There is an important thought experiment devised by Andrew Schmookler known as the parable of the tribes. Andrew Bard Schmookler, The Parable of the Tribes: The Problem of Power in Social Evolution (Berkeley: University of California, 1984).
Imagine a group of tribes living close to one another. All choose the way of peace except one that is willing to use violence to achieve its ends. What happens to the peace-seeking tribes? One is defeated and destroyed by the violent tribe. A second is conquered and subjugated. The third flees to some remote and inaccessible place. If the fourth seeks to defend itself it too will have to have recourse to violence. “The irony is that successful defense against a power-maximizing aggressor requires a society to become more like the society that threatens it. Power can be stopped only by power.” Schmookler, 21
. There are, in other words, for possible outcomes: (1) destruction, (2) subjugation, (3) withdrawal, and (4) imitation.” In every one of these outcomes the ways of power are spread throughout the system
. This is the parable of the tribes. (Ibid., 22). Recall that all but one of the tribes seek peace and have no desire to exercise power over their neighbors. Nonetheless, if you introduce a single violent tribe in to the region, violence will eventually prevail, however the other tribes choose to respond. That is the tragedy of the human condition. As I was writing this essay in the summer of 2014, Israel was engaged in a bitter struggle with Hamas in Gaza in which many people died. The state of Israel had no more desire to be engaged in this kind of warfare than did our ancestor Jacob. Throughout the campaign I found myself recalling the words earlier in Parashat Vayishlah
about Jacob’s feelings prior to his meeting with Esau: “Jacob was very afraid and distressed” [this verse], about which the sages said, “Afraid, lest he be killed, distressed lest he be forced to kill” (quoted by Rashi ad loc.). What the episode of Dina tells us is not that Jacob, or Simeon and Levi, were right, but rather that there can be situations in which there is no simple right course of action. Whatever you do will be considered wrong; every option will involve the compromise of some moral principle. That is Schmookler’s point, that “power is like a contaminant, a disease, which once introduced will gradually but inexorably become universal in the system of competing societies.” Shechem’s single act of violence against Dina forced two of Jacob’s sons into violent reprisal and in the end everyone was either contaminated or dead. It is indicative of the moral depth of the Torah that it does not hide this terrible truth from us by depicting one side as guilty, the other as innocent. Violence defiles us all. It did then. It does now. SACKS 50-2
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