If media reports are to be trusted, Gilad Shalit will come home this week, and a major debate will resurface within Israeli society with his arrival: What price should we be willing to pay to bring our captives home?
Israel must reunite captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit with the extended Israeli and Jewish family
In trying to answer this equation, the key factor is what considerations are deemed relevant. One suggestion is to calculate the pros and cons of allowing Gilad Shalit to remain a captive forever, against the pros and cons of releasing terrorists with blood on their hands in the past and a commitment to have blood on their hands in the future.
Within the parameters of the above discussion, pundits and "bean counters" will arrive at different conclusions. On the side of releasing prisoners for Gilad Shalit, people point to the corrosive danger to our soldiers’ morale if Israel is not willing to do "everything" and "anything" to bring our soldiers back. The gain in soldiers’ morale offsets the potential dangers inherent in releasing terrorists, they say.
On the other side, people count the individual life of Gilad Shalit over and against the number of future victims likely to result from a prisoner exchange. While everybody cares about Gilad Shalit, the argument is made: "How can we choose his life over others?" In addition, our enemies are going to be emboldened to increase their efforts at harming us.
Judaic sources weigh into the discussion. On the one hand, these sources speak of the centrality of "pidyon shavuim," and doing whatever is necessary to redeem our captives, while other sources warn of "overpaying" and in the process, creating an impetus and catalyst for the taking of more captives.
Variations of all of the above arguments have been reverberating in Israeli society for months. The most accurate assessment of public opinion in Israel is that today, prior to Shalit’s release, a clear majority supports the exchange. However, if the exchange occurs, public opinion will likely shift, with the majority taking the position that the price was too heavy. Knowing the schizophrenic nature of Israeli society on this issue, the Israeli government has put a ban on the media’s ability to publish in advance of the exchange the names of those who would be included in the prisoner swap.
While the split reflects the issue’s deep complexity, it also reflects both the childishness and the poverty of the discussion. It is childish because we all want Gilad Shalit home, but the greatest sin in the Middle East is to be a "frayer," a fool. So long as we have not yet paid the price, we want Gilad Shalit home. Once we have paid the price, our egoes won’t allow us to be "frayerim," and we convert into objectors to the deal.
It reflects the poverty of the discussion because the issue of the lack of legitimacy of the Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange cannot and should not be reduced to a numerical calculation, as if there were some moral mathematical equation which can help us to reach a coherent conclusion on how to balance the life of one against the potential loss of others.
While these calculations may be relevant for the classroom, they leave us cold and morally uninformed in real life. The issue here is not one for actuaries but one that posits two deeply conflicting values and central narratives which lie at the core of who we are as Jews and a country.
The first is that we as Jews do not see Gilad Shalit as a soldier and fellow citizen, but rather we see him as a member of our family. He is all of ours son and brother. Viewing the Jewish people as a shared family has been one of the deepest and most significant guiding principles for Jewish life since our inception. It has created an unparalleled sense of collective loyalty that has fueled Jewish identity and survival through the most difficult of times. When the majority of Israelis declare they are in favor of Gilad Shalit’s return, they are not doing an actuarial calculation, but are responding as any mishpacha would.
One of the great strengths and beauties of Israeli society, as well as one of its great challenges, is that the public sphere is not an alienated one. We take for granted the fact that fellow citizens will not simply refrain from harming each other, but instead will actually engage in helping one another. Nowhere is this more evident than on the battlefield, where our tradition of not leaving anyone behind is an instinctive guiding principle of our army, very often regardless of the consequences. Gilad Shalit is still waiting on the battlefield, and as his family, our duty and obligation is clear.
At the same time, there is a second competing key narrative which shapes modern Israel and its core values. This narrative tells of Israel as a small and embattled people living in a dangerous neighborhood with neighbors who want to drive us into the sea.
Israelis have been raised for decades – and in fact Jews for centuries have been taught – that those around us want to destroy us. Our core Zionist value is no longer to go as sheep to slaughter, but rather to take responsibility for our destiny. That’s why our army is called the Israel Defense Forces. This necessitates understanding that when in a jungle only the fittest survive. And it is a sin to our essence to project weakness or, worse, to act in such a way as to weaken us in the future.
This, then, is our quandary. Which core value must prevail in this case? In my opinion it is the first: Our greatest strength and beauty as a society lies in our continuing to see each other as family. Increased socioeconomic gaps and deep ideological schisms have begun to corrode our shared loyalty in recent years. This endangers us far more than any rockets or potential future terrorist acts.
We have worked hard as a people to achieve a level of military strength and prowess unimagined by any Jew throughout our history. That success not only creates an advantage on the battlefield, it also creates an opportunity to relax from the narrative of fighting for our survival. We can afford to take risks and chances on many fronts, thanks to the skill and sacrifice of our army. Let’s take the risk and bring our son home.
Let us celebrate the values that are at the core of doing what we must to reunite Gilad with our family. There is no need to reverse our view once he is returned. It is not that we ignored the price beforehand but rather that we consciously chose between two competing values. They – our enemies – may interpret this as weakness. We know, however, that it is our greatest strength.