Most of us want to believe that peace is the natural state of humanity. At the very least, we prefer to see it as a lasting solution, interrupted sometimes by readjustments in the balance of power by means of armed conflicts. But in the real world, we have to make choices. It is not uncommon to prefer ideological or religious values to one’s own life. Preference is a matter of value judgment; there is no objectively best option. Indeed, in the Ten Commandments, fundamental to modern Jewish, Christian, and Muslim cultures, the religious prescriptions precede the prohibition of murder. Killing enemies in war is not prohibited.
Once people are ready to die for their values, their religion may condone killing for them, since the biblical commandment of negative reciprocity—Do not do unto another what is hateful to you—is satisfied. It is not hateful to die, and therefore not prohibited to kill. That approach attached moral legitimacy to scores of wars, notably the crusades, but also recent ideologically inspired wars, down to the Falklands. Rational—or honest—minds might argue that the causes for wars are usually silly or superficial, that enmity is forced on people on both sides otherwise content with each other. But that is a different issue, namely, do soldiers really need to die for the goals they fight for? Why does the traditional interpretation of You shall not murder exclude executing criminals and killing in war from the prohibition? Because people are normally ready to die to save their neighbors or their country. Reciprocity allows them to kill.
The prohibition of murder’s place following the religious commandments suggests the subordination of life to ideology. Both the case law of the Hebrew scriptures and the prescribed punishments for religious transgressions support that conjecture.
The parties to the Middle East conflict have shown in numerous wars that they are ready to die for their causes, an attitude not limited to Arab-Israeli conflict. Israeli civilians stand ready to suffer daily losses from suicide attacks, and Muslim civilians likewise have no trouble sacrificing themselves. The maiming of thousands of locals, including Muslims, in Osama's attacks on the American embassies in Africa raised no outcry among Muslims. Israeli rhetorical condemnations of the Islamic terrorists and Arab denouncements of Baruch Goldstein aside, only the facts matter: Israelis and Muslims are ready to die for religious or nationalist causes. War is lamentably acceptable to both Israelis and Arabs.
If the Jews and the Palestinians set out to settle their conflicts from two irreconcilable sets of axioms, they would never reach an understanding, but conflicting interests are not conflicting axioms. People deal daily with others whose interests conflict with theirs and resolve the conflicts without resorting to violence.
Consider the application of You shall do nothing to your neighbor you do not want him doing to you. No one wants to give way in any conflict, whether bargaining in the marketplace or fighting on the battlefield. Should the buyer pay the asking price without question? Would the seller like someone imposing a price on him? Should he not refrain from imposing prices on others? The two parties would have to bargain since neither should impose a price. The dilemma is superficial. The commandment is fulfilled so long as both parties agree on how to resolve the conflict. A gambler’s winnings at cards or on the stock market fits the definition of stealing, because someone loses without being fairly compensated, but such wins are not criminal since both parties played the game willingly. Arabs condone war as a means of resolving Middle East conflicts, so the Jews are justified in fighting them, since both accept the use of force to resolve conflicts. Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela turned the tables by renouncing violence and turning world opinion against violence done to them. Muslims see their best hope in asymmetric warfare with Jews, which justifies Israel’s wars.
Why doesn’t normal market bargaining lead to violence? Because neither party is a monopolist. It is easier to buy elsewhere or wait for another buyer than to risk a fight. The situation is different when monopolists bargain. They have to reach an agreement, at almost any cost. Such disputes can be violent. The dispute over Israeli jurisdiction is a monopolistic bargain: the Palestinians have assets the Israelis want, namely territory.
There are many acceptable systems of conflict resolution. Jews solve other conflicts through trade, diplomacy, or public relations. People choose the costlier—riskier, more intrusive—means only after they exhaust the less costly ones. Can Israel be sure she has exhausted diplomacy in Israeli war with the Palestinians and their allies? The answer involves a highly subjective judgment, based largely on the cost-benefit ratio of either means—which is different for both parties. Powerful Israel can go to war with Arabs easily, so accepting resolution of Arab-Israeli conflict by violence is no great leap for Jews.
If both parties agree on the means of resolution and choose one based on feasibility and expediency, they proceed from similar axioms, and each treats the other the way both expect and accept.
The notion of means should be treated broadly. In the marketplace, one side cannot insist the other not borrow to pay or buy anywhere else. When the parties are of disparate size, like mega-corporations and their customers, the smaller cannot demand that the bigger act small and desperate to sell. The “means” might be defined in terms of the rules the parties accept. When both sides circumvent Thou shalt not murder by using the reciprocity rule to make murder acceptable killing, they cannot argue about how to do the killing. Israel cannot complain about Islamic terrorism nor the Palestinians about Israeli helicopter raids on Islamic terrorist enclaves in crowded cities of Palestine.
To put it differently, if the Arabs are ready to fight for Palestinian jurisdiction instead of appealing to the British Mandate Administration or the United Nations, they should expect the Israelis to fight for the Jewish state. Whether Arab-Israeli wars can be avoided remains to be seen—but Arab-Israeli peace is unlikely for now.
