The Israeli consensus is clear. The deal to free Corporal Gilad Schalit is bewildering: absurd, lopsided, heartbreaking, terrifying, as well as inspirational, humane, necessary, and ultimately rational. Much of the discussion has emphasized the Jewish and Zionist values shaping Israel’s commitment to every individual soldier. But these are Western democratic values too. Hollywood teaches that in moral democratic armies, soldiers sometimes sacrifice their lives to save comrades. In Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan,” most of Tom Hanks’ unit dies bringing home a soldier who lost all his brothers in battle. And “The Great Raid” tells the true story of soldiers in World War II’s final days, dying to free prisoners of war from the Bataan Death March, demonstrating that Americans never abandon imprisoned troops.
Here is one of the Schalit trade’s absurdities. Had soldiers died trying to free Gilad Schalit, the fallen soldiers’ families would have experienced more intense personal anguish, but Israeli citizens – and terror victims – would have endured less mass anguish. In 1975, Americans hailed the Mayaguez raid even though 18 Marines died saving 39 Merchant Marine hostages from Khmer Rouge Cambodian kidnappers. In 1994, Nachshon Wachsman’s death, along with the death of two soldiers in the failed rescue attempt, was terribly upsetting but not communally unsettling.
This bloodless deal bringing Schalit home with no casualties is unnerving because it violates the norms of international engagement. The exchange’s utter disproportionality, 1 = 1,027, feeds fears of equally disproportionate future costs. During the Cold War, American-Soviet prisoner exchanges were more balanced – Natan Sharansky was freed in a four for five deal.
Underlying this unease is the unhappy realization, once again, that for Israel the rules are different. Whereas, once, observers would have used this lopsided equation to say Arabs care about each prisoner only 0.00097371% as much as Israelis care about theirs, today it seems that critics only see Israel as 0.00097371% justified in using force. Israel is supposed to be the geopolitical equivalent of a monk, defying nature, overriding its protective impulse. Israel is always on probation, with its legitimacy contingent on good behavior and passive resistance, no matter how evil the instigation.
The world, it seems, wants a defenseless Jewish state. A defenseless Jewish state would not incarcerate the mass murderers at a Sbarro pizzeria or a Passover Seder. A defenseless Jewish state would not risk the lives of Egyptian soldiers, even if it meant not firing at Palestinian terrorist attackers. A defenseless Jewish state would not retaliate against the Hamas thugs ruling Gaza, even though their dictatorial control makes them responsible for the terrorists operating there. A defenseless Jewish state would not object to Mahmoud Abbas bypassing the compromises negotiations entail, seeking yet another biased, inflammatory UN declaration. A defenseless Jewish state would not inconvenience the Arab world’s Western appeasers.
A defenseless Jewish state, of course, would be an overrun Jewish state, but, these days, taking responsibility for the implications of your political posturing is passé.
A country’s right of self-defense is as basic as an individual’s right to be free. For nearly two millennia, Jews could not defend themselves. Centuries of oppression followed, resulting in the Holocaust in Europe, and, ultimately, mass expulsions from the Arab world. Yet in only doubting one country, Israel, when it defends itself, world opinion is reverting to the traditional status quo, trying to keep Jews defenseless.
As the leader of a mature democratic state which makes tough decisions and defends itself, Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu owes his citizens some straight talk. He and the Israeli leadership must stop lying and claiming that “Israel does not negotiate with terrorists.” Israel negotiates and caves in again and again. When states countenance dishonesty they lose credibility, be it with unenforced speeding laws, epidemic zoning violations, or repeatedly-crossed redlines. Israel needs a new doctrine, based on reality not on fantasy posturing.
Also, Netanyahu must explain the deal’s timing. The message he conveyed to Palestinians, yet again, is that Israel rewards violence like kidnapping but not peaceful, albeit obnoxious, diplomatic maneuvers. Netanyahu’s actions suggest he sees both Abbas and Hamas as equally extreme. If not, why boost the radicals having just stymied those reputed to be moderates at the UN? Finally, Netanyahu should call on President Barack Obama to explain, after Israel releases 1027 convicted terrorists, why can’t the United States, for goodwill, release Jonathan Pollard, who has served longer than any other spy ever convicted for espionage benefiting an American ally.
Hamas propagandists delude themselves that Israel’s sentimental attachment to Gilad Schlait, and every other citizen, indicates weakness. Dictators always underestimate the morale democracies draw from acting morally. Terrorists can kidnap, rocket, murder but they cannot kill ideas. They cannot kill the Zionist idea that the Jewish people deserve a state. They cannot kill the Western idea that nation-states like Israel are valid entities with rights to self-defense. And they cannot kill the Jewish idea of individual dignity which values every one of us, treating none as sacrificial pawns.
Israel draws strength from these powerful ideas. And these are the ideas embodied today in the young man with deepset eyes who endured five years of suffering, now enjoying his freedom.
Israelis have no choice but to continue defending themselves. A defenseless Jewish state is a dead Jewish state. This Jewish state, learning from history, aware of its responsibilities, will do what it takes to protect its citizens, be they sitting in cafes or held hostage by murderers. At the same time, this Jewish state will remember that seeking peace and living well are the best ways to repudiate the murderous rejectionists who refuse to accept Israel’s right to exist and mock its defining humane Jewish, Zionist, and Western values.
Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. The author of “Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” his latest book is “The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.” firstname.lastname@example.org