...
By limiting retribution, an eye for an eye helped to shorten the length and depth of violent responses. It’s not the only substitute for vengeance societies have developed, but it’s the one in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

This basic principle has been completely abandoned by Israel in their attack on Gaza. There have been a total of 20 Israelis killed by rocket fire from Palestinians. In the last two days, over 200 Palestinians have been killed. That’s 10 fold revenge. When asked by the BBC how she justified this, the Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni said:

Every day there are rockets firing at Israel, so thank God that we have we have the kind of losses that maybe it in terms of numbers is not the same as the situation in Gaza strip.

The story is not to count injuries here and there. The question is what will we stand, and what is their goal.  We are trying to implement our right for self defense, we are trying to give an answer to our citizens who want to live in peace. (see BBC video)

In another interview she said: "When there’s shooting, there’s a response. Any state would react that way." (from Google). So not only is she defending their massive retribution escalation in the name of peace, she is seeking to normalize it.

In "Vengeance is ours", Jared Diamond tells the story of a highland tribe in New Guinea where escalating revenge is the rule:

The war between the Handa clan and the Ombal clan began many years ago; how many, Daniel didn’t say, and perhaps didn’t know. It could easily have been several decades ago, or even in an earlier generation. Among Highland clans, each killing demands a revenge killing, so that a war goes on and on, unless political considerations cause it to be settled, or unless one clan is wiped out or flees. When I asked Daniel how the war that claimed his uncle’s life began, he answered, "The original cause of the wars between the Handa and Ombal clans was a pig that ruined a garden." Surprisingly to outsiders, most Highland wars start ostensibly as a dispute over either pigs or women. 

The article goes on to describe the way every child in the tribe is raised to hate their enemy and prepare for a life of war. Does that sound familiar? Many Palestinians and Israeli children are being raised in a culture saturated in revenge, hate and violence. Whether they are joining Hamas or the Israeli Defense Force, the values are remarkably similar: demonization of the enemy, preparation for perpetual war and ethnic cleansing as an implicit goal.

While my conviction is still that nonviolent social change is the answer in Israel/Palestine, it seems to me that for a consistent principle of proportional retribution could go a long way to reducing the death toll in the region.

Comments (3)

  1. Tim Baer

    I think it’s funny how people take sides in this senseless conflict. Some are die hard Israel supporters and others Palestinian supporters.

    While Iit is when I think of those bodies in the street, the Palestinians got what was comin’ to ’em when they voted in Hamas, who they knew the Israelies hated. What did the Palestinians expect when the democratically voted in a known terrorist organization? And the Israelies get the rocket attacks lobbed at ’em for the disaster that is the failed semi-state of Palestine.

    Sometimes I wanna be optimistic and hopeful. Other times I remember that the people of both of these societies keep the damned war going and I could give two shits. They both made this bed and they are both, seemingly, incapable of peace.

  2. Paul

    Arabs and Jews are both Semites and as closely related as brothers in a family and there is the rub.Who loves more deeply or hates more intensely than brothers. It is a tragedy!

  3. Tim Baer

    One of my favorite bloggers, Fred Reed, made a teriffic post today about Israel’s future:

    “Israel today is not the country once dreamed, in which Heidelberg professors escaped from Europe would work the soil with their hands on kibbutzim and play chess and the violin at night. It looks more like what the professors fled. Brutal conflicts breed brutal people. Atrocities engender counter- atrocities, extremists come to the fore, and military solutions seem the only solutions. ”

    This guy has some splendid insight and asks all the right questions. Instead of asking “who is right?” he asks “What will the outcome be?” Superb stuff from one of America’s greatest little known thinkers.

Comments are closed.