On Pidyon Shvuyim, Gilad Shalit, and Israel’s Hard Choices

Gilad Shalit salutes Primi Minister Netanyahu after his release/EPA

The return of Gilad Shalit to Israel was the conclusion of what one Israeli analyst called 1,941 nights and days of “national hysteria and insanity.” However, emotions are still soaring and the ethical debate surrounding the event will continue for some time. The facts of the deal between Israel and Hamas are rather straight forward and simple: one Israeli soldier for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, 1,000 men and 27 women. The lop-sidedness of this deal made Israel appear strangely vulnerable—contrary to its normal steadfastness in its negotiations with the Palestinians—as if its politicians had completely ignored the possible implications on its own security, which those against the deal have made abundantly clear. However, the ethical and political dimensions that inform the deal involve complex interpretations of current politics, security, and religious doctrine, as well as thousands of years of Jewish history. In some ways Israeli society and culture are strung on a web that is anchored between those separate dimensions, where retreat to one or the other is always a possibility, but where a shakeup in one of those corners tends to rock the whole web, and all of society with it. This entanglement is the most apparent when the nation undergoes a soul searching moment, as is clearly the case as a result of the Shalit return.

At the moment in Israel there appears to be two camps, those whose sympathies lie with the Shalit family, and who argue, in the words of President Peres, that Gilad Shalit’s life is worth much more than thousands of terrorists. On the other side of the debate are those who claim that the price is too high, a group that is primarily led by a number of prominent relatives of victims of Israeli terrorist attacks, the perpetrators of which may be among those prisoners included in the release. What is not always apparent to the non-Jewish debate is the ideological and religious foundation which both of these perspectives tap into and that is deeply embedded into the secular and political discussion.

In fact, the ransoming of captives is something that became so common throughout Jewish history that it became considered by the sages to be a great Mitzvah (Mitzvah Rabbah), a commandment that requires the sacrifice all of one’s resources if needed for its fulfillment. Rambam/Maimoinides argued that because captives suffer greatly and may be in mortal danger, the mitzvah to ransom captives takes precedence over supporting and clothing the poor. One who ignores the commandment, writes Maimonides, is guilty of transgressing commandments such as “you shall not harden your heart” (Deuteronomy 15:7) or “you shall not stand idly by the blood of your brother.” (Leviticus 19:16). However, the ancient sages soon realized that the commandment and its interpretation put the Jewish community in a difficult dilemma. Obviously, the larger the ransoms that the community offered for their captives, the more captives were taken. As a solution, the Jewish sages imposed standards by which ransoms had to be measured, specifying that no captive should be redeemed for more than their monetary value (as measured by what they would have been worth as a slave), in order to prevent the impoverishment of society and to discourage further kidnapping. Although it may seem only remotely related, this commandment is the driving force behind a variety of political and historic events, including the rescue of Jews from the Soviet Union, and now, the negotiations for the return of Gilad Shalit. While this discussion may seem archaic, it is important to remember that religion, symbolism, and tradition are seamlessly woven into the fabric of Israeli society, and are constantly being reinforced through the national socialization process. As a result of the diversity of Israeli society and the ensuing polarization of the Israeli democratic system, concessions are constantly being made to both secular and religious groups, meaning that religious symbolism and tradition are part of the national political debate.

Hence, in order to properly understand the balance sheet between justification and hesitation that has carefully been examined by Israeli politicians during the last several months it has to be seen not only through the lens of security, but also through those other dimensions that are not always well known to the rest of the world. President Shimon Peres’ remarks to the Israeli terror victims association on October 17th, explaining that the life of Gilad Shalit far outweighs the price of the released Palestinian terrorists despite the pain that it causes the many bereaved families, have to be measured against this reality. Similarly, Benyamin Netanyahu’s remarks echo the same sentiments. After successfully reuniting Gilad Shalit with his family the Prime Minister claimed, “The state of Israel is different from its enemies: Here we do not celebrate the release of murderers. Here we do not applaud those who took life. On the contrary, we believe in the sanctity of life. We sanctify life. This is the ancient tradition of the Jewish people.”

