07/09/2014 12:42 pm ET Updated Sep 08, 2014

Why Israel Needs Justice, Not Revenge

MENAHEM KAHANA via Getty Images

The Torah sternly commands us to pursue justice ("Justice, justice, shall you pursue") -- but it leaves revenge to God.

That thought should resonate in our ears like a thunderclap after the discovery of a teenager's body in the Jerusalem forest last week. Israeli authorities now believe that the Palestinian youth, Mohammed Abu Khdeir, was kidnapped and murdered in a revenge killing for the murders of three Israeli boys, Eyal Yifrach, Naftali Fraenkel, and Gilad Shaar. Khdeir's horrifying murder should provide a wake-up call to Israeli society and to all of us feeling anger over the murders of the Jewish teens.

As soon as the Israeli teens' deaths were announced, calls for vengeance rang out in Israel. In just 24 hours, a new Israeli Facebook page, "The Nation of Israel Wants Revenge," gained over 35,000 likes (and was later shut down).

"Vengeance for the blood of a small child, Satan has not yet created," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said bluntly after learning of the boys' deaths, quoting a poem about the 1903 Kishinev pogrom. "Neither has vengeance for the blood of three pure youths who were on their way home to their parents who will not see them anymore."

This desire for vengeance is understandable. We feel angry and helpless. We want the perpetrators of this abominable crime to be punished.

But vengeance is dangerous. It has a way of getting out of hand and leading us to hurt people who weren't involved in the crime to begin with.

We have a justice system for exactly this reason. We allow the state to take revenge on our behalf, limited by a system of law, even in wartime. Sure, we won't always get the revenge we seek, and it may be more impersonal than we might like. But we avoid a Hobbesian state of nature where blood feuds last generations and people are punished willy-nilly by any individual with a grievance.

The cold-blooded murders of the three abducted Israeli boys must not go unpunished. But justice, not vengeance, should win the day. The murderers should be tracked down, apprehended and tried in court for their crimes. The same is true of their accomplices and the terrorist network that may have enabled them.

(And yes, when Hamas rockets are raining down on Israeli civilians, as they have been in recent days, Israel has an obligation to attack the terrorists responsible. This is not revenge, but self-defense.)

Yet we should never visit our anger upon those who had nothing to do with these murders. Israel must be as sensitive as possible to the rights of Palestinians as it searches for the fugitives. And individual Israelis -- and everyone rightly outraged by these crimes -- must never perpetrate violence or intimidation against innocent Palestinians.

Yet there have been several worrying examples of these despicable attacks on the innocent in recent days. During a march of right-wingers in Jerusalem on July 1, rioters shouted racist slogans and attacked several Arab passersby, who had to be rescued by police. Some burst into a McDonald's looking to attack Arab employees, and a group of 100 rioters pepper-sprayed and threw rocks at three Arab workers eating dinner after their daily Ramadan fast, one of whom received a head injury.

Demonstrators also jumped onboard the Jerusalem light rail seeking Arab victims, who were valiantly protected by light rail security guards. Other members of the mob reportedly targeted dark-skinned pedestrians, asking, "What's the time?" in order to listen for an Arabic accent in their answer -- and then pounce.

Make no mistake: most Israelis disagree with these extremist vigilantes and would never participate in wanton violence against their Arab neighbors. Tag Meir, a Jewish group working against racism, organized a large counter-demonstration in Jerusalem against violence and bigotry. With its help, hundreds of Jews also visited the Khdeir family to offer their condolences and to demonstrate that this horrific crime was not perpetrated in their name.

We -- Israelis and Jews around the world -- must continue to say so loud and clear. We can't stand idly by when shouts of "A Jew is a brother, an Arab is a bastard," and terrifyingly, "Death to the Arabs!" ring through the streets of our holy city. These reactions, driven by a lust for revenge, are wrong, racist and antithetical to a democratic society. As Jews, we know all too well the meaning of xenophobia; we've endured cries of "Death to the Jews!" for centuries.

Just this week, in fact, Palestinians rioting after Khdeir's death graffitied this phrase, "Death to the Jews," across Jerusalem. Mourners at Khdeir's funeral shouted "Explode the skull of the Zionists!" and "Hamas, carry out suicide bombings." Palestinians are also jumping on the terrible bandwagon of revenge -- but that does not mean it's permissible for Jews to do so, too.

It's justice we really need: justice for Khdeir, and justice for Yifrach, Fraenkel, and Shaar.

But as we encourage the Israeli government to pursue justice on our behalf, we must ensure that it, too, avoids the fever of revenge. Danny Danon, the right-wing deputy defense minister, seems to have caught the fever. Last week, he called on the government to start demolishing the homes of Hamas criminals, a practice abandoned after the Second Intifada. "We must stop terror and we should destroy the homes of Hamas activists," in addition to cutting off their ammunition and money supplies, he said.

On that same evening, military forces apparently demolished the home of Abu Aysha, one of the triple murder suspects, according to Reuters. Israel largely abandoned home demolitions several years ago, after concluding they were ineffective deterrents to future violence. Even if these demolitions were effective, they would still be morally questionable, especially when they end up punishing the family members of the terrorist. We should punish those responsible for crimes, but destroying their family homes -- or worse, attacking their brethren -- is not the way to do it.

In the ancient Near East, this sort of literal punishment was expected: the Code of Hammurabi says that if your ox gores someone's child, your child should be killed as punishment. Under middle Assyrian law, if a man's wife was raped, he could rape the rapist's wife. If you hurt my family, I get to hurt yours.

But the Torah rejects this barbaric notion. In Deuteronomy 24:16, we read, "Parents shall not be put to death for children, nor children be put to death for their parents: a person shall be put to death only for his own crime." And while it's true that the Torah commands us to "take an eye for an eye," the rabbinic tradition we follow reinterprets this as a demand for monetary compensation. Literal bodily punishment is forbidden.

This idea is at the heart of modern democratic societies, including Israel's. If a terrorist hurts Israeli families, he must pay for his crime. But leave his family -- and innocent Palestinians -- alone.

This piece originally appeared on the Forward Thinking blog of the Jewish Daily Forward.