On Wednesday the Holy Father, not unpredictably, called on the leaders of Israel and Hamas to make “courageous decisions” to end the Gaza conflict, and warned that it risked spilling over into the rest of the Middle East; and he, of course, gave his support to efforts, then still ongoing, to achieve a ceasefire. Now, we have one; it remains to be seen how long it will last.
What he said then had, of course, to be said. “I appeal to the authorities on both sides,” he declared, “to take courageous decisions in favour of peace and bring an end to a conflict with negative repercussions on the entire Middle East, which is already tormented by too many conflicts and so in need of peace and reconciliation.”
“I feel the need,” he continued, “to say once again that hate and violence are not solutions to problems”.
The Pope was, of course, right; hate and violence are not ultimately any kind of solution. I fear, however (and hope that I am wrong) that his call will in the long run be in vain; and it may not be entirely a useless exercise to ask why that may be so. In brief, it is because neither side in this conflict believes that what he says is true. What they have come to believe is that hate and violence are not only inevitable, they are even morally right. Our Lord may have called on us to “turn the other cheek”: but neither Jews nor Muslims accept that his words were anything but a sentimental evasion of reality: and nor, to be fair, do many Christians in the midst of conflict. We do, however, believe ultimately in the idea of reconciliation; and the treatment of Germany by the allies after World War II, for instance, showed a real advance over their much more primitive and vengeful treatment of the Germans after the Great War: turning the other cheek in the late 40s, though admittedly after unconditional surrender, was not only the morally right thing to do, but proved to be also the wise thing to do: reconciliation turned out to be practical politics.
Jews and Muslims in Palestine, however, are still firmly in the grip of the lex talionis, as they instinctively understand it under the current conditions of their everyday lives: “Show no pity: life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot” [Deuteronomy 19; 21, Complete Jewish Bible (CJB)]. The subject of this is actually the seriousness of bearing false witness: but this very tough verse is instinctively understood out of context and literally: kill our leaders with drones, we will rain deadly rockets on you; rain rockets on us, and we will bombard you with tons of deadly missiles from the sea and from the air. Actually, it’s an escalating process: not an eye for an eye, but 10 eyes, 20, 30: as many as can be managed. And if our rockets aren’t killing enough of you we will blow up one of your buses: and then, it will be, blow up our buses and our airforce will take immediate and devastating revenge on you.
In fact, the lex talionis in both Jewish and Islamic mainstream religious tradition (rather than in the vendetta mentality of contemporary Arab and Jewish popular culture) is more measured, much more compatible with Christian ideas of reconciliation. It was, in its origins, in fact precisely an attempt to limit vengefulness, to get it under control. Under Babylonian and Hebrew Law, the “eye for an eye” law was intended to restrict compensation to the value of the loss; thus, it might be better read “only one eye for one eye”. The “lex talionis” was humanised by the Rabbis who interpreted “an eye for an eye” to mean reasonable pecuniary compensation. And according to the Koran, which interestingly cites Jewish law as authoritative, and which also humanises it (5.45), “In the Torah we prescribed for them a life for a life, an eye for an eye, a nose for a nose, an ear for an ear, a tooth for a tooth, an equal wound for a wound: if anyone forgoes this out of charity, it will serve as atonement for his bad deeds.” However, under Sharia law as actually followed today, the “eye for an eye” rule is applied quite literally and without mitigation: perhaps this is part of the problem in Gaza, who knows?
But not, it seems for everyone there, nor indeed for some of those living just a few miles away in Israel. I stumbled on the following tweet out of Gaza: “Gaza does not want an eye for an eye. if we want that, we will have to destroy israel 17 times”. I also came across the following from just across the border:
“A real leader is the person who will take real responsibility and demand civilian courage from himself to talk to Hamas in order to recreate life here. But our leaders are hiding behind tons of bombs cast from the sky by an advanced airforce, armoured and artillery forces, warships and infantry brigades, which are all comprised of civilians who are losing the ability to understand the meaning of civilness and of a vital life… You owe us the preliminary and most basic thing – talking to Hamas – if you wish to gain our trust. You have tried out all the weapons in the world. The only thing you haven’t really tried out is the simple, required dialogue. Now is your chance if you still wish to remain relevant in our eyes.”
Well, the Israelis have now talked to Hamas (though only through intermediaries) for long enough to achieve a temporary ceasefire. So they have discovered that it can be done. But can they, are they prepared to, keep it up? The answer to that, I very much fear, is to be found not in Jerusalem but in Tehran. But we shall see.
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