“When the Lord your God shall bring you into the land which you go to possess it, and shall cast out many nations before you… nations greater and mightier than you; and when the Lord your God shall deliver them up before you, and you shall smite them, then you shall utterly destroy them; you shall make no covenant with them, nor show mercy unto them” Deuteronomy 7:1-2

“An eye for an eye” only works for limited offenses, mostly for bodily injuries. That is because the body of potential offenses must be limited; in other words, “eye” has to be defined. Every person has two eyes, so half the offender’s eyes for half the victim’s eyes makes sense.

The rule is less applicable to property damage. Take a situation in which an unemployed person in a twenty-year-old Buick hits a millionaire’s S-class Mercedes. The Mercedes represents a negligible part of its owner’s assets, and “an eye for an eye” requires punishing the unemployed for a similarly insignificant amount of his property, which would be close to zero. Though not senseless, such an arrangement is open to doubt.

“An eye for an eye” does not work for verbal offenses. A Russian who spits out an anti-Semitic slur cannot be answered in kind: a Jew might not feel that way about Russians in the first place, and there are neither similar slurs or sensitivities among Russians. Ignoring a slur is absurd, as it provokes the offender. “An eye for an eye,” like any punishment doctrine, intends to prevent future offenses. Short of finding some clever retort with which to shut up the anti-Semite, beating him up seems like the only means of prevention.

The “eye for an eye” principle does not work in international relations. Its successful application inside societies rests on two premises: offenses are clearly defined and retaliation is carried out by impersonal authority. An individual or a family cannot wage vendetta against the state, and so submits to the retaliation, especially since it is demonstrably just. Not so between nations. International offenses are not clearly defined: Israelis consider Kassam rocket fire a Palestinian offense, while the Arabs treat it as necessary defense against a besieging enemy.

International relations inherently lack the clarity of domestic justice because international incidents are too few and diverse to distill specific rules from them. Even in domestic relations many gray areas exist: while murder is prohibited, in many instances many people find killing justified even if it is illegal, assassination of tyrants being one example. Similarly, robbery is understood as a crime, but justified during famines. In international relations, offenses are unclear: the Arabs took Jewish settlement in Palestine in the early twentieth century as an offense against Arab sovereignty, though at that time the Jews did not have a state, nor did the Arabs have sovereignty. Nevertheless, the Arabs proved correct in their estimates.

International relations necessitate punishing the intent because a post factum reaction may come too late. Thus, Arabs preempted against Jewish settlers in the 1930s without waiting for an independent Jewish state, and Jews preempted against Arab armies in 1967. In domestic relations, society can afford to wait until an eye is taken out before retaliating. In foreign relations, retaliation often precedes the likely offense.

International conflicts often involve things too important to compromise on. Even the worst thief can accept living without a particular diamond if the threat of police action is great. Not so among states willing to fight bloody wars over national symbols such as the Temple Mount. When a thief abandons his plan, he merely continues the morally neutral situation in which neither side loses anything. When Israel signs a treaty to give Judea to the Palestinians, a coveted national symbol changes hands. International conflicts are monopolistic in a sense: they rage over unique objects which have no redeemable value and cannot be procured elsewhere. For that reason, international conflicts are mostly closed to goodwill negotiations; there can be no goodwill when negotiating for a unique, desperately needed object. Each side concentrates on its needs and ignores those of its opponent the way a lover ignores the legitimate craving of a rival.

Neither country submits to a settlement by rules like “an eye for an eye,” or is willing to end violence after just retaliation. Unlike an individual criminal, a country won’t stop when retaliated against: it does not recognize the retaliation as just, and in any case sees no need to submit to rules.

Israel has to review her refusal of B-52 bombers, or any single-purpose bombers for that matter. Aerial raids with our current multi-purpose fighter jets are prohibitively expensive. Acquiring the bombers would signal Israel’s readiness for an old-fashioned war in which entire towns are flattened. The Torah commands the extermination of enemy nations rather than a proportional response.