Monday, October 13, 2008


On Yom Kippur Eve, an Arab resident of Akko (Acre), a mixed city on the coast of Israel, drove his car to visit relatives. He was attacked and nearly lynched by Jewish residents, who called his driving on the holiest day of the Jewish year a "provocation". This led to several nights of riots between Jewish and Arab residents, who attacked each other and damaged property.

Let us consider the concept of "provocation". The idea is that the behaviour of the "provoker" forced someone to react in a particular way, in this case, with violence. This removes the responsibility from the perpetrator of violence, and blames someone else.

This sort of argument is sometimes used by rapists ("She was asking for it, the way she was dressed") and parents who physically abuse their young children ("He wouldn't stop crying, I couldn't take it any more").

The idea that other people's behaviour is responsible for our actions can lead to repression. For example, in some societies, women are expected to completely cover their bodies. One of the reasons given for this is that "men can't control themselves" and would be forced into immodest thoughts and behaviour by the sight of any uncovered female flesh.

I find this sort of thinking both irrational and dangerous. If we remove individual responsibility for actions, humans become automata capable only of reacting predictably to certain stimuli. As a believer in free will and individual responsibility, I shudder to think what would happen in a society that took this concept of "provocation" to its logical conclusion.

It is interesting that many cases of claimed "provocation" come from religious people incapable of accepting that what they see as the absolute truth may not be considered so by other people. They often call for society to be "sensitive" about their religious beliefs and practices, and the toleration always has to go in one direction - the secular population has to "respect" the religion of the believers, while the religious seem not to be obliged to accept that other people are entitled to a life not dictated by religious doctrine.

So, in the case cited above, I do not consider that the behaviour of the Arab driver, insensitive or impolite though it may have been, in any way justified the violence that resulted. People who are unwilling to become violent cannot be "provoked", and those inclined to violence tend to find a pretext, and, if possible, to blame their own irrational and destructive behaviour on others.

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