Editor’s Note: As talk about the possible release of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, held captive by Hamas for more than three years, continues, this essay captures the moral issues surrounding the "price" the Israeli government and people may have to pay to secure Shalit’s release. (Originally published 29 June 2008)
Even as the government voted this Sunday to swap Lebanese prisoner Samir Kuntar for the bodies of kidnapped IDF soldiers Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, we are still awaiting word on the fate of the deal for Gilad Shalit, and we still are facing fundamental questions about what price should the country be willing to pay to bring our sons back home.
The vote on Goldwasser and Regev came despite facing a tough quandary: If the government had decided the political, economic, or strategic price was too high, and we could not return terrorists with blood on their hands, they would have been blamed for callousness, lack of care and lack of leadership. By going forth with the exchange, they may be blamed for selling the country’s national interests on the altar of their own political expediency and thus a lack of leadership.
I want to congratulate the government on their decision. The country must do whatever it can to bring the children home, dead or alive. This and the future exchange are not only necessary but critically important for our country.
In the case of Shalit, as is the case with Goldwasser and Regev, there are two critical issues facing us in this matter. One is the question of ratios: How much should we give for a soldier or somebody who might not be alive, and the lack of numerical equivalents between what we give and what we get back. The second is the issue of releasing terrorists with blood on their hands who may return to cause harm to other citizens in our country.
As a country and as a people who always want to win, every prisoner exchange seems to expose a fundamental weakness. For every soldier or captive we get back we always return dozens, if not hundreds. Are they getting the better of us? Were they better negotiators? Are we being shortchanged? Why do we have to pay such a price? As Jews, however, these questions are almost senseless.
At issue is neither our ego nor our need to appear or to be as victorious on the negotiating table as we are at the battlefield. The Jewish tradition teaches us that God began creation of the world with one person, and our tradition tells us (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5): "Whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world." One life has infinite value, and as such there can be no disproportionate payment. If one of our children comes home there is no price, there is no numerical equivalent we have to worry about. Given our military prowess and success, the ratio of captives is always in the favor of the other side. However, we should welcome the opportunity to express the value we place on one life. We must constantly remember that the infinite value of every life makes every prisoner exchange, regardless of numerical ratio, a bargain from a Jewish perspective.
As to the issue of terrorists with blood on their hands, we are engaging in this discussion without realizing that the nature of warfare has changed. Every Egyptian or Syrian soldier we exchanged in the past had blood on their hands. The nature of modern warfare in general, and in particular the warfare we are engaging in with Hamas and Hizbullah, has changed. The distinction between soldiers and terrorists is blurred. Our enemy has begun to target the civilian population as a strategic and tactical policy. We are at war with Hamas and Hizbullah and war prisoners are often taken. We cannot use the categories of the 1970s, when Israel would not negotiate with terrorists, because it does not apply to the conflict with Hamas and Hizbullah.
In fact, the issue of "blood on their hands" may be divided into two. On the one hand, because they have blood on their hands, the feeling is they do not deserve to go free, but to be killed or wallow in prison forever. But at issue is not what they deserve, rather what Israeli society deserves, and in particular families that have gone through the loss of children. Some might say this is a weakness. If we were as strong and steadfast as our enemy, it would cease to kidnap our soldiers. This might be true. But that strength will extract a far greater price. The strength of Israel lies not in matching the barbarism of our enemy or their hardness, but in living up to ideals and values to which we must be true. True, the enemy has found our weak point, our love and care for our children. We will protect our children through armaments and better tactical positioning. We will not protect our children by convincing the enemy we don’t care for them.
As to the issue of the danger of this happening in the future, in modern warfare, we question whether returning a general back to the enemy will extract a future price that is unacceptable. It is difficult to weigh future consequences. Here the concept of bari v’shema, bari adif (certainty outweighs potentiality at all times) comes into play. What is certain is Gilad Shalit will die if he doesn’t return home. Will these terrorists that would be released in exchange change the balance of power? Possibly, but probably not. Our enemy seems to be able to draft legions of individuals to continue hostilities and efforts against us. Strategically, we even have decided against targeted killings, because we found it has no benefit in the short run or the long run. There is always someone to replace the one we’ve killed. If that is so, these individuals sitting in jails have been replaced, and it is doubtful at best to believe they will tip the balance of power or embolden our enemy to attack us. They have all the means and the desire at present. When a potential danger is weighed, that which is certain takes precedence, and what is certain is that Shalit, Goldwasser and Regev must be brought home alive or dead for closure for their families, and that outweighs the potential harm.
We built our country in the Middle East, but we are not of the Middle East. Our value of pidyon shvuim (redemption of captives) has been essential for centuries. It does expose us, but I choose to be so exposed. I am honored at being so exposed. At end of day, as a citizen of Israel with children serving in Israel army, I feel that our greatest strength is the love and commitment of our citizens to this country, a deep conviction that this country cares for us and that it sees every human life as having significance. When we are in negotiations with an enemy with different moral standards, let’s not be wary of paying too high a price, but celebrate the opportunity to emphasize the values, cares, and loyalty we have for each other and this country, and which this country has for us.