Friday, October 14, 2011

The Gilad Shalit Dilemma: Two Moving Pieces that Epitomize the Ambivalent Sentiments of Israelis, and Why We Should be Proud

This will be a glorious holiday for the Shalit family, and for all of us, all around the world, who have worked so hard with this family on behalf of their son.Let us rejoice in his return, and let us pray with all our hearts that this glorious day not be spoiled by future heartaches. Let us be proud of Israel for having gambled on the side of compassion this time. Let us be proud of Israel which values every human life so much, as it has demonstrated this week. And let us hope and pray that the gamble does not turn out--- God forbid, God forbid, God forbid---to be wrong. --Rabbi Jack Riemer

Two moving, thoughtful pieces that express the profundity of the dilemma Israel faced regarding Gilad Shalit, and why, despite any well-founded misgivings we may have about the decision, we can and should all be immensely proud and grateful to be part of a people that places such a premium on the ultimate sanctity of life!

Chag Sameach

david in Seattle

Everyone’s Son
In opposing the mass release of terrorists in exchange for Gilad Shalit’s freedom, I felt as if I was betraying my own son

By Yossi Klein Halevi

For the last five years I have tried not to think of Gilad Shalit. I avoided the newspaper photographs of his first months as an Israel Defense Forces draftee, a boy playing soldier in an ill-fitting uniform. Sometimes, despite myself, I’d imagine him in a Gaza cellar, bound, perhaps wired with explosives to thwart a rescue attempt. And then I would force myself to turn away.

I tried not to think of Gilad because I felt guilty. Not only was I doing nothing to help the campaign to free him, I opposed its implicit demand that the Israeli government release as many terrorists as it takes to bring him home. Israel has no death penalty, and now we would lose the deterrence of prison: If the deal went through, any potential terrorist would know it was just a matter of time before he’d be freed in the next deal for the next kidnapped Israeli.

But the argument could never be so neatly resolved. Each side was affirming a profound Jewish value: ransom the kidnapped, resist blackmail. And so any position one took was undermined by angst. What would you do, campaign activists challenged opponents, if he were your son? “He’s everyone’s son,” sang rocker Aviv Gefen.

One day I passed a rally for Gilad in a park in downtown Jerusalem. Several counter-demonstrators were holding signs opposing surrender to terrorism. “I happen to agree with you,” I said to one of them. “But don’t you feel uneasy protesting against the Shalit family?”

“We’re not protesting against the Shalit family,” he replied. “We’re protesting to save future victims of freed terrorists. Those victims don’t have names yet. But they could be my son or your son.”

Every debate over Gilad ended at the same point: your son.

We never referred to him as “Shalit,” always “Gilad.” The Gilad dilemma set our parental responsibilities against our responsibilities as Israelis—one protective instinct against another. The prime minister’s job is to resist emotional pressure and ensure the nation’s security; a father’s job is to try to save his son, regardless of the consequences.

And so I tried, too, not to think of Gilad’s extraordinary parents, Noam and Aviva. Even when denouncing the government they spoke quietly, incapable of indignity. The best of Israel, as we say here, reminding ourselves that the best of Israel is the best of anywhere.

For more than a year the Shalits have lived in a tent near the prime minister’s office. When I walked nearby I would avoid the protest encampment, ashamed to be opposing the campaign. This past Israeli Independence Day, though, I saw a crowd gathered around the tent, and wandered over. “GILAD IS STILL ALIVE,” banners reminded: It’s not too late to save him. Inside the tent, Noam and Aviva were sitting with family and friends, singing the old Zionist songs. I wanted to shake Noam’s hand, tell him to be strong, but I resisted the urge. I didn’t deserve the privilege of comforting him.

I wanted to tell Noam what we shared. As it happens, my son served in the same tank unit as Gilad, two years after he was kidnapped. I wanted to tell Noam that that was the real reason I couldn’t bear thinking about his family. That in opposing the mass release of terrorists for Gilad, it was my son I was betraying.

Now, inevitably, the government has given in to the emotional pressure. Inevitably, because we all knew it would—must—end this way. A few months ago, as part of its psychological war against the Israeli public, Hamas released an animated film depicting Gilad as an elderly gray-haired man, still a prisoner in Gaza. No image tormented us more.

Still, there are few celebrations here today. Even those who supported the campaign to free Gilad must be sobered by the erosion of Israeli deterrence. And those who opposed the campaign are grieving for Gilad’s lost years. All of us share the same unspoken fear: In what condition will he be returned to us? What have these years done to him?

