Gerald M. Steinberg

There is no ‘cycle of violence’

Implying symmetry between the two sides creates a false moral equivalence between attacker and victim

Three Israeli teenagers, Naftali Fraenkel, Gil-ad Shaar and Eyal Yifrach, were kidnapped and murdered in cold blood on their way home from school only because they were Israeli Jews. Their Palestinian Arab murderers, as identified by Israel, did not know their victims and they did not care. The objective was to attack some hated Israelis, and perhaps exchange them or their bodies for jailed murderers. Any random Jews would do.

So it has been for some 100 years in this long war against Jewish national sovereignty and equality among the nations. Long before the 1967 war and the “occupation” provided an excuse for hate and murder, such acts of inhuman violence were common. In 1929, when the Jewish community of Hebron was massacred (ethnically cleansed in modern parlance), there was no cycle of violence — this was an entirely unilateral act.

In November 1947, when all Arab leaders rejected the minimalist UN Partition Plan and launched a wave of mass terror against the Jewish community, there was no cycle. And the 1967 war, which led to the subsequent “occupation,” was triggered by Nasser’s renewed effort to destroy the Jewish state, and not part of an action-reaction cycle.

Similarly, today, there is no “cycle of revenge,” as many journalists, diplomats and self-proclaimed human rights activists often claim. A cycle means symmetry, automatic tit-for-tat, mindless action and reaction, in which all sides, and none, can be held morally responsible.

But attack and defense, terror and counter-terror, incitement and fear are not symmetric or morally equivalent. When diplomats and academics repeat the “cycle” analogy, and meekly issues calls “to both parties to exercise restraint,” as the European Union, the UN and even the US did after the kidnapping, they are endorsing a dangerous fiction. When journalists invent an artificial balance and an immoral equivalence between attacker and victim, or an NGO with European and US taxpayer funds equates the mother of a Palestinian terrorist with the mothers of Gilad, Naftali, and Eyal, this is fundamentally immoral.

For years, Palestinians and their supporters have been able to peddle the fiction that murderous terrorists in Israeli jails are political prisoners, guilty only of participating in the “cycle of violence,” including opposing the “occupation,” albeit with violent means. European human rights funds have also channeled government money to lobbying groups (non-governmental organizations) to promote this fiction and the public campaigns on their behalf.

A small but highly vocal group of Israelis have adopted the false “cycle of violence” slogan, reinforcing the beliefs of outsiders, and are sought after to validate these myths. In this imagined world, symmetry provides false hope; the deep conflict and war against Jewish self-determination, regardless of borders, is replaced by a simple mirror-image — “they” are not filled with hatred, incitement, and violence.

Instead, like us, Palestinians are portrayed as unwillingly locked into a vicious tit-for-tat loop. The incitement that fills Palestinian books and media is falsely portrayed as paralleled in Israel. And thus, all that is needed is to break this unrighteous cycle, and to recognize the narrative and fears of “the other.” This imagined symmetry is the basis for peace, or so they have convinced themselves.

The sad reality, as we have tragically learned once again, is that the differences between the Palestinian and the Israeli societies, as well as the contrasting basic goals and aspirations, are fundamental. Attempts to erase these differences by repeating simplistic mantras based on invented “cycles of revenge” are tragically misleading, and worse. They are brutally immoral.

About the Author
Gerald Steinberg is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Bar Ilan University and president of NGO Monitor. His latest book is "Menachem Begin and the Israel-Egypt Peace Process: Between Ideology and Political Realism", (Indiana University Press)
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