First Word: Between two dilemmas

What does a nation held hostage owe a capured soldier?

jp.services2 (photo credit: )
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We all know what a dilemma is. A short dictionary definition sees it as a situation requiring a choice between two evils. More applicable to our particular situation is the following: We are ensnared by a dilemma when our enemies force us to choose between one of two alternatives equally unfavorable to us. Our ongoing contemporary predicament regarding pidyon shvuyim - "ransoming of captives"- is different from the classic cases reported in rabbinic and medieval sources. In those reported instances, it was generally presumed and proven that giving agreed-upon amounts of money to the captors would indeed "redeem" the captives. And the sacredness of a single human life as a cherished Jewish value overrode all other considerations - even though we have the well-known example of the great Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg, who forbade Jews to ransom him for fear that it would become a tempting precedent for future kidnappers. OUR SITUATION is different in at least two respects. The first is that our enemies - as they have done in the past - insist upon trading in satanic currency. We are expected to release from imprisonment hundreds or perhaps 1,000 terrorists, in effect letting loose upon our society again and again actual and potential murderers. Only then will we be able to bring our young soldier home. Israel has given in to this policy - more or less - in the past, e.g. the Jibril trade, the murky Tannenbaum case, the Hizbullah negotiations. I use the phrase "more or less" to allude to the tragic case of the Munich athletes and the then prime minister Golda Meir's ostensible refusal to negotiate and to the triumphal Entebbe rescue, where notwithstanding the "few" deaths, there was no giving in to the kidnappers. At Entebbe, the risk to life involved in executing such a rescue did not deter those responsible from making the attempt. Granted, because of the large number of hostages involved, it might be argued that the attempt was worth the risk whatever the possible cost. But we assume that risks would be taken to save even a single soldier such as Cpl. Gilad Shalit. This would be true not only because of the already mentioned Jewish value of the sacredness of a single life. Of equal sanctity would be the moral-psychological value indispensable to an Israeli soldier's morale - the knowledge that should he be captured he will never be abandoned or forgotten by his comrades-in-arms, his government and his people. WITH HOPES and prayers that Shalit's life can be saved by whatever strategy "works," we ordinary Israelis should also hope and pray that the dilemma undergirding all considerations of strategy may be resolved without paying too exorbitant a price. But measuring the acceptability of the price brings us to the second difference between the existential situation in which the State of Israel finds itself and the circumstances surrounding the "ransoming of captives" in former times, when the Jewish people were living in "galut-exile." The State of Israel as the contemporary embodiment of Jewish peoplehood and destiny has been faced with a second and larger, more critical dilemma ever since its creation in 1948. Threats to our existence as a Jewish state have never ceased, with accompanying wars and terrorist attacks killing us, maiming us, bleeding us. That the latest round, beginning in 2000, has been plaguing us in various forms at a time when we are allegedly stronger militarily, economically and demographically than ever before only sharpens the horns of this second, larger dilemma. We are apparently holding back from destroying the terrorist network in Gaza and the West Bank even though we insist that we have the capability to do so. Why? It must be, one