Borderline Views: Post-Pessah thoughts on freedom

Encountering the Schalit family outside the Prime Minister’s residence on the night of the Seder really put things in perspective.

Schalit tent 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Schalit tent 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
It’s glib to talk and write about freedom at Pessah. We all did it last week in the days leading up to the festival and as part of the discussions around our Seder table. Freedom means different things to different people. My own column last week focused on a particular aspect of freedom, the threat to freedom of thought and academic freedom in contemporary Israel.
As the festival ends, it is all too easy to push the philosophical debates about freedom into the realm of the abstract as we get back into the routine of our daily lives.
But for some, the torment of physical freedom is a daily occurrence, ruling and governing their lives.
I was reminded of this when leaving the Great Synagogue in central Jerusalem on the first day of the festival, having spent the previous three hours enjoying the magnificent voice of Cantor Haim Adler in the comfort of the air conditioned, cushioned seats, of this palace of prayer. Upon our exit, we immediately encountered the hut of the Schalit family, whose son Gilad continues to be held hostage somewhere in Gaza, camped outside the Prime Minister’s residence. In one split second, it put everything into perspective.
The contrast could not be greater as hundreds of worshippers, dressed in their festival finery, encountered the Schalit family, informally dressed in t-shirts and jeans, exhausted from their never-ending vigil, and for whom a festival of freedom without their son is absolutely meaningless.
We are used to driving by the tent during the week, only ever really taking it in if the light is red and we are forced to stop for a few fleeting seconds. The physical meeting, on a day when no one is in a rush to go anywhere, is completely different.
It is difficult to wish Noam and Aviva Schalit a happy holiday. It seems such an inappropriate greeting for a family who, for almost five years, has lived in uncertainty and distress. The Schalits have become used to this weekly scene, as the passers -by offer a handshake, engage in a short conversation and express sympathy and concern but know that there is very little they can do in practical terms.
This year in particular, the meeting between the Schalit family and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu prior to the festival has been widely covered.
But the message is not encouraging. There is no ongoing negotiation; Israel claims that it has not received a response to its latest offers, made almost a year ago; the foreign mediators are inactive and there is little movement in any direction. Schalit’s grandfather issued a stinging criticism of the government, arguing that it was not doing enough to put an end to the situation, accusing Netanyahu of wanting nothing more than a photo op on the eve of the festival, to look good in the public eye.
But there is no logical reason to suppose that Netanyahu and his government are not doing their utmost, away from the intrusive eyes of the public and the media, to ensure the safe return of Gilad. I don’t have to be a supporter of this government to believe that the prime minister’s concern is sincere – it is an issue located way above the daily turmoil of politics and the differences between Right and Left, secular and religious.
There is not a single person in Israel who does not feel for the Schalit family and who does not want to see Gilad returned to them. Many of us are prepared, as in all past prisoner and hostage exchanges, for the price of his freedom to be disproportionate to the extent that no other country in the world would be prepared to pay it – in terms of both prisoner numbers and the nature of the crimes that some but by no means all) of the Palestinian prisoners have committed.
But neither can we ignore the very real dilemma that the Schalit case raises. The message for our soldiers and kidnapped civilians is that the state will not leave its prisoners abandoned in the field and that it will always do its utmost to rescue or release them. There may have been isolated cases where this has not happened, but with a perspective of 60 years of statehood, consecutive governments have done their utmost to return not only living prisoners, but even their bodies, in situations where most other countries would not have made the effort.
However, the price is not infinite. Consecutive governments have pursued many avenues to bring Schalit back but so far the price demanded by Hamas has been one which, in the eyes of the government, has been too high. There is a red line that, despite all our desire to see him released, cannot be crossed, and it is for the democratically elected government of Israel to determine just where that line is.
For the Schalit family, the discussion of freedom will not be conveniently forgotten as Pessah ends and as the many visitors to Jerusalem return to their homes until next year. They will continue to sit in their makeshift hut in central Jerusalem, until Gilad is released.
As concerned citizens, the most we can hope for is that, by the time we start thinking and philosophizing about freedom next Pessah, we will be able to walk through Jerusalem without encountering the Schalit family camped outside the Prime Minister’s residence, and that they aren’t there because they are sitting at home with their son, celebrating the festival of freedom as a reunited family.
The writer is Dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University and the editor of the International Journal of Geopolitics. The views expressed here are his alone.