Edward Udel: The instinct to sting



My cousin David was a frequent visitor at my childhood Lanesborough home and we would venture off into the dense forest bordering Storm View Road to climb up to the neighborhood tree fort or to play our games of pretense. On one occasion, I fired a target arrow into a monster (tree), and when David and I advanced to retrieve it, we discovered to our immediate horror, that it pierced a very large and active nest. I do not know if bees actually feel anger. Even though I alone fired the offending arrow, they stung both of us repeatedly.

Fifty-eight years later, I am awakened at night by thoughts about the human carnage around the world and bee stings. Are human beings much different from bees? Pierce our nests with rockets or human bombs and we strike back, we sting even though some of us die in the process. Even the threat of aggression stiffens our resolve. This nation risked nuclear war rather than tolerate the presence of Soviet missiles on Cuban soil.


Throughout human history, we have conducted ourselves with the belief that absorbing violent aggression without a strong response is a sign of weakness that invites more aggression. During my childhood, one elementary school student in particular took delight in calling me names, repeating his taunts on the school bus and on the playground. He did not stop until I pushed him into a mud puddle. That experience taught me the value of standing up for myself. But, just as easily, my determined stand could have invited retaliation. We humans face a serious challenge; if we forcefully react to a provocation with a strong retaliatory statement, we risk a prolonged conflict.

Conceding that each conflict in the world is different and that the geo-political map is complex, it is painfully obvious that even the possible loss of power, authority or control is often enough to fuel violent attacks that cause extraordinary human suffering. Assad in Syria has launched a cruel and deadly war against his own people resulting in 170,000 estimated deaths in just the past three years while creating millions of Syrian refugees. Putin of Russia has Assad’s back in the United Nations’ Security Council as he arranges his own attacks against his Ukrainian neighbors. Nearly 300 innocent airline passengers recently paid the ultimate price for Putin’s expansionism.

As I write this, Israel is the focus of criticism. It would be one thing if Israel’s critics demonstrated by example a more conciliatory yet effective response to rocket attacks but that is not the case. What is playing out in the Middle East is not a Muslim or Jewish tragedy, but a human tragedy. As a species, we have been unable to consistently develop ways to avoid and end conflict.

The United States went to war against Iraq for a second time even though no arrows were launched against our population. We initiated that war for oil. We failed to consider its destabilizing effect and the lost lives of many Iraqi civilians and American combat troops. Is ISIS a welcome replacement for Saddam? Some of Israel’s harshest critics have themselves committed militant acts, sometimes against their own citizens.

The imprinted behavior of bees is different from the learned behavior of human beings. People, including Israelis, are guided by emotion, thought, memory and habit. The state of Israel’s strong aversion to victimization is in part a product of memory. Israelis remember the Holocaust, the Dreyfus Affair, the Spanish Inquisition and the pogroms of Eastern Europe and when they say "never again," they are determined to defend themselves.

Palestinians have their own painful memories. All but forgotten is the fact that many Muslims and Jews lived peacefully side by side for generations. Muslims and Jews once combined to contribute to an extraordinary civilization in Spain that was the envy of the world.


What can end this tragic conflict? What can stop the violence and suffering on both sides? Let us hope that a ceasefire will eventually hold and that a pathway to peace can be found. No suffering is preferable to the "proportional" suffering favored by some of Israel’s critics. Peace should receive the highest priority, not only in that region but throughout the world.

Many nations that myopically single out and condemn Israel for relying heavily on military responses should invest in some mirrors. When arrows are launched into a bee’s nest, a stinging response is predictable no matter where the nest is located. And if the world insists upon holding Israel to a different standard, one requiring Israeli citizens to react to the threat and fear of incoming missiles with uncommon restraint, why not hold the rest of the world to the same standard?

As to the "new" wave of anti-Semitism sweeping across Europe, what else is new? Prejudice has a long shelf life and there are many citizens throughout the world who prefer time-tested scapegoats to fully functioning mirrors.

Edward Udel is a frequent Eagle contributor.


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