A City for an Eye: Moral Clarity in a Time of War
"An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind." Gandhi
"The best way to fight terrorism is not through guns. It's through pens, books, teachers and schools." Malala Yousafzai
We have all seen the horrific images on our screens of violence and war in Israel and the Gaza Strip. First, the massacre of innocent civilians at the Nova music festival by Hamas followed by kidnappings and the brutal treatment of the elderly and children. Several thousand Israeli lives lost and 258 hostages taken. We listened to the heartbreaking appeals of families for their loved ones to be returned.
Second, we saw Israel announce their intention to respond, with the support of the US and others around the world. We heard about "moral clarity" and the intention to wipe Hamas off the face of the earth.
Next, we witnessed the indiscriminate bombing of Gaza. Refugee camps, hospitals, and apartment buildings bombed, leaving tens of thousands of innocent Palestinian civilians dead and even more displaced. We were told that the strikes were aimed at Hamas targets and their underground tunnels, but the overwhelming victims have been women and children according to the Gaza Health Ministry. The moral clarity has become blurred as the retaliation has bordered on genocide.
At the same time, we've seen people fall into predictable partisan sides with conservatives brazenly declaring their unwavering support for Israel to defend themselves while turning a blind eye to the damage inflicted on Palestinians (past and present), and liberals being sympathetic to Hamas, hesitant to denounce their anti-semitism and violence, as they advocate for Palestinians. Conservatives can't say the "G-word" (genocide) in relation to Israel's historical treatment of Palestinians in Gaza and the West bank, and liberals can't definitively say that speaking about genocide against Jewish people is unequivocally wrong. Each side is blinded by their ideologies.
This isn't to say that the impacts have been proportionate. The Palestinain death toll is upwards of 20,000, while the Israelis are over 2,000. Some may say Israel's shock and awe responses are justified, but it is becoming clear, that the Hamas attacks, which were evil and traumatic to Israelis, are being used as justification for a bloody campaign against Palestinians.
This isn't the first time this kind of conflict has ended in disproportionate results. The terrible attacks on 9/11 took the lives of almost 3,000. It was shocking, awful, tragic. Terror plain and simple. Then there was the response. The US went to war against Al queda in Afghanistan and then shifted to Iraq, an old enemy, resulting in the deaths of 100,000 people, mostly civilians. That's the population of a city the size of Tuscaloosa, AL or Bend, Oregon. Most Americans didn't bat an eye, or calculate the damages, feeling that any action taken in retaliation was justified. It was more than an eye for an eye. It was a city for an eye.
This is what seems to be happening in the Middle East now. Israel is following the U.S.'s example of a scorched earth war, decimating Gaza. Conservatives and liberals are falling into their same old, same old talking points. Trying to explain away genocide on one hand or antisemitism on the other. Defending Israel's bombing of refugees or Hamas' acts of terrorism. Our ideologies are making us all blind.
This recent conflict isn't happening in a vacuum. There are historical contexts here, just like there were in the case of 9/11. People don't just decide one day they want to try to attack a super power for the hell of it.
Social theorist David Gil (credit to my friend Anton Flores-Maisonet for introducing me to his work) describes the cycle of violence. Violence, he says, starts at the structural level. It is policy, law, that limits the full actualization of people. This is slavery in America, Jim crow in the South, apartheid in South Africa, genocide in Rwanda, the Berlin wall, the Israeli Wall in the west Bank.
Structural violence causes counter violence. This is the repressed or oppressed people striking back. It is the slave revolt or the Watts riots. Let's not forget that Nelson Mandela was first imprisoned for treason and acts of violence against his country, before becoming the beloved champion of reconciliation. Counter violence is usually not productive, for counter violence rarely eliminates the structural violence. It only leads to more repression, which is the next stage. Cracking down on the counter violence with even more violent measures. We see this pattern over and over in history. We are seeing it today.
What we have seen work most effectively in history to break structural violence is creative nonviolent resistance. This is Gandhi fasting to end British rule and Dr. King organizing peaceful nonviolent protest in the face of billy clubs and white racism. It is Jesus, a Palestinian Jew, who disarmed his enemies by loving and forgiving them. It is Malala Yousafzai saying she doesn't want revenge on the Taliban, she wants the education for the sons and daughters of the Taliban.
While it is important to understand the roots of counter violence, violence, especially violence fueled by religious extremism, cannot be justified or condoned when used against innocent people. This violence is self-defeating, because it sullies the cause, and turns the heart of the perpetrators to hatred. Howard Thurman talked about this, noting that loving our enemies isn't for their sake, but for our own.
So, here's the moral clarity I think is needed. We need a full ceasefire of this war, a return of hostages, and protection for the Palestinian people to return to their homes to rebuild. Anyone from Hamas who has committed crimes should be held accountable, as should those who funded them. Prime Minister Netanyahu needs to answer to his people for the intelligence failures and to the UN for crimes of genocide. The people of Israel and Palestine, who are both living in unprecedented trauma, need supportive services to heal and recover.
Additionally, we need to get smarter about terrorism. Instead of being reactive through retributive violence and repression, which doesn't eliminate terrorism any more than counter violence eliminates structural violence, we need to follow the wisdom of Malala Yousafzai and other nonviolent examples, by not taking a city for an eye, but giving a book, a pen, and a school for an eye. Only then will we truly be able to see with the moral clarity we need and desire.
I invite you to sign the Petition for the UN to enact the Uniting for Peace Resolution. Thank you.