After last week’s discovery of the bodies of Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Shaar, and Naftali Fraenkel in the West bank, voices on the American Jewish right like Jonathan Tobin and Thane Rosenbaum attacked those who seemed to equate their murder with the killing of rock-throwing Palestinians by Israeli soldiers searching for the kidnapped Jewish teenagers. “There is no moral equivalence here, and there is a danger in continuing to make these false comparisons,” wrote Rosenbaum in the Daily Beast. “Slippery calls to moral relativism make it impossible to render moral judgments vital to distinguishing right from wrong.”
After the kidnapping and murder of 17-year-old Mohammed Khdair, such talk ceased. The comparison looked to be exact, as members of the families of the youths themselves declared.
“If indeed an Arab youth has been murdered for nationalistic motive, this is a horrifying, shocking act,” wrote Naftali’s uncle, Yishai Fraenkel. “There is no difference in blood. Murder is murder, whatever one’s nationality or age. There is no justification, no forgiveness and no atonement for any murder whatsoever.” Meanwhile, Mohammad’s father told the New York Times, “I am against kidnapping and killing. Whether Jew or Arab, who can accept the kidnapping and killing of his son or daughter? I call on both sides to stop the bloodshed.”
In the Abrahamic tradition, when harm is done, the prescription is for the lex talionis, summarized in Leviticus 24:19–21 as “fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth.” Islam has its Koranic version, called Qisis. You might call this the judicial guarantee of moral equivalence.
Personally, I’d just as soon that the expression be retired from public use. It has been misappropriated from the philosopher William James, a pacifist who considered all wars to be immoral. Recognizing that war nevertheless performed an important “disciplinary function” in society, James urged anti-militarists to find an alternative means of achieving that end; i.e. a moral equivalent to war.
Jesus offered one moral equivalent to the lex talionis when he told his followers to turn the other cheek. Another moral equivalent is restorative justice — adjudication that tries to repair the harm done by criminal behavior. In Judaism that’s known as tikkun olam — repair of the world. In Israel-Palestine today, it’s in very short supply.