Perhaps one positive byproduct of the absurd charge that the state of Israel has abandoned the Jewish ethic of justice, leveled in the UK’s Guardian and other places, will be the demise of the equally absurd belief that whereas Christians stand above all for mercy and love, Jews’ highest value is justice.
While the latter view—held not only by the commonly ignorant but by more educated thinkers such as modern German philosopher Jurgen Habermas—no longer necessarily accompanies the anti-Jewish animus that it once did, it continues to offend, and for good reason. Shakespeare was wrong to perpetuate the anti-Semitic stereotype of the callous and vindictive Jew in his play The Merchant of Venice, but his Christian character Portia was right to point out, as did the rabbis of the Talmud, that love and mercy ultimately take precedence over justice.
At best, justice is the mere starting point of virtue. At worst, it is its enemy. It is a slippery ideal to be applied with caution.
This is not a warning heeded often by today’s left, which now has voices calling not only for the usual “social justice” but also for “environmental justice,” “food justice,” and “parks justice” (don’t ask). Though they don’t define justice so egregiously, and though they express (partially) legitimate grievances, anti-Israel activists such as those in the University of Chicago’s own Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) misuse the concept of justice in a similar fashion. In addition to its rather general and vague demand for justice, SJP calls specifically on its website for a “just and fair” resolution to the Palestinian refugee problem, the so-called “right of return,” which would entail the “repatriation of Palestinian refugees.”
But justice is a tricky thing, as Shylock realized after having been thwarted by the clever Portia in his lust for a pound of flesh. The country that the Palestinian refugees left in 1948 was a poor, backwater territory of the British Empire. Why should they be entitled to return to a first-world, post-industrial Israel with a thriving infrastructure and democratic norms? Surely, true justice would require that the Jews first dismantle the modern cities that they built and restore the festering, malaria-ridden swamps that they found when they first arrived. No blood, in other words... just flesh.
Palestinian refugees, reasonably enough, argue that they are owed the land that used to be theirs but is now in Israeli hands. It is not enough, they say, for Jews to justify their presence in the land via Biblical mandate or by claiming that their great-great-great—lots of greats—granddads lived there. That the refugees’ own great-great-great—lots of greats—granddads themselves took the land by force from the Byzantines does not enter their minds. Of course, restoring the land to the Byzantines is impossible because there was no United Nations agency at the time, as there is for the Palestinians now, to keep track of the refugees and their descendants. And it is true that the Arabs did settle the land for longer than any other people. But justice does not have an expiration date. Stolen land remains stolen no matter how long it is held. Justice does not care about mitigating circumstances or facts on the ground. It is as blind to the needs of men as it is to the differences between them.
This is precisely why justice and politics are best separated. A pragmatic form of politics is healthier. By this approach, the same reason that the refugees were once entitled to their ill-gotten lands is the same reason that Israelis are entitled to theirs. The status quo is its own justification. This may be unappealing, but it is necessary. Coming to terms with the status quo is the only basis for compromise. “Just peace” is an oxymoron because justice is zero-sum, and peace demands compromise. Calls for justice are a recipe for war.
What Palestinians need is not to receive more justice but to show more mercy and love. For mercy “is twice blest,” as Shakespeare wrote: “It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.” Or as the Apostle Paul wrote: “[L]ove is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful.” What love is not, justice is. Let’s keep justice where it belongs: in courts of law.