Benjamin Netanyahu’s remarks on the tragic occasion of the deaths of three Israeli teens at the hands of Palestinians reverberate further than he might think. Understanding their implications is key to what the late Jonathan Schell called “the fate of the earth.”
“’They sanctify death, we sanctify life,’ Netanyahu asserted, comparing the teens to those who killed them. ‘They sanctify cruelty, and we mercy and compassion. That is the secret of our strength.’ A short time later — after the burials of Eyal Yifrach, 19; Gilad Shaar, 16; and Naftali Frankel, a 16-year-old dual U.S.-Israeli citizen, in Modiin—the Prime Minister spoke again about the three before a security cabinet meeting, saying, ‘May God avenge their blood.’”
If only mercy and compassion truly were the secret of Israel’s, or any modern nation’s, strength. Instead, we see an unworkable policy of revenge at work. Presumably the Prime Minister was referencing Deuteronomy, where God reserves vengeance to Himself alone. Later in the Bible that commandment to leave things to God is complemented by references to the necessity for us to consciously put away wrath and cross over into forgiveness. But ending the cycle does not require forgiveness. It merely requires an awareness that vengeance as policy is futile.
Mr. Netanyahu tries to separate “us” and “them” into distinct moral universes, as if Israelis and Palestinians were not equally human and fallible. Looking down upon adversaries from a moral high ground—just as they do him—contradicts the mercy and compassion he affirms as the presumed basis of Israeli superiority, rationalizing the continued cycle of “an eye for an eye.” Where is the mercy, or justice, in bulldozing of the houses of the murder suspects?
Lest we elsewhere in the world think we are not subject to the corrupting spirit of vengeance, think again. It is the exceptional leader who, at a moment of violence like the ISIS beheadings of American citizens, summons the political courage to refuse to give in to revenge, and urges the rest of us to follow suit.
Since 9-11 vengefulness has corrupted our thinking about the “Muslim world,” a phrase corrupted already by the falseness of thinking of that world as a monolith. Long before the twin towers fell, vengeance was firmly in place as the implied modus operandi of a potentially omnicidal international system: the threat of thermonuclear mutual assured destruction. What else is that threat if it is not a cold calculated version of passionate hot revenge, the logical opposite of the merciful and compassionate Golden Rule? If you plan on doing evil to us, think carefully, for we are ready to give back far worse—even if we risk destroying ourselves in the process. A suicide assassin is rightly regarded as an abomination. The nuclear arsenal is a suicide vest worn large.
Sensible ways out of this thicket of paradox can seem eccentric indeed. Remember when Ronald Reagan proposed to Mikhail Gorbachev that the U.S. share with the Soviets the technology of missile defense? So reasonable, yet so far-fetched, because it assumed Soviets cherished their grandchildren as much as Americans. Reagan understood the endlessness (until the world itself ends) of the revenge cycle.
No matter how profoundly antithetical it would be to the “never again” history of Israel to suggest that they rely on their Iron Dome missile defense system alone for protection and refuse to retaliate when attacked, in the long run lives would be saved on both sides if they did. This life-giving principle of defensive non-revenge applies as well to the search for viable international security norms by the United States and other nuclear nations—applies for that matter to any conflict anywhere. Abandon the policy that the best defense is a good offense. Categorically declare no first use. Aggressively advocate for treaties that further cut numbers of warheads. Declare deterrence immoral and unworkable for all parties. Emphasize true defense, like Israel’s anti-missile system. Most of all replace the vicious cycle of vengeance with a virtuous cycle that begins when any one party has the maturity to affirm with Gandhi that “an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind.”
Winslow Myers is author of “Living Beyond War: A Citizen’s Guide.” He serves on the Advisory Board of the War Preventive Initiative.