Wednesday, October 19, 2011

A Nation of Sophies

There's an old joke about two Jewish guys having an argument who go to their rabbi to decide who's right. The first guy gives his side of the story, and the rabbi says "You're right".

But then it's the second guy's turn, and when he gives his side of the story, the rabbi looks at him and says "You're right."

The rabbi's wife overhears the entire exchange and asks her husband "Nu, so how can he be right and he be right?" The rabbi looks at her and says "You're right."

For the nearly 24 years that I have lived in Israel I have often felt that this country is the national personification of that joke – and never have I felt that more strongly than over the last few days.

Gilad Shalit is home. After 1,941 days, Gilad and his family can finally put their nightmare to rest.

But what a price we've had to pay for his freedom! 1,027 Palestinian terrorists – many of whom with blood on hands yet no remorse in their hearts are going home as well. As I wrote in this blog the night before Gilad was released, most Israelis are extremely torn regarding the conditions of the exchange.

To stay with analogy of the above joke – the first guy says to the rabbi "We have to do everything we can to bring back our soldier – he didn't volunteer, he was drafted, like every other Israeli. How can we allow our sons to stay in the hands of murderous animals? How will other soldiers feel knowing that if the same were to happen to them we would abandon them to their horrible fate? We have every obligation – moral and halachic (according to Jewish law) to bring him home!"

And the rabbi, if he is wise and caring, will say to him "You're right"

Then the second guy will say "But Rabbi – how can you say that? If we release all of these murderers for this one soldier – no matter how dear and important to us he is – we are telling the terrorists that this is the way to get the rest of their friends home! They will know that the price of Jewish blood is cheap, and a few years in jail is a small price for them to pay for killing our family, friends, children, neighbors! Most likely they will return to terrorism, and kill more of our people! We cannot decide that the life of one Israeli soldier is more valuable than the lives of countless others that may be killed in the future by these terrorists, nor can we expose our other soldiers to the risk of enduring what Gilad has endured for the past 5 years! This price is too high, and it will cost us more lives than just that of Gilad Shalit!"

And again, the rabbi – in his wisdom and understanding, will be forced to say "You're right."

The analogy was even stronger for me yesterday when I read two opinion pieces in the Jerusalem Post – one written by Sherri Mandell, whose 13 year-old son Koby was murdered by Palestinian terrorists on May 8, 2001 and the other written by Esther Wachsman, whose son Nachshon was a soldier kidnapped by Palestinian terrorists and was held for 6 days before being murdered by his captors during a failed rescue operation on October 14, 1994. Interestingly, Mrs. Wachsman's article was entitled "A Mother's Prayers" and Mrs. Mandell's was "A Mother's Pain".

In discussing the extraordinarily lopsided prisoner exchange for Gilad Shalit, Esther Wachsman writes "… my family has become the focus of local and international media inquiries. “What do we think about the release of our son’s murderer? What did we think about the protest of other bereaved families who oppose this particular deal? How many more soldiers will be held hostage as a result of yielding to terrorist demands?” Our solid reply is that at this moment in history, God has been merciful, has listened to our prayers and said “yes” (in contrast to when our Nachshon was kidnapped, when He heard our prayers but decided the answer would be “no”)."

She goes on to write " All the questions about negotiating with terrorists and yielding to their blackmail, the high price we paid for one soldier, the threat to our security, the weakening of our judicial system, the perceived weakness of our leaders and the biggest question of all - future policy - should be dealt with after Gilad Schalit is home."

I LOVE this. Her point is that the Shalits have an opportunity which she herself did not have – to hold, kiss and talk to their son. To finish watching him grow up, and Please God, get married and have children. Any policy discussion can wait a little until after this precious gift is received.

And she is absolutely right.

Sherri Mandell writes equally beautifully and equally eloquently. She discusses the very long-term pain, grief and suffering of the families whose loved ones have been murdered by terrorists. She writes that the sheer duration and length of that suffering is what anyone who has not shared this experience can understand the least. "In the aftermath of a prisoner exchange, this isolation will only be exacerbated. So will the feeling that our children’s deaths don’t matter. When people tell me that my son Koby died for nothing, I always used to say: No, it is our job to make his death mean something. But now I am not sure."

Mrs. Mandell also writes that "Cheapening our loved ones’ deaths only enhances the pain. If Israel is willing to free our loved ones’ murderers, then the rest of the world can look on and assume that the terrorists are really freedom fighters or militants."

She too is absolutely right.

No matter what Israel would have done regarding Gilad's freedom, it would have been right. And it would have been wrong.

To me, this is the worst thing that Palestinian terrorism has done to us. Beyond the killings, the kidnappings and the complete disregard for any sliver of humanity – they have put us in the position where there is no right answer. We have absolutely no possible response that we know in the depths of our hearts is the "right" one.

They have turned us into Sophie, from William Styron's 1979 novel (and 1982 movie) "Sophie's Choice", the story of a Catholic woman who survived the Nazi death camp Auschwitz. Upon arriving at Auschwitz with her two small children, a Nazi doctor forced Sophie to choose which of children would live (albeit in Auschwitz), and which would go directly to the gas chamber. Sophie sacrificed her seven-year-old daughter, Eva, a decision with which she lived the rest of her life in mourning and ridden with guilt.

The low regard for life held by Palestinian terrorists, and particularly by the current Palestinian "leadership", has turned Israel into a Nation of Sophies. Just like the title character in the story, the "choices" that we make are ours. And just like in the story, it is impossible for any of our "choices" to be seen as better than the alternatives.

Yet we are forced to make the choices all the same, and while we rejoice in what we gain, we also spend the rest of our days mourning our losses and feeling the guilt for what we have been forced to sacrifice.

