The Release of Gilad Shalit: Achieving Clarity
On October 12, one of my Bat Mitzvah students arrived for her lesson very excited. She said, "You know that guy you're always talking about?" I didn't know whom she meant (it could have been anyone from a world leader to a Philadelphia Phillie), so she was more specific. "That soldier. They're letting him go."
We went to my computer and confirmed the news. Gilad Shalit, after five years as a prisoner of Hamas in Gaza, was indeed to be released. I was overjoyed and beside myself with excitement.
Readers might recall that two other soldiers were kidnapped on the Lebanese border at the same time Gilad Shalit was kidnapped in Gaza. Israel released imprisoned terrorists in return for Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, may they rest in peace. They were returned home to Israel in pieces, so that their body parts could receive proper burials.
Thank God that was not to be the fate of Gilad Shalit! Imagine the joy of his family, who did everything in their power to bring their son home. They even lived in a tent outside the home of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu so that every person who entered or left the residence was reminded of their son's captivity. They spoke to heads of state, including the President of the United States. They were not even sure their son was still alive. Hamas released a video to prove he was alive, but that was two years ago. Gilad had not been permitted even one humanitarian visit from the Red Cross. It was possible he had been murdered.
As time went on, the other side of his release became clear. Of course Hamas was not releasing Gilad as a humanitarian act. There was to be a prisoner exchange. Over 1,000 prisoners would be released. Many were serving life sentences for their roles in murderous bombings, including some of the most infamous attacks like the one at the Dolphinarium disco in Tel Aviv. Their impending release did not diminish my joy over Gilad coming home, but it added to my joy an equal measure of dread.
The following Friday night, I spoke to my congregation about the situation. I shared with them how torn I felt. I told them that most of my colleagues whose feelings about this were known to me were also torn. I told them that I, someone with a passion for clarity, had no clarity to offer. All I could tell them was that if they felt torn, then welcome to the club.
Since that Friday night, I have achieved clarity. It was not easy. It was painful, but I have achieved clarity.
My religion is the source of my values. My religion considers the rescuing of captives, פדיון שבויים (pidyon shevuyim in Hebrew) to be a mitzvah, which means a commandment. (Using mitzvah to mean a good deed is a popular colloquialism, but it is not the true meaning of the word.) Judaism commands us to rescue or ransom captives.
Do you remember Operation Thunderbolt, the historic raid at Entebbe? On a date rich with symbolism for liberty, July 4, 1976, Israeli commandos accomplished one of the most miraculous military rescues in history. They flew to Uganda, taking with them an exact replica of the personal vehicle of Ugandan dictator Idi Amin, and rescued 102 passengers of Air France Flight 139 who were being held by Palestinian terrorists. Of the soldiers and the prisoners, there was only one casualty in the raid itself. Yonatan Netanyahu, the brother of the current Prime Minister, was killed. In his memory, many now refer to it as Operation Yonatan. Dora Bloch, a prisoner who had been released to a hospital, was later murdered.
We needed an Operation Yonatan for Gilad Shalit. There was an attempt to locate and rescue him in 2006, but conditions were very different. In 1976, it was known where the prisoners were being held. All we knew about Gilad was that he was somewhere in Gaza. A second Operation Yonatan was not possible.
At this point, we must consider the limitations that Jewish law puts on the commandment of pidyon shevuyim. In the Mishnah, we read the following in Tractate Gittin, Chapter 4, mishnah 6: "We do not redeem captives for more than their value, for the sake of repairing the world." What does it mean not to redeem captives for any reason for "the sake of repairing the world?" If we turn the statement around, it becomes clear. If we redeem captives for more than their value, we do damage to the world. How so? By making clear that kidnapping is a crime that pays, and pays well.
One may well ask how we determine the value of a captive. We're really asking how to determine the value of a life. It is a fair question without an easy answer. It is also something that is done all the time. When a plaintiff wins a wrongful death case, a monetary value is placed on the lost life. We all know it is impossible to do that, but when necessary, we do the best we can.
One thing we can do is look at the numbers. Over 1,000 prisoners for one prisoner seems clearly exhorbitant, but let us not stop there. We must also consider who these 1,000 plus prisoners include. As was said above, some of the most notorious, murderous terrorists in the world are going to be released. That certainly runs afoul of the Mishnah's warning that we do not act on behalf of captives in a way that will cause harm to the world.
As happy as I am for Gilad Shalit and his family, this prisoner exchange will, in all likelihood, cause harm. Palestinians in Gaza have already held demonstrations, chanting "We want another Gilad." Hamas, still committed to the destruction of Israel, has made clear that they will continue the practice of kidnapping Israelis. The Torah says in Numbers 15:39 "…do not go around after your heart and eyes, because you whore after them." In other words, our hearts are not reliable in determining what is correct. As much as my heart is filled with joy for Gilad Shalit and his family, I have achieved clarity and now believe that this prisoner exchange was wrong. It is likely to result in more kidnappings, more bloodshed, and more grieving families in Israel.
A few final points must be made. First, Israel is a democracy, not a theocracy. As a rabbi, I turn to classic Jewish texts to guide me. Jewish law may well have a voice in Prime Minister Netanyahu's thinking, but it is not a trump card.
Second, I have written nothing about the potential dangers of this prisoner exchange that the Prime Minister does not know and would not have weighed heavily in his decision to proceed. Why, then would he have made the deal? I can only assume that the Israeli government believes the exchange can be made while keeping Israelis safe. I pray they are correct, and perhaps they will be correct. The security fence, about which the world yelled and screamed in protest, has been extremely successful in reducing terrorists bombings to almost zero. The biggest threat from Gaza now is the rockets fired into southern Israel, not bombs smuggled into Israel. Also, we may be overestimating the life expectancy of the most vicious of the released prisoners. Who knows what accidents might befall them, like the exploding cell phone of the infamous terrorist Yahya Ayyash?
I will conclude with the following. This is the motto of Hamas: "We love death as much as the Jews love life." May God bless Israel with an abundance of what Jews love most, and may Hamas and other terrorists experience firsthand what they profess to love.
Until next time, Shalom.