What should be done about Gilad Shalit?

When I visit the Knesset, I expect Knesset members on the right to express what are commonly seen as “right wing positions,” and Knesset members on the left to express “left wing positions.” Generally speaking, depending on the party of the person to whom I am speaking, I know what answers I will receive to my questions even before they are asked.


But not always. On a recent visit to the Knesset, when asking about the fate of Gilad Shalit, I found that the usual partisan divisions did not hold. Knesset members struggled with the issue and offered thoughts rooted more in personal pain than in party ideology. Clearly, Shalit has become - and rightly so - the child of us all; his suffering disturbs our sleep and challenges our assumptions. His fate is too important to become just another episode in the endless bickering between Israel’s major political camps.


Everyone wants Gilad home. Still, there is no escaping that no consensus has emerged about how best to bring him home. The people that I spoke to can be broadly divided into two categories: those who believe that the government of Israel is doing enough to return Shalit to his family, and those who believe that it is not. Both camps give considerable weight to how Israel’s future soldiers will judge her policies.


Those who support the government fear an exchange that, by releasing senior Hamas leaders or perpetrators of terrorism and permitting them to return to the West Bank, will lead in the future to the deaths of innocent civilians and to the kidnapping of additional soldiers. If in ending the anguish of Gilad and his family we inflict a similar anguish on other Israeli soldiers and families, how would we explain this to citizens of Israel whose children are kidnapped next time? Those who ask the government to do more recognize its dilemma but ask if the future dangers have been exaggerated and the current suffering has been minimized. And how, they ask, will future soldiers feel about a government that fails to do everything necessary to bring soldiers home from captivity? 


The Torah offers guidance, of course, but not in a decisive way. The Talmud sees the redemption of captives as a mitzvah of overriding importance (Bava Batra 8b). Nonetheless, it acknowledges that paying too high a price is to be avoided so as not to encourage the seizing of more hostages (Gittin 45a). The discussion of the rabbinic sages is extensive and the matter is complicated, but each side can claim support from the tradition.


What is the role of American Jews? To remind the world at every opportunity of Hamas’ utterly inexcusable inhumanity in this case; to press our own government for assistance; to make use of our ties with friendly governments to keep this issue on the agenda and in the consciousness of the world community. And what do we say to Israel’s government? This is an excruciatingly difficult matter, and one for you to decide.