Hamas leaders are boasting of victory. If so, it is a victory of shame. Hamas is celebrating the release of symbols of “resistance,” not of human beings. Hamas’ victory is an expression of the Arab crisis. The Arab world’s challenge is to shift from a culture that sanctifies honor to a culture that sanctifies dignity. Honor is about pride; dignity is about human value. Hamas may have upheld its honor; but Israel affirmed the dignity of a solitary human life.

In recent months the campaign to free Gilad demanded that the government worsen conditions for convicted terrorists in Israeli jails, to psychologically pressure the Palestinian public. So long as Gilad was being held incommunicado, activists argued, Palestinian families should be barred from visiting their imprisoned sons. While Gilad’s youth was wasting away, terrorists shouldn’t be allowed to study for college degrees.

The government promised to oblige. But as it turned out, there were legal complications. A newspaper article the other day noted the results of the government’s get-tough policy: Imprisoned terrorists would no longer be provided with the Middle Eastern delicacy of stuffed vegetables.

How is it possible, Israelis ask themselves, that so-called progressives around the world champion Hamas and Hezbollah against the Jewish state? Perhaps it’s because we’re too complicated, too messy: a democracy that is also an occupier, a consumerist society living under a permanent death sentence. Perhaps those pure progressives fear a contagion of Israeli ambivalence.

For all my anxieties about the deal, I feel no ambivalence at this moment, only gratitude and relief. Gratitude that I live in a country whose hard leaders cannot resist the emotional pressure of a soldier’s parents. And relief that I no longer have to choose between the well-being of my country and the well-being of my son.


Some Reflections as we await the return of Gilad Shalit and As We Celebrate the Holiday of Our Joy

Rabbi Jack Riemer

There is a strange mood in our hearts and in the hearts of the people of Israel today. On the one hand, we are ecstatic at the news that Gilad Shalit is coming home at last. For more than five and a half long years, this brave young man has rotted somewhere in Gaza. His parents have moved heaven and earth in an effort to bring him home. They set up a tent at the entrance to the Prime Ministers home in Jerusalem so that anyone and everyone who entered that home would be reminded at his coming in and at his going out that their child was a prisoner in Gaza.

They went to Europe and knocked on the doors of every head of state there, begging them to intercede on behalf of their child. They went to America; they went to the United Nations; they went anywhere and everywhere they could in the hope of arousing world public opinion on behalf of their son. And all of us who watched them work so passionately and so patiently had to be moved by their determination and their devotion. How could you not feel for these parents?

And yet, happy as we are to see him coming home at last, part of us worries that the price that Israel has had to pay for rescuing him may be too high. The details of the agreement have not yet been released. They may never be released in their entirety. But preliminary reports indicate that approximately a thousand terrorists, killers who have the blood of innocent people on their hands, are being released by Israel in exchange for Gilad Shalit.

I believe that one of them is the terrorist who entered the home of an Israeli family in the middle of the night, and killed the father, and then the mother, and then took his rifle and smashed it over the head of their young, innocent child, and killed her too. Israelis shiver to think that this person was first on the list of those that Hamas demanded be released, and that, the Israeli government evidentially agreed to let him go, in order to get Gilad Shalit back.

Israelis worry---and understandably so---about what these thousand murderers will do when they get back to Gaza. They will be given a heros welcome, and they will be praised for the acts of brutality that they committed. And then what? Will they go back to killing innocent Jews once again? And if they do, then will the price that Israel has paid for getting Gilad Shalit back end up being too high?

Prime Minister Netanyahu put it very simply in the announcement that he made on television this week. He told the people of Israel that the price that the government of Israel has agreed to pay in exchange for the release of Gilad Shalit was a high one, a very high one. But he said it was the best deal we could get, and that, if we did not agree to it, if we let the deal fall through, there was no way of knowing whether the opportunity to save Gilad Shalit would ever come back again.

I ask you: What would you have done if you were in Prime Minister Netanyahus shoes this week?

I can only say that I am glad that I was not him, for how do you make such an awfully difficult decision? How do you decide to save one lifewhen Judaism teaches that he who saves one life, it is as if you have saved a whole world---How do you save one life at the cost of risking many, many lives? How would you feel if you were him and you refused to accept these terms, and you went to sleep each night, knowing that, by your decision, you had condemned Gilat Shalit to another night in Hell? And how would you feel if you were him, and you accepted these terms in order to win his freedom, and you went to sleep each night knowing that by your decision, you had endangered every other Jewish soldier who may now become a tempting target for kidnapping, and that, by your decision, you had endangered every single Israeli who may now become the target of these murderers?

