Gaza: Is Religion the Last, Best Hope for Peace?

02/06/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

So what can we say about Gaza, except that it's a humanitarian heartbreak? First off, you can't have a neighbor continuously lobbing missiles into your back yard. It's bad enough to have a neighbor who denies your right to exist, but to have one actively pursuing your destruction by acts of terrorism is intolerable. There is an age-old right to self-defense. Even essentially pacifist and non-violent Buddhism does not deny this right. And did Jesus's injunction to "turn the other cheek" envision a situation of this kind?

That said, we get into the territory of the "disproportionate response." The killing of large numbers of civilians is equally intolerable, and the heart condemns especially the violent death of children, even unintended. The argument that the combatants, insurgents, call them what you will, choose to hide themselves and their weaponry in homes and schools, while likely true, rings hollow beside the images of suffering innocents. The Israeli war machine seems cruel indeed when measured by the destruction that it causes.

At this point, the who's right and who's wrong have ceased to matter. We have reached the point where they effectively cancel each other out. On the one hand, it seems clear that the Palestinians received the short end of the stick when the state of Israel was carved out of the land that was their home. On the other, their leaders have persistently chosen violence and rejection over any negotiated settlement offer that has come their way.

It seems that in this situation, the most basic of human -- one might almost say animal -- instincts prevail: territorialism, mutual distrust, hatred, rage. The veneer of civilization shows itself to be thin indeed when everything that separates us from the animal world is thrust aside in favor of brute vengeance, prejudice and inflexibility. (And there are good arguments to be made that animals are more humane than we!) As in most human discord, the assignment of blame matters less than the resolution, and the urgent question now is how to put an end to a cycle of violence that does no one any good.

The wisdom here suggests the practice of mutual forbearance, the suspension of all violence on both sides, and the creation of a breathing space in which both Israeli and Palestinian leaders can reappraise the true interests of the people they serve in the context of the teachings of their respective religions: the simple, shared injunction to do unto others as you would have them do unto you would surely provide common ground. But I fear that in the current situation, this simplicity is too much to hope for.