Few societies are as open in debating the impulse – and danger – of revenge as Israel. Almost any attack on an Israeli Jew by an enemy of the country brings forth a democratic but emotional discussion on how to respond. The initial instinct in Israel is often revenge, as was the case Monday after the shock of learning that three Israeli teenagers, who were missing for nearly three weeks, had been killed.
Some Jewish settlers in the West Bank, where the kidnapping and murder of the teens took place, talked of a campaign to inflict “price tag” vengeance on Palestinians. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, paraphrasing a line from poet Haim Nahman Bialik, said, “Satan has not yet created vengeance for the blood of a small child.” Such talk prompted President Obama to call on “all parties to refrain from steps that could further destabilize the situation.”
The intense, collective grief and anger felt by Jewish Israelis over such attacks is often difficult for outsiders to understand. Jews in the country feel a bond of history and common threat that others may not. But Israel’s response to attacks on its innocent citizens do deserve understanding. Too often in the Middle East, tit-for-tat violence can escalate into a conflict that draws others in.
More than people in most countries, the Israeli public has had to learn the subtle differences between concepts of justice such as revenge, retaliation, retribution, and deterrence. These concepts are difficult enough to implement in a courtroom. They can be even more problematic when a country must respond to terrorism.
After the 9/11 attacks in the United States, President George W. Bush told Americans: “Ours is a nation that does not seek revenge, but we do seek justice.” Yet the reaction to the killing of Osama bin Laden in 2011 by Navy SEALs felt like a mixture of both to many Americans.
Perhaps the most sophisticated response to the teen killings in Israel came from Finance Minister Yair Lapid. He said the government will find those responsible and punish them. That would entail retaliation and deterrence. But then, in an attempt to heal the sorrow and hate stemming from the murders, he added: “The real revenge is our ability to bridge the gaps within us.”
After an attack on Israelis, their leaders are pulled between a public desire for revenge and possible world reaction to an overly violent response. Excessive violence, especially the hitting of the wrong target, could be seen as violating the ancient code of “eye for an eye” justice. Yet not responding would be seen as weak and an invitation for further attacks.
Breaking a cycle of revenge killings is not easy. One side has to be defeated, back down, or offer a major concession. In recent decades, a few Israelis and Palestinians have tried to end that cycle. A famous example came in 2009 after three children of a well-known Palestinian doctor, Izzeldin Abuelaish, were killed by Israeli jets in Gaza. On Israeli TV, the father renounced any desire for revenge. He later wrote a book, “I Shall Not Hate.”
The rise of civilization has come with the the need to contain the impulse for revenge within the power of the state, rule of law, and a fair system of dispassionate justice run by a government. For Israelis and Palestinians to avoid revenge attacks, they need to agree on ways to accommodate each side’s demand for justice. With the recent breakdown of peace talks, that process of reconciliation has stalled.
Israel has often been a model of restraint when responding to acts of terror. Perhaps after these teen murders, it will again be model. The best revenge, as its finance minister said, is to bridge the gaps between Israelis and Palestinians.