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Hamas, Israel, and the Devil on my Shoulder
We’ve tried everything possible and none of it has worked. Now we must try the impossible.
– Sun Ra
As most of you know, I have been advising Robert F. Kennedy Jr. in his Presidential campaign, and have been deeply disappointed by his recent statements on Israel and West Asia. I have stuck by him despite our disagreement on the Israel/Palestine issue, because I see in him personal qualities that give me hope that he will change his mind. But, because many people look to me for sanity or clarity or a peace perspective on current affairs, I am called to make my own statement on recent events. It is not the position of the campaign or the candidate. But I hope that it will be.
Surveying the horrific savagery of the Hamas attack on Israel, and the prospect of a retributive slaughter of the people of Gaza orders of magnitude greater, one thing should be abundantly clear to all. The policies of two generations of Palestinian and Israeli leadership have both brought the very opposite of what they intended to achieve.
Repression, exclusion, imprisonment, violence, assassinations, walls, and fences have not made Israel secure.
Violent resistance, rockets, and terrorist attacks have not returned to the Palestinians their lands nor given them any meaningful degree of self-determination.
It is hard here to make any statement without someone trying to decode it for clues as to what side I am on. Do I think Hamas’ attacks were justified? Do I think a devastating Israeli counterattack is justified? Who is in the right and who is in the wrong?
This kind of question represents a way of thinking that ensures that bloody cycles of vengeance will continue and grow. At some point we must choose: do we want vengeance, to see the wicked punished and the good vindicated? Or do we want the horror to cease? This is not both-sides-ism nor is it spiritual bypassing. It is a practical choice. Last night I recorded another conversation with Benjamin Life about the nature of this choice and how it also lands on a personal level. I’ll share it at the bottom of this essay.
In a recent post on the platform that calls itself X but that I will always call Twitter, Isaac Saul that offers an important insight:
I don’t believe Hamas is killing Israelis to liberate themselves, nor do I believe they are doing it to make peace. They're doing this because they represent the devil on the shoulder of every oppressed Palestinian who has lost someone in this conflict. They're doing it because they want vengeance. They are evening the score, and acting on the worst of our human impulses, to respond to blood with blood — an inclination that is easy to give in to after what their people have endured. It should not be hard to understand their logic — it is only hard to accept that humans are capable of being driven to this. Not defending Hamas is a very low bar to clear. Please clear it.
This is true and important as far as it goes. I would like to take it farther. Saul is saying, let’s get over the distraction of “defending” or “not defending” Hamas. That their actions are clearly indefensible is only small part of the reason. The larger part is the question of who is to be “defended” in their actions, who is right, who is wrong, who is justified because they have a “right to defend itself” or a “right to resist oppression with armed force”... all of that taps in to the same mindset and assumptions that underlie vengeance in the first place.
All of those distinctions make it easy, oh so easy, to know what to do, to know how to respond, to know whom to kill. I have spent the last few days reading and listening and sensing into recent events from a different place. I would say, a different set of questions, but if they are questions they are not in words. They are a questioning, the primal anguished perplexity of How and Why? What could drive human beings to do such things?
This kind of questioning seeks to understand the real source of the horror rather than settling for the false cause of “They are just evil,” or “They are crazed by an evil religion.”: In his article, which is worth reading in full, Saul details passionately the conditions that have given rise to the outbreak of vengeance. The more one understands about the history of the region going back not just to the 1948 Nakba but through thousands of years of dislocation and genocide of the Jewish people, the less satisfying the psuedo-explanation of “evil” becomes. Apprehending the magnitude and complexity of the situation, one’s first and most fruitful response is bewilderment. That is the realization that I do not know what to do. The familiar patterns of response collapse alongside the entrenched storylines they are based on, such as terrorists murdering innocent Jews in a relentless campaign to wipe Israel off the face of the earth, or colonizing settlers presiding over a brutal apartheid society that treats Arabs as second-class citizens. Good and evil. Victim, perpetrator, and rescuer. It is not that these storylines have nothing to offer. They each reveal something. But what they leave out is far more significant.
Bewilderment is fruitful, because it is a step away from reflexive adherence to the dramas that have plunged human beings into hell again and again and again.
The devil on the shoulder, not just of every oppressed Palestinian, but of every human being who has suffered injustice, whether political or in a marriage, job, or other relationship, speaks all the more persuasively the deeper the grievances. I’ve got one on my shoulder too, though he speaks in whispers as my grievances are light. Not so for the people of the Holy Land. Few places on earth have given this devil as much fuel for his tirades. The name of this devil is Vengeance. His abode is Self-righteousness. And his nemesis is Forgiveness.