I dont envy the prime minister who had to make this decision, and I am glad that I was not him, for pick a side, and I can give you the arguments for the other side.

I can tell you, for example, about the long and the sacred Jewish tradition of Pidyon Shvuim, of rescuing hostages. I think that you know how precious and how sacred the Torah Scroll is to Jews, and yet the law provides that, if you need money with which to rescue a hostage, you are permitted---no, I said that wrong---you are REQUIRED to sell a Sefer Torah in order to raise the money with which to rescue a hostage.

And therefore, judging by this law, you could say that Judaism teaches that whatever the cost, whatever the price that must be paid, no matter what, the government of Israel did right in rescuing Gilad Shalit. They carried out the mitzvah of Pidyon Shvuim, which is one of the most important mitsvot in our religion. They demonstrated the core Jewish value of compassion. They sent a message to their soldiers that, if they are ever captured, they will not be forgotten or abandoned, but that their government will do whatever it has to do to bring them back.

But that is only part of the Jewish tradition. If I am to be honest with you, I must also tell you the story of Rabbi Meir of Rothenerg. Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg was one of the great scholars and teachers and leaders of the Jewish community in the Middle Ages. And therefore, the duke of the area in which he lived arrested him and put him into a dungeon. He did so, because he figured that the Jewish people would pay any price he demanded in order to rescue their teacher. And they would have---had Rabbi Meir not sent them a message from prison, FORBIDDING them to rescue him. He told them that if they paid an exorbitant figure to save him, then no rabbi and no leader and no teacher in the land would ever be safe. Whenever a cruel monarch needed funds, he would simply kidnap a Jewish leader and the Jews would pay any price to get him back.

Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg was imprisoned for many years. The only humane condition that he was given was that once a month he was allowed a visitor. And so Jews would turn to him and ask him questions of Jewish Law while he was in prison, as they had done before. They gave their questions to the appointed visitor, who delivered them, and then a month later, when the visitor returned, Rabbi Meir would give him his decisions on these questions of Jewish Law. Working from his cell, and without the help of his books, Rabbi Meir answered complex questions of Jewish Law that came to him from many corners of the Jewish world during those years of his imprisonment.

And during those years, he also wrote poems and prayers of great beauty, some of which are included in the High Holy Day Prayerbook, and which are recited to this day.

When Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg died, the Jewish people of his community finally broke with his decision and they paid money so they could redeem his body and give it a proper burial.

I ask you: Who was right---those like the Sages of the Talmud who taught us the importance of Pidyon Shvuim, or those like Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg who insisted that you do not do business with monsters or with greedy thugs, because if you do, you only encourage them to continue kidnapping and holding innocent people for hostage?

Who was right---the Sages of the Talmud or Rabbi Meir?

And who is right today---those who fought to rescue Gilad Shalit at any cost, or those who held to the belief that you dare not encourage murderers by giving in to their demands, and that, if you do, you encourage them to continue doing horriblel things?

Let me give you my answer in three simple words: I DONT KNOW.

I really dont. You are playing God either way. You are either endangering the life of one Jewish soldier if you decide one way or you are endangering the lives of who-knows-how-many Jews if you decide the other way. So how can any mortal, how can any human being, take the responsibility of making such an awesome decision?

My friend and colleague, Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, is a person whom I turn to for advice and counsel many times during the year, for he is a very wise man. He is a person who is totally devoted to the welfare of Israel and of the Jewish people. And he is also a person who has enormous compassion and kindness for individual human beings who are in trouble. And so, I thought he would be a good one to ask for advice on this question. And so I called him and asked him where he stood on this question---were the rescuers right or were those who did not want to trade murderers in order to rescue Gilad Shalit right---he answered me in a very surprising and unexpected way.

He said to me: The holiday of Sukkot is coming in just a day or two. And on this holiday, what do we do? We take the Lulav, this tall, straight plant, and we take the etrog, this round yellow plant, and we hold them together as we recite a bracha. The Lulav represents strength; it is shaped like a backbone. And the Etrog represents compassion. It is shaped like a heart.