There are other means of Arab-Israeli conflict resolution, like competition in Israeli versus Arab humility, for example, but philosophical dispute between Jews and Arabs in such a case is futile, since life does not operate by mathematically formal descriptions, whether in humility or anything else. As Mao Zedong remarked, a statement may be both true and false at the same time, true for one, false for another, when people value their own interests and their enemies’ differently.
Righteous Israelis can be just and treat Arabs the way the Jews want to be treated, the positive formulation of the commandment. Compromise based on consideration of Arab interests and aspirations, not the cost-benefit ratio of Arab-Israeli war, is theoretically possible. Politics has never achieved such a thing, however. Establishing a precedent of just conflict resolution would be Israel's greater contribution to humanity than re-establishing the biblical state of Israel. Should the Israelis miraculously opt for that solution, opportunist Arabs would exploit Jewish weakness. There is no chance either Jews or Arabs will strive to be objective, just, compassionate, and considerate.
Popular opinion pardons some killing as long as the ideology behind it suits them, as contemporary approval of the crusades shows. Only egregious murder is disgusting—the Holocaust, the French slaughter of the Algerians, the Rwandan atrocities. The West condemns Islamic terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, where people see the damage as disproportionate, but not the Islamic world. Muslims see the loss inflicted as partial payment of America for the death and humiliation of countless Muslims. On the other hand, many in the West see Islamic terrorism as an acceptable response to Israeli aggression.
“Justified” killing still may be not just, certainly not between people of different ideological bent. A Quaker pacifist would consider any killing in any war immoral and unjust, but throughout history people have been ready to kill en masse to convert others, religiously or politically. The readiness of militant Israelis to conquer a tiny plot of Palestinian land to practice Judaism in is not uncommon. On the contrary, the restraint toward the Arabs the whole world urges upon the Israelis is without precedent in history.
Any comparison can be subjected to reductio ad absurdum. Many compare Eretz Israel to the Lebensraum the Nazis demanded—most of Europe and possibly the whole world. In that quest, the Nazis purposefully exterminated Jews and Gypsies and reduced Slavs to serfdom. Israeli Jews occupy a tract of land in Palestine smaller than a county in many states, land around which Jewish national identity and hopes have revolved for millennia, the land every Jew prays to return to: “Next year, in Jerusalem!” The proper comparison of Israeli actions is the Russian defense of Moscow, Leningrad, and Stalingrad or the British defense of London in WWII.
Indeed, a century ago most of the population of Palestine (but not, significantly, of Jerusalem) was Arab. But democracy, the best system of majoritarian decision-making (itself a questionable concept, as many philosophers since Plato recognize), is not perfect. Consider California, where the white non-Hispanic population is no longer the majority. Suppose other ethnic groups, projected to reach a super-majority by 2050, amend the state constitution, relegating Caucasians to inferior status by declaring Spanish the official language. Would any American challenge the right of Caucasians to fight for their own jurisdiction within California? Many would not. Ethnically, religiously, and even ideologically diverse states that fail as melting pots dissolve. Who was there first and who came later does not matter; much of Israel was not settled fifty years ago by either Jews or Arabs. A coherent but importantly distinct group living compactly is entitled to sovereignty, or at least it makes sense to give them sovereignty to keep them from living in perpetual conflict with their neighbors. What except anti-Semitism denies the same logic to the Israelis in the Middle East?
 Moses ordered execution of 3,000 Hebrews, 0.5% of those who joined Exodus, for worshipping the golden calf. He suppressed the Apis bull’ cult to consolidate a Jewish nation. Many other nations fought on ideological grounds.
 Baruch Goldstein is a radical Jew who shot Arabs in a mosque.
 The land Jews claim for Israel based on Jewish religious considerations.
 Jewish population never ceased in Jerusalem, exceeding the Arabs in the nineteenth century. In 438, the Roman Empress Eudocia issued an edict lifting the ban on Jews praying at the Temple site; in 464, Emperor Julian announced his intent to rebuild the Temple; in 614, Jews and Persians recovered the city and held it for several years; many Jews lived there in 1099 when massacred by crusaders. Jews were not negligible in Palestine, totaling about 56,000 in 1918.
Ancient Jews, living throughout Roman and Persian Empires, annually sent their half-shekel contributions to the Temple in Jerusalem without compulsion. Jews from the Diaspora do not move to Israel because of economic devastation, military indecisiveness, Israeli government's political vacillation, and religious Talmudic orthodoxy. Israel is culturally alien to them. Still, Israel occupies prominent place in Jewish consciousness. Russian Jews, assimilated, oppressed, ignorant of Hebrew and Judaism, flocked to Golda Meir on her visit to Moscow. Assimilated American Jews underwrite Israeli government bonds, and the U.S. politicians see the American Jews concerned enough with Israel to vote depending on these politicians views of the Middle East conflict.