My disappointment in RFK Jr. is not because I think he has taken the wrong side. It is that he has taken a side. We need leadership that recognizes the tragic and inevitable failure of conquest as a formula for a better world. That he neglects to include the travails of the Palestinians in his statements is a symptom of sides-taking. A desperate population like that of Gaza, subject to two generations of violence and humiliation, is a tinderbox of fury waiting to ignite. Chris Hedges says,
What does Israel, or the world community, expect? How can you trap 2.3 million people in Gaza, half of whom are unemployed, in one of the most densely populated spots on the planet for 16 years, reduce the lives of its residents, half of whom are children, to a subsistence level, deprive them of basic medical supplies, food, water and electricity, use attack aircraft, artillery, mechanized units, missiles, naval guns and infantry units to randomly slaughter unarmed civilians and not expect a violent response?
In a highly charged, polarized environment, one can hardly read this as what it really is — an explanation —and not a justification. In good-versus-evil thinking, any explanation besides evil (or a code word for it) disrupts the narrative that makes it easy to know what to do, whom to kill, and who “we” are. One can hardly mention the fact that Israel has killed some 250 Palestinians, including 47 children, this year in the West Bank without most people hearing it as a justification for the attacks. It is not a justification. It is, however, a piece of information indispensable to understanding why the devil on the shoulder of the Hamas terrorists was so persuasive.
The same devil now shouts into the ears of Israelis. Just as the Hamas terrorists committed acts that achieved nothing toward peace or liberation but only vengeance, so also does Israel face a choice in its response. Will it seek security? Or will it seek revenge?
It may not be readily apparent that these two goals oppose each other. If you retaliate and “make the enemy pay a price,” aren’t you more secure? Aren’t you more secure yet, if revenge eradicates your enemies entirely? No. What happens is that revenge creates endless new crops of enemies and casts you permanently onto a “security” footing that is never truly secure.
Cycles of vengeance are directly related to the paradigm of good versus evil. Each violent act of one’s own side is “justified” within the narrative it maintains, and each violent act of the other side is “unjustified.” A justified act is a good act. An unjustified act is an evil act. The other side performs an endless series of evil acts. It must be evil. This judgment carries the full force of grief and rage that comes from the maiming and murder of loved ones, and it recruits to its cause all the evidence and logic that the intellect can muster.
Once the identity of one’s own side as good, and the other side as evil, is entrenched, then any act becomes justified because, after all, it is a blow that good strikes against evil. That is the channel through which ambitious powers direct public grief and rage toward, not just vengeance, but toward any enemy that stands in the way of their own dominance. That is how the United States exploited public outrage of 9/11 toward the conquest of Iraq, even though that country had nothing to do with the attack. But even if it had, giving the US “justification” for its invasion, still the results would have been the same: more violence, more terrorism, and less security.
The philosopher Rene Girard identified cycles of vengeance as the original social crisis. It is older than history. It is self-sustaining, as each act of retribution gives cause for further retribution. It is self-escalating, as each atrocity loosens further the bonds of restraint. Girard described two possible outcomes. One was the shattering of society. The second was its mending by channeling the rage and bloodlust of retributive violence onto a scapegoat or a dehumanized victim subclass without the means to take vengeance.
There is a third possibility, however. Either party can break the escalating cycle of vengeance simply by refusing to participate in it. This is what is meant by forgiveness — it means the release of the desire and intent for those who have wronged you to suffer. The dilute form of forgiveness is restraint. You do a little less harm than the devil on your shoulder urges. Restraint keeps the violence to a manageable level. Restraint is also self-reinforcing, since a restrained response starves the other side’s narrative that your side is purely evil, which is the narrative that would license unfettered violence.
Forgiveness is more powerful still. Imagine the reverberations if Israel said, “Our desire for vengeance is strong, but stronger still is our desire to halt the cycle of violence in the Holy Land.” And then they advocated a plan (suggested to me by William Stranger) along the following lines:
(1) The immediate cessation of all military operations by all sides;
(2) The immediate suspension of the governments of both Gaza and the West Bank and their temporary replacement by a neutral International Governing and Peace Force (IGPF) authorized to use force to prevent any further attacks on Israel, and arrest or, if necessary, kill any militants threatening to do so;
(3) The immediate convening of a special committee of the UN Security Council charged with negotiating a final status settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict according to UN Security Council resolution1397 (the two-state solution);
(4) The restoration of water, food, medicine, and electricity to Gaza, to be controlled and monitored by the IGPF;
(5)The remanding of all hostages and prisoners held by either the Israeli and Palestinians to the full custody of the IGPF.
Typically, partisans dismiss such proposals as “showing weakness.” But no one seriously doubts Israel’s ability to reduce Gaza to dust and kill every living soul in the territory, if it so chooses. Israel, after all, possesses at least 100 nuclear warheads. To go beyond restraint and halt the cycle of vengeance in its tracks would show not weakness, but a heroic degree of courage.
Hamas terrorists, in Saturday’s attacks, showed what people do when they cast off the bonds of restraint to unleash the most bestial impulses of the human being. Now the test falls to Israel. If Israel too chooses to abandon restraint, and the next country does, and the next, then the atrocities will escalate to engulf the entire planet. In a world of nuclear weapons, let us hope someone, somewhere, chooses to hold back.
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