Relations between Israeli authorities and Palestinians have never been good, in my memory at least. And this past week merely added a fresh and bloody edge to the mutual hatred and fear that defines the fractures dividing these two peoples who have been forced to contend over the same tiny swath of territory for more than a hundred years. It would be merely tragic if this patch of land was between Uruguay and Argentina. But given that it encompasses many of the sites mentioned in the Jewish Scriptures, the Christian Old and New Testaments and the Muslim Koran, and given that all three religions claim specific sites as holy to their faith, and sometimes the same sites for all three, the combustible potential for trouble has flared into barely contained hotspots again and again.
This past week is no different. Three Israeli teenagers from a West Bank Jewish settlement were kidnapped and then murdered by men related to the Islamist Hamas party, the group that governs Gaza and which recently joined the Palestinian Authority in a unity government. This was a horrific crime, as murder always is. Within days, a Palestinian teenager was snatched from the streets of Jerusalem, and hours later his lifeless and burned body was discovered to the grief and outrage of the Palestinian community. Given that Jewish extremists had vowed revenge and threatened to kill Palestinians in the several days leading up to this murder, Palestinians were quick to connect the dots and blame Jewish extremists for the boy’s murder.
Then came the Friday Muslim prayer services, the emotion exploding onto the streets, the funeral procession, the violence, the calling for revenge and a new intifadah. We have seen this all before. Again and again.
So we are in a cycle of violence and revenge and revenge to avenge the revenge that goes way back. This cycle has not resolved anything on the ground in the Middle East. The only thing this violence achieves is adding to the number of men and women and children whose lives have been cruelly cut short, or whose bodies have been maimed or injured or whose hearts have been broken. And all of this carnage has been pushed by men (almost always men) who callously advance their political agendas and don’t mind using the ‘sacrifice’ of people less powerful than they or the purported values of their religion to achieve their own ends. People caught up in these cycles of violence, whether they are in Israel/Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, South Sudan, Somalia, Pakistan, Afghanistan are losing their lives or being wounded for no good reason, often to replace one corrupt and murderous regime with another, which is another way of saying ‘no good reason.’
The most sensible voice I’ve heard in all of the melee is that of the 20-year-old cousin of the murdered Palestinian boy, Thawra Abu Khieder. She said, ‘The mother is still in shock. She can’t believe that her little boy isgone, not only because he was so sweet but also because he was taken from hisown doorstep.’ Then she added, ‘Acts ofrevenge do nothing. They only makepeople hate more and only open a door for more revenge and more bloodshed.’
Revenge is easy. But it never fixes the real problem. Never.
Revenge is the coward’s way. Because it takes character and courage and the capacity to forgive and to love and to compromise to bring about real change and even transformation in our communities.
My family would go to the beach on holiday when I was a boy, and I learned both how to make sand castles and some disconcerting things about the sand-castle-making enterprise. First it takes time and effort to make a really good sand castle. Secondly, any 3 year old or fool or idiot can destroy a sand castle in about five seconds. It is always much easier to tear down than to build up. Where are the men and women of courage in each of these places who are willing to do the very hard work of building a society that is just for all people, that respects the rights and needs and aspirations of all people? We all know that acts of revenge (whatever the justification) accomplish no good thing and only spin the cycle of conflict closer and closer to the point of no return. And yet we keep doing it. That would make us not very smart, among other things.
We in the United States of America are not immune to this sort of conflict. No society is. Every community, every city, every state, every nation has fault lines that could rupture with catastrophic consequences for everyone caught up in the conflagration. One doesn't need to be much of a student of history to know that this has all happened before, and unless we figure out a better way, it will all happen again. As it seems to be today in Jerusalem.