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An 'Eye For An Eye' and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: It's Not What You Think

Sadly, many of us here in America reproduce this conflict's us-and-them ethos from 7,000 miles away, and so have thrown ourselves in on the side of escalation rather than resolution.
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There is a wonderful TED talk by Nigerian author Chimamanda Adichie, called "the danger of a single story." Adichie describes the danger of talking about any group of people as if they are one thing and one thing only. "The consequence of the single story is this," she says. "It robs people of dignity. It makes recognition of our equal humanity difficult."

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is replete with dignity-robbing single stories. There is the single story of Palestinians as ruthless terrorists with no regard for human life, even that of their own. And there is the single story of Palestinians as trampled victims, pushed to violent resistance only at the end of despair, removed from all agency and culpability. There is the single story of Israelis as callous and aggressive imperialist military brutes, occupiers and human rights violators, impervious to any suffering but their own. And there is the single story of Israelis as heroic and morally superior victims, surrounded by implacable hatred, and held up to a moral standard never applied to their enemies (or fault finders).

There are also the single stories we in the American public who care about the Middle East impose on one another from all sides: extremist, anti-Semite, racist, naïve, bigoted, loony.

The heart of my life's-work has been to pry open these single stories, supporting people to do the jarring work of stepping inside multiple, seemingly incongruous points of view.

I have made this my life's work because I believe that every move to break down this conflict into bad guys and good guys, colonists or terrorists against blameless victims, distorts and perpetuates this conflict rather than breaking through it to resolve it.

Blame-game single stories will only deepen entrenchment and escalation, enmity and fear.

This week's Torah portion, Emor, Leviticus 21:1-24:23, contains a controversial verse often touted as evidence of the savage cruelty and vengeful nature of biblical justice: "If anyone maims his fellow, as he has done so shall it be done to him: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth" (Leviticus 25:20).

This verse has long been associated with the brutal image of gouged eyes and bloodthirsty vindictiveness. But many biblical scholars believe that the true purpose of this law is in fact to de-escalate cycles of violence and constrain the impulse to unbridled retribution, not promote it.

The Torah -- just a few chapters earlier enjoining its followers to overcome grudges and expression of revenge -- seeks to formalize a principle of proportionate punishment in order to prevent long-running feuds and vigilantism. Recognizing that rage, grief and humiliation may lead families or extended communities to create new harms as they avenge old ones, "eye for an eye" attempts to bring closure to the degenerative spiral of one-upsmanship. It is a legal effort to break from the logic made famous by the film "The Untouchables": "He sends one of yours to the hospital; you send one of his to the morgue."

The Talmud and later rabbinic literature interpret this law figuratively -- as a directive for equitable monetary compensation rather than physical retribution -- and many scholars argue that this interpretation extends the Torah's meaning rather than offers a departure from it.

Our sources recognize that both community and victims seek acknowledgement of wrongs, accountability, financial redress and deterrence of future harms. And when these needs go unanswered, hatred and retaliation may up the ante for further provocation and hostility such that peaceful resolution becomes more and more difficult to imagine, let alone achieve.

With the colossal violations of mutual trust of the last decade, both Israeli and Palestinian populations have hardened into single stories that obscure the complexity, lived experienced and driving intentions of the other. In the tragic dance of cause-and-effect between Israeli and Palestinian actions and reactions, both parties commonly depict the other as a perpetrator single-mindedly out to get them. In a classic "magnitude gap," each tends to minimize the harms they inflict and zero in on the harms they endure. Each justifies their own escalatory behavior in the name of self-protection and deterrence, meanwhile feeding into the others' worst perceptions.

The "eye for an eye" principle was meant to thwart this tragic pattern. It teaches that operating from the escalated emotions of high conflict will only yield greater and greater destruction. It recognizes the temptation to rationalize harmful action when we have reduced our adversaries to demonizing single stories. It gets that the line between "perpetrator" and "victim" often blurs. In response, it does not demand forced forgiveness or love of one's enemies but rather creates appropriate channels for redress and resolution. It seeks a way for us as human beings, no matter what we've done, to be held accountable, but also spared and affirmed qua human beings -- for the sake of all of us.

Sadly, many of us here in America -- Jews, Mainline Protestants and Evangelicals, Israel advocates and Palestinian solidarity activists, hard-liners and doves -- are reproducing this conflict's us-and-them ethos from 7,000 miles away, and so have thrown ourselves in on the side of escalation rather than resolution.

When Palestinian non-violent activist Ali Abu Awad spoke at the British House of Lords, he walked into a room in which the members of Parliament had physically divided themselves into "pro-Israel" and "pro-Palestinian" camps. This is a man who was shot in the leg by an Israeli settler, and after receiving lengthy treatment in Saudi Arabia, returned home to find that his brother had been killed by an Israeli soldier at a checkpoint. After a long process of rage and desire for revenge, he went through a transformation that propelled him to dedicate his life to working for reconciliation alongside Israelis who have also lost loved ones to the conflict. Ali said to this room of British Lords: "We in the Holy Land will never be able to resolve this conflict unless you right here become not pro-Palestinian or pro-Israel but pro-solution."

How can we be pro-solution? The "eye for an eye" principle teaches us that as third parties, we are called to help abate violence and advance security and justice by stepping beyond the mutually demonizing logic of entrenched conflict. We must refuse the single story and demand that our opinion leaders and elected officials do the same. Whether in our synagogues or churches, Congress or the media, we must commit to a fairness that stands in solidarity with all of the people suffering in this region, rather than push parties on the ground to greater fatalism, embattlement and intransigence when their anguish and history are not properly addressed and understood.

Refusing the single story is only the starting point for rightful action -- but it is the precondition for working toward a solution founded on the dignity and humanity of all parties.

ON Scripture -- The Torah is a weekly Jewish scriptural commentary, produced in collaboration with Odyssey Networks and Hebrew College. Thought leaders from the United States and beyond offer their insights into the weekly Torah portion and contemporary social, political, and spiritual life.