Wednesday, 28 June 2017

Retribution and punishment in Israel and Palestine

Both sides in Israel and Palestine have their wizened, bearded old men admonishing their followers with upturned finger. Everyone gives them far too much respect and credibility. What is a Jewish state to an Arab? What is a Palestinian state to a Jewish settler. In both cases, the answer is "screwed."

The purpose of punishment is not to dissuade others from doing something, it is retribution and retaliation for the crime. And it is stupid. The eye-gouged victim gets nothing by having her attacker maimed. It might work if his eyes were transplanted into her head, but that would just be compensation. The reason "eye for an eye" is senseless and barbaric is the attacker does have a reason. One that made sense to him. Perhaps she rejected his offer of marriage. Maybe that was an insult, or it broke his heart. But it is a reason.

Justice demands he be maimed, but he thinks the punishment is unjustified because it didn't take into account his reason. Remember that the villain is the hero of his own story. Now he feels further wronged and wants to retaliate.

Multiply the victims and attackers by several million, stretch the chain to over 70 years (at minimum), toss in religious or ethnic bigotry to make it unclear when the first wrong occurred and against whom, and the result is this intractible conflict. With the toxic logic of retribution, why shouldn't the victims in Gaza be entitled to the eyes of the Israelis who attacked them?

Retribution and retaliation are childish, primitive and barbaric methods of punishment. Burning the attacker's eyes isn't going to change the essential social inequality. Punishment isn't supposed to deter the criminal, it is supposed to deter crime. The modern criminal justice system protects society from the criminal. This is why, by definition, there are no victimless crimes. The system which passed the law is the victim.

The courts in Palestine are functioning as a state-run hitman, nothing more. There is no justice involved. It may be a system, but it is not a system of justice. But the alternative is anarchy or mob rule, in which each member of the mob tries to outdo their cohorts in meting out gruesome punishments.

The justice system in Israel is imperfect, but it is orders of magnitude less imperfect than the individuals operating in that system. It constrains everyone and filters out the rage, vengeance, prejudice and bias. Even judges from the bench sometimes lament that they would like to expand or reduce punishment but that the law constrains them. However flawed, this system is able to maintain a moral authority.

The problem is not how to bring the rest of the Middle East places into the modern era. During the 50's and 60's in Afghanistan, for instance, women attended universities without covering up. In pre-revolution Iran, men and women socialised openly. The problem is how did the feudal patriarchy re-assert itself?

In the last half-century, whatever poor and exploited remained in these countries during their brief modern eras was allowed to fester. Into that wound a radical ideology found an opening to point out the "decadence" of their countryfolk. The critical flaw wasn't the traditionalists, it was in modernity failing to mount an effective counterargument. Westernisation meant money and the good life, but that's also how the underclass was defining decadence.

The real argument, as it always must be, should be that modernity is the true embodiment of the local culture and that the radical element is the corrupting agent. Orthodox Jews believe they are the true Jews of Israel and everyone else is decadent or lapsed. Yet it shouldn't surprise anyone that they exploit and marginalise women, physically abuse children and enforce layers upon layers of patriarchal authority.

The orthodox Jewish community has more in common with the radical Islamic community it fears and reviles than with mainstream Israeli society in Tel Aviv. The difference is that Tel Avivians consider themselves to be the embodiment of Jewish culture too, a culture which includes the rabbinical traditions, but also the secular traditions science, philosophy and art.

The history and religion of the Jewish people demand their state be in the land of their ancestors, in the land to which they were bound by a covenant between themselves and their Creator. This is a quote from a book, but it is precisely this turn of phrase that complicates things. History and religion cannot make demands. Only living people can make demands. History does not exist in any real sense. It's a story shaped by the teller to suit the present time. Where can I go to find 18th century Vienna?

And remember: there is no title deed for countries. There is no international court to adjudicate this dispute and no world police to enforce it. Yes, the Israelis took land away from Arabs. Yes, it was wrong. No, they aren't getting it back. That's reality. They have land claims - fine. To whom do they present those claims? The government that took them in the first place?

There is no international legal authority. The UN is not a world congress, it can't make law. Parties can sign treaties, and they can break them. It happens all the time. Arguing about old claims is pointless because it doesn't matter who is correct. The only thing that matters is who is sitting on the land now and whether they can be persuaded or forced to share or leave.

Most Israelis say they are happy to share the country with Arabs, but the entrenched power interests probably are not, even though they are in the minority. Palestinians would also rather work and live in Israel than overthrow the government and replace it with a country resembling Jordan.

Both sides look for an epiphany, pouring over faded texts in ruins of deserts as if some previously unknown connection will make all the pieces fit together. They still want to connect the religious texts to the historical record, but why? Is there some subconscious belief that historic accuracy makes them spiritually accurate to the extent that the supernatural is real? Do people really want to believe so badly they subconsciously look for evidence of God?

People are killing each other over this piece of dirt because the parties are the same as each other. This forever-war is a bilateral attempt to forge an identity where none would properly exist. For each side, possessing the land makes their prophecy, their revelation, their identity more accurate and more real than the other's.

Each side uses its children to kill the other side's children for the right to put their stern and sanctimonious long-bearded old men into the temple to God, which, if he/it exists, most definitely does not exist in a manner either side could ever comprehend.

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