The late Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir was quoted as saying that "Peace will come when the Arabs will love their children more than they hate us."

My prayer is that no matter what happens, we never come to hate the Arabs as much as we love our children.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Find The Cost Of Freedom

Besides the fact that I am finally blogging again after a very extended break, this is going to be an unconventional blog for me. Usually, when I have something on my mind, I have a general idea what I believe, and what I hope to convey. How I'll get there is usually less clear when I begin writing, but it takes shape as I go along. Tonight, however, I still haven't decided what I believe, and I am hoping that putting it in writing will help me reach some conclusion.

For anyone not in the loop of recent events in the Middle East, it was announced last week that a deal has been reached to release Gilad Shalit, an Israeli soldier who was kidnapped by Hamas in June 2006 and has spent the last 5 years and 5 months in captivity. In exchange for this solitary Israeli soldier, 1,027 Palestinian terrorists will be released from Israeli prisons – many of whom have blood on their hands, and most of whom have shown zero remorse for the death and destruction which they have wrought.

With the amount of debate about this deal and the high level of emotions surrounding it, I would have expected the Israeli public to be fairly evenly divided on the prisoner swap. So I was more than a little bit surprised to see a poll which was released yesterday in which 79% - nearly 4 out of every 5 Israelis support the swap. When the Israeli cabinet voted last week on the deal, the support was an overwhelming 26 votes to 3.

But the more I think about it, the more I realize that we are even divided on the question - if not as a nation, then as individuals. Each and every one of us.

The conventional wisdom is that negotiating with terrorists is wrong. It is capitulating to blackmail, and it sets a deadly precedent for the terrorists to continue doing what they do in order to get what they want.

I don't know anyone who would disagree, or who could disprove the logic of this wisdom. It is an accepted "given".

At the same time, I also don't know any Israeli who has not been hoping and praying every day since June 2006 for Gilad's safe return home. When Israelis are victims of terror, the entire country feels it. We all mourn with the families of those killed and we all feel the loss on a very personal level. This is even truer when the victim is not murdered, but kidnapped, and held prisoner by animals who have no regard for human life, whose only value seems to be death.

Gilad Shalit has been on the minds, on the tongues and in the hearts of Israelis since June 25, 2006 – nearly 2,000 days. Who in Israel will not rejoice to see Gilad in the arms of his family? Who would deny him or his loved ones that happening?

Yet, we are torn. Deeply. The price for Gilad's freedom is absolutely astronomical. Not in terms of actual numbers, but in terms of repercussions.

Nobody doubts that many of the terrorists being freed tomorrow in exchange for Gilad Shalit will return to terrorism.

And nobody doubts (and Hamas leadership has already said as much) that in light of the prisoner exchange to which Israel has agreed, there will be more kidnappings in the future in order to release the remaining Palestinian terrorists in our jails.

Gilad is scheduled to come home tomorrow, and about 450 Palestinian terrorists will be released at the same time. The remaining terrorists are to be released in about two months.

Will these released prisoners return to terrorism? Most likely, yes. Maybe some of them will decide that they are no longer willing to risk Israeli prison, but the majority of them will gladly risk whatever it takes, including (or especially) their own lives, in order to kill Israeli civilians.

But it seems to me that when these terrorists were in prison, it didn't lead to drop in terror attacks. Any decrease that has been is a result of Israeli security measures, not a "shortage" of volunteers. So perhaps the number of attacks will not really be affected by the release of these prisoners. We can always hope…

An additional thought is that Israel will undoubtedly keep a very close eye on these released terrorists and if we need targeted hits to prevent them from killing again, then we know how to do that. Just ask any of the Hamas leaders who spend their lives hiding from us (apparently their high regard for death does not apply to their own – only those of their people).

The other argument which I have heard against the deal is a very emotional one. What about the families of past terror victims, whose murderers are set to go free? Don't they deserve to see the monsters that tore their lives apart rot in jail forever?

Of course they do.

But how can anyone say to Noam and Aviv Shalit that the son they have not seen, held or kissed for nearly five and a half years, should stay in the hands of the animals holding him captive so that other families can feel justice in done for the murder of their loved ones? While every Israeli mourns with the families of past terror attacks, no amount of "justice" will bring them back their children. How can we deny the Shalits this chance that the others cannot have? No matter the possible – or even probably – cost.

So, it would seem that I have come to some conclusion of my own. I was uncertain when I began typing this blog an hour or so ago, but I have now decided that in spite all of the air-tight arguments against paying the price for Gilad's safe return, I'm glad that we are doing it. More than that, as an Israeli I am proud of my country for the value that we as a nation place on every human life.

I cannot pretend to know everything that went on in the more than 5 years of negotiations for Gilad Shalit. I have no doubt that the Israeli representatives involved in the negotiations for Gilad's freedom were even more aware of all of the dangers and pitfalls of this prisoner exchange than I am. Yet, they were "there" – they knew what was going on, and they determined that this was the best, if not the only chance of ever bringing Gilad home alive. A part of me has to trust that they honestly did what was best for Israel.

There is one additional clause I would love to see added to this prisoner swap tomorrow. As soon as Gilad is safely back in Israel and the 450 murderers are safely back in Gaza, the leadership of Hamas should be forced to announce to the world, in both English and Arabic, that this deal is absolute proof that one Israeli soldier is worth more than 1,000 Palestinian terrorists.

Every Israeli, as well as most right-thinking citizens of the world already know this to be true. But it would be nice to force Hamas to publicly acknowledge it as well.

After all – as long as we're paying such a heavy cost for freedom, they should at least pay a little bit.