Very little is easy about Judaism. Very little is not complicated about Israel.
For the majority of Jews who self-describe as progressive or any degree below right-wing, Judaism today is about a shifting series of value judgments. When am I going to place Jewish values over others? When do I make a stand about my own values when they come into conflict with traditional Judaism? For some, it might be an existential tension about whether or not to buy Kosher meat when it can be prohibitively expensive. For others it’s the soccer-or-shul debate on Saturday mornings. For others it might be about lining up with left-wing Israel organizations as opposed to those such as AIPAC. More relevant to today’s news, in recent years many of us have grappled with the moral implications of prisoner exchange.
Today, with the release of Gilad Shalit after five years of captivity, the complications and intersections of competing values are front and center.
The baseline question of whether or not the life and return to Israel of Sergeant Shalit is worth over one thousand Palestinian prisoners, including those who masterminded some of the most notorious terrorist attacks in Israel’s recent history, is not easy to answer.
It’s no easier than it was when Israel released five terrorists, including the notorious Samir Kuntar, and the bodies of 199 Palestinian and Lebanese militants for the dead bodies of Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser in July of 2008. How we reconcile the necessary closure for the families of Regev and Goldwasser with Samir Kuntar’s words, two days after his release, that “God willing, I will get the chance to kill more Israelis”?
How are we supposed to feel when Hamas issues statements about having there be more kidnappings in the future and their continued desire to eradicate the Jewish state?
In the face of ultimate evil, and evil committed to the destruction of Israel and the terrorization of its people, how are we supposed to make sense of these events?
For years at our synagogues we have prayed for the release of Shalit. Facebook statuses on his birthdays in captivity, letter-writing campaigns to the Red Cross, exhibits in Israel about the book that he wrote in elementary school… all to keep alive the memory and images of a pale, skinny, spectacled Israeli solider who had the unfortunate luck of being at the wrong place at the wrong time.
In a nation of citizen soldiers where everyone serves in the army, Shalit was another in a series of tragic symbols, an until-then anonymous everyman called into service, who ended up behind enemy lines with an uncertain fate. While the mystery of Ron Arad might never be solved, and the sadness of Regev and Goldwasswer is still fresh in our minds, the return of Shalit to his homeland is a cause for joy and celebration.
Israel’s willingness to, above all, protect the life of its soldiers, and its sons and daughters who are pressed into service, provides the most stark contrast to the values of its enemies, who above all promote hatred, violence, and terror.
Despite the likelihood of released prisoners resuming terror activities against Israel, despite the pain of the families of the victims killed in terror attacks perpetrated by the released prisoners, despite the immoral and illegal refusal of Hamas to allow Red Cross visits to Shalit in captivity, despite the callousness of the moral equivalency placed by the world on this trade, despite the fact the Israel’s enemies will be emboldened to continue to victimize and terrorize, despite Hamas’ promise of future kidnappings, despite it all, the emotions I felt when watching the video of Shalit exiting the IDF helicopter to see his family, Binyamin Netanyahu, and Ehud Barak this morning at Tel Nof air base this morning were overwhelmingly joyful and proud.
Snared by a terrorist cell as a young boy of 19, Gilad now returns to Israel at age 25, with the rest of his life ahead of him. While he will never reclaim those years of captivity, he will live on in our memories as an enduring symbol .
There are lots of op-eds that are out about the Shalit deal. For a few interesting takes, read this one from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, this one from Rabbi David Ellenson, this one from the Washington Post, this one from Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby, and this one from Haaretz.