Most years we hold the two of them, the Lulav and the Etrog, together; we hold them side by side as we make the blessing, as if to say that we hope to be able to live our lives with courage and with compassion, with justice and with mercy. And very often, we can. The Israeli army has fought its wars with an incredible combination of these two values. It has shown strength, and, at the same time, it has shown compassion. That is our glory.

But what do you do---Rabbi Potasnik said to me---on those rare occasions when you cannot hold the two together? What do you do on those rare occasions in your life as an individual or in the life of your people when you must choose between the Etrog and the Lulav, between strength and compassion? This, he said to me, is such a moment.

Strength says that making this trade is sentimental foolishness. Are you really willing to let a thousand killers go free, are you really willing to endanger every single person in Israel by letting these murderers loose so that they can kill and rape and pillage again?

Strength says that this is a foolish and a dangerous trade, and that it should not be done.

And can you fault its logic? I cant.

But compassion makes a good case too. Are you really going to let a good young man stay in the hands of his captors forever? Is not the more than five years that he has already endured not enough? Are you really going to let his parents suffer forever, waiting and worrying and working to gain his release in vain? It seems to me that compassion makes a good case, a case as cogent as strength does.

So what do you do when strength and compassion conflict, what do you do when the Lulav and the Etrog that usually stand together are unable to stand together?

When that happens, you learn the hard and painful truth that there are some situations in life when there simply is no right answer. There are some hard and painful moments in life in which you simply must make a decision, knowing as you do that there is no decision available that can be upheld as clear and right.

Who knows? Perhaps if the nations of the world had spoken up and said to the Palestinian Authority or to Hamas that this kind of kidnapping is simply intolerable in the civilized world, that, if you want to be heard at the United Nations, and if you want to be considered for membership in the United Nations, you must first remove the evil from your hands, and you must release this innocent young man at once. Who can say for sure? Perhaps if the nations of the world had spoken up that way, if they had spoken up with one voice, and said this, we might not be in the difficult situation we are in today. But they didnt. And so we must make a decision---an impossible decision---a decision between strength and compassiona decision between what the Lulav stands for and what the Etrog stands for---and that is what the government of Israel has done.

And we can only pray that the decision that they have made, the decision to save the life of Gilad Shalit with all the risks that that entails will turn out to be a blessing for him, for his family, for all the soldiers who serve with the faith that their government will never abandon them, and for the people of the State of Israel. God, we await the arrival of Gilad Shalit back to his home. If he comes home during Sukkot, we will sing the words of the Hallel, the Psalms of Thanksgiving and Rejoicing, with great fervor and with great joy in our hearts. And God, we pray: May this Hallel never have to be followed by a Kaddish, and may no one else in Israel ever be endangered because of this decision. Please God, may this not be!

When the service is over, we will go out into the Sukkah to make Kiddush. Look around at this Sukkah when you go in. It is such a frail building. It barely has three walls. It has flowers and pictures in it which will probably not last the week, which will fall down and be spoiled by the first rain we get. Look at the Sukkah and you will learn a fundamental law of life---which is that some things in this world are frail and fragile, and that there is nothing we can do about that, except learn to live with that fact. The Sukkah teaches us that some lives are frail and fragile structures, and that we cannot count on them lasting forever. That is just the way it is. That is the human situation.

There are questions that have no answers. There are situations that have no solutions. There are structures that are frail and fragile and liable to the howling wind. And it is our task, not to trade these huts in for sturdier buildings, but to learn how to live inside them, and to do the best we can within them.

This will be a glorious holiday for the Shalit family, and for all of us, all around the world, who have worked so hard with this family on behalf of their son.Let us rejoice in his return, and let us pray with all our hearts that this glorious day not be spoiled by future heartaches. Let us be proud of Israel for having gambled on the side of compassion this time. Let us be proud of Israel which values every human life so much, as it has demonstrated this week. And let us hope and pray that the gamble does not turn out--- God forbid, God forbid, God forbid---to be wrong.

And to this, let us all say---perhaps with a divided heart---but nevertheless, with as much hope and trust as we can muster---to this, let us all say: amen.

1 comment:

George Jochnowitz said...

I never thought that Hamas could be bribed, even by a deal that gave it 1000 of its soldiers. Could a jihadist group ever free a living Jew? Can practicality override the need to fight to the death in order to eliminate the Jewish presence in Israel? Could a fundamentalist group like Hamas participate in third-party negotiations with Israel? They apparently did so. They must be losing support among their constituents.
Nevertheless, anti-Israel hatred will zoom up all over the world, as always happens whenever Israel makes a concession.