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.


  1. Once again, you've managed to sum up what I've been thinking and feeling with regard to the past 24 hours. Perfect.

  2. I have read your blog and have thought about it for the most of the day, and whilst you make an interesting analogy, I feel like many military commanders may have felt, that the tactical considerations of a battle can often cloud the ultimate goal of a conflict.

    On the one hand, is the absolute duty of the IDF, the State and its people to return to their parents – whatever the cost – the sons and daughters who serve the defence of their country. On the other hand, is the dilemma that must be resolved to ensure the consequences of these costs do not create situations in which others may be exposed to greater risk.

    Every day, from the War of Independence until now, on the battle field of Israel’s existence, this dilemma has had to be faced and resolved. Up until the Yom Kippur War all military decisions, together with their political support, resolved all moral and tactical conflicts on the basis of the simple argument, “there is no alternative”. Israel did what it had to do and that was that.

    The near defeat in Yom Kippur changed attitudes to the resolution of differences with Israel’s neighbours. Begin’s agreement with Sadat together with the much later handshake between the arch-enemies of Yitzach Rabin and Yasser Arafat, symbolised a more realistic “give and take” approach to the conflict. These arrangements have, of course, been much criticised within Israel and often for the reasons that the costs created situations in which others were exposed to greater risk.

    But unless you believe that Israel can survive by walling itself in and isolating itself from its neighbours, imprisoning every terrorist, then it is necessary in order to achieve the ultimate goal of peace and security, to go the way of Nelson Mandela, who sat down and discussed with those who had imprisoned him for 27 years - or, more specifically, to go the way of Gershon Baskin, to discuss and deal with Hamas.

    This then is the ultimate choice: difficult and full of many problems, but it will only become as terrible as Sophie’s if we turn our back upon it and ignore it.

  3. I like what you wrote, Asher. I liked the bit about the rav in the beginning, and the analogy with Sophie's choice. I liked having snippets of the two mothers; I hadn't had the chance to read the paper.

    Once, on my first ever visit to Israel, I asked a friend who was living here [temporarily] at the time about this State we have. "Is it civil?" I asked, "I mean, is it run by civil law- the Knesset, and democracy, -or- is it religious with the laws that are made to back-up religious observance, and the separate court, Bet Din, which is not a civil court?" Know what her answer was? "well, yes."
    Here we are with a few ambiguous "yes"'s.
    It's better than "no"'s, I guess... yes?