As with any issue in Israel however, the debate in Israel is extremely polarized. While on the surface it appears that the polarization falls neatly into the religious/non-religious divide, the truth is much more complicated and multi-layered. For once, the table seemed to have been turned and the mostly secular community who argued for Shalit’s release took recourse in the Torah, while national-religious and right-wing Israelis used the secular security argument to claim that the swap would be too costly. Although the justification for the cost argument is also religiously based (from the interpretation of the Tanachic dictates about the maximum price that should be paid as ransom), the measures for what is “too costly” are contemporary and determined by the national security imperative. According to that imperative there are at least four reasons why the deal should have been considered unacceptable: First, by giving in to Hamas’ demands, it gives the terrorist organization the impression that terror pays off. Second, it shows the Palestinians that violence pays, and—given the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks—is more effective than negotiations. Third, the released Palestinian prisoners who have spent years in Israeli jail will go right back to their previously murderous activities, and fourth, and perhaps most importantly, by bowing to some of Hamas’ demands, Israel will appear weak and Hamas will be able to present itself as the victor, further strengthening the movement and encouraging possible repeat action. As a result the price for future swaps would continue to inflate.

Palestinian Prisoners released in exchange for Gilad Shalit (Reuters)

The fact that the national religious community is extremely negative against the swap is indeed expected. The most fervent among the national religious tend to be the ones who are most directly affected by Palestinian terrorism, as they occupy the most remote settlements inside the West Bank close to Palestinian population centers. In addition, the passion by which they defend their cause—retaining the territory at all cost—increases their tolerance for violent alternatives in the struggle against the Palestinians and the accompanying sacrifice. The options discussed within this community are therefore much more punitive and forceful, lacking consideration for the effect that such measures would have on the larger relationship with the Palestinians or on possible Israeli casualties from such operations. Thus, the religious ideals of compassion and solidarity are not useful for the larger cause that the Israeli religious right has taken upon itself.

However, together with the bereaved families, the national religious community understands something that the rest of Israel is still choosing to deny: By agreeing to this deal, Israel implicitly risks being seen as acknowledging the old adage that “one person’s terrorist is another’s freedom fighter.” When interviewed on Al-Jazeera on the day of the swap, the spokesman for the prime minister of Israel, Mark Regev, repeatedly pointed out that the released Hamas prisoners are in fact not political prisoners but murderers, and that it is against both international law and standards of anyone’s decency that murderers should be set free. In an open letter in Haaretz on October 17th, the father of an Israeli girl who was murdered in a terrorist attack in 2001 expressed those same sentiments when he wrote that, “In any sane country with a fair judicial system, even paroled murderers are not released without granting the victims’ loved ones a chance to address the parole board. I thought Israel was such a state.” Others have argued that by releasing convicted terrorist, Israel puts itself in defiance of International law, thereby providing a moral justification for allowing Israel to step away from its traditional Jewish values.

Israeli politicians are therefore caught between a rock and a hard place. Although it is justified in the Torah and supported by a majority of Israelis, to the outside world the argument that Gilad Shalit’s freedom is indeed worth the price of 1027 Palestinian prisoners and potential future terrorists, recalls a “regular” POW exchange where the prisoners are considered to be fighters in a legitimate struggle, albeit with a heavily inflated price. However, if, as Israel insists, these prisoners are indeed dangerous murderers who should be locked up for life because of their violent tendencies, the image that remains is one of an increasingly weakened Israel, and a much strengthened Hamas. Clearly, at some point, Israelis will have to choose between those two narratives, or Hamas will make the choice for them. For now all we can do is believe in the hope that Gilad Shalit himself expressed when he said that he is hopeful that the deal that set him free will help promote peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

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One thought on “On Pidyon Shvuyim, Gilad Shalit, and Israel’s Hard Choices

  1. Pingback: Gilad Shalit the “Goliath” | The Social Spectator

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