October 19, 2011
That amazing moment yesterday morning
– that moment when I heard the news, “Gilad Shalit is free” -- felt miraculous.
And yet, of course, it wasn’t – unless
by “miraculous,” we mean “unlikely,” or “unexpected.” For the release of Gilad Shalit came about
only as the result of very hard work and very difficult negotiations. Yes, many
of us prayed for Gilad Shalit’s release. And yes, our prayers were “answered.”
But this was no miracle.
There’s a phrase that has appeared in
press coverage of Gilad Shalit’s release that I find problematic. That phrase
is “prisoner exchange.” The reason is two-fold. Yes, Gilad Shalit was imprisoned,
and yes, he was released only on condition that over 1,000 prisoners held in
Israeli jails would also be released. But Gilad Shalit was not the same kind of
prisoner as the others who were released yesterday. Gilad Shalit had been kidnapped not because
of anything he did, but because of who he was: an Israel soldier. The men and women
who have already been or will soon be released by Israel were imprisoned precisely
because of what they did, which is to plan or to execute crimes -- in some
cases, heinous crimes.
There was an attempt by an Egyptian
reporter (who had the appalling lack of decency to interview Gilad Shalit after
his release from Hamas custody but before he had entered Israeli custody and been
reunited with his family) to ask Gilad whether, now that he was free, he would
work for the release of additional prisoners held by Israel – as if all
“prisoners” are the same. The fact is, Gilad Shalit wasn’t so much a prisoner
as he was a hostage.
Yes, questions have been raised
regarding the level of process afforded some Palestinians taken into custody in
Israel – which is as it should be. The Israeli government should be expected to
adhere to the highest standards of judicial process, to which it aspires. And it should be held to account. But to
compare a young man who was abducted from Israel, held captive in a secret
location and not permitted to have any contact with his family (or the Red
Cross) for over five years, with Palestinian prisoners, some of whom have been
tried and convicted of some of the most despicable crimes, is morally repugnant.
The word “exchange” is also problematic
for it implies an equivalence of value -- which frankly each side would deny.
Yes, there was an “exchange,” but the two sides are dramatically
different. Israel is a nation committed
to justice. Israel is a nation committed to human rights. Israel does not randomly
take Palestinians prisoner and hold them hostage, in order to exact concessions
from its enemies. It apprehends suspects, tries and convicts them, and
incarcerates them to protect its population.
Hamas, on the other hand, has evidenced
an extraordinarily low respect for human life, and has shown a willingness to
offer up its own adherents, as well as their innocent victims, on the
sacrificial pyre. Hamas is committed to destroying Israel and annihilating its
Jewish inhabitants. (By the way, lest we forget, Hamas is not only committed to
the destruction of Israel, it is also committed to the eradication of worldwide
Jewry. All Jews, whether Israelis or
not, whether supporters of Israel or not, are potential targets of Hamas’ genocidal
Because of these great differences between
Gilad Shalit and the Arab prisoners who are being freed, and between the state
of Israel and Hamas, some have argued that the very idea of a negotiated “prisoner
exchange” is repugnant.
There is indeed something horrifying about
releasing over 1,000 Arab criminals in order to free one hostage Israeli
soldier. To release, as Israel has, even one unrepentant, convicted, mass
murderer who has vowed to go out and try to do it again, is appalling.
Sadly, in the Jewish tradition there
is a long history of confronting such difficult choices. There is a communal
obligation, a mitzvah, that is highly esteemed, known as “pidyon
sh’vuyim,” – the “redemption” of “captives.” Throughout our history, Jewish
communities have unfortunately had to face the challenge of negotiating with
kidnappers. Communities have generally
offered as much payment as they possibly could to free their kidnapped members.
In doing so, they never thought of it as an “exchange” -- as if they were
operating on the same level as the hostage takers with whom they negotiated. But
negotiate they did, and ransom they often paid.
But is the capture of an Israeli
soldier the same as the kidnapping of a Jew in the Middle Ages? Is freeing
convicted murderers who have vowed to resume their inhumane, murderous ways equivalent
to the payment of a monetary ransom, even a steep one? Well, no, but I
personally find the word “pidyon” (“redemption” or “ransom”) more
palatable, more acceptable than “exchange,” for that is what I believe we have
just witnessed. Israel did not “exchange” over 1,000 Arab prisoners for one
Israeli soldier. Israel paid a ransom. Almost by definition, the payment of a
ransom is outrageous, and it should never be construed as suggesting that the payer
of the ransom is actually putting a value on the released hostage -- or even
necessarily inhabits the same moral universe as the hostage takers with whom he
or she is forced to negotiate.
Whether we call it a “prisoner
exchange” or a “ransom payment,” it was not only repugnant, but also worrisome.
Will this lead to increased terrorism? Will this embolden Israel’s enemies? I
hope to discuss some of the troubling questions raised by Gilad Shalit’s release
in shul on Shabbat morning, October 22. Please join us.
In the meantime, and for the moment –
and it may be only a short moment – the overwhelming emotion that I, at least,
feel, is that of relief and joy. The joy
is partial, but it is real. Knowing the
lack of respect for human life of Gilad Shalit’s captors, one can only be
enormously relieved that this one young and very frail man is no longer in their
custody. One can only, on this last day of Sukkot, our festival of
thanksgiving, be grateful and joyous that Gilad Shalit has rejoined his family
and can begin the undoubtedly painful and heartbreaking process of relearning
what it means to be free.
Yesterday morning, after he greeted
his son for the first time in over five years, Noam Shalit, Gilad’s father,
said that he and his wife have experienced the re-birth of their son. Indeed
they have. We all have. And, as we all know, every birth is a miracle.
Today, tomorrow, and the day
thereafter, we can all say, with greater kavannah (spiritual intention)
than usual, Baruch atah -- Blessed are You, … matir asurim – the
One who frees the unjustly imprisoned.
Rabbi Carl M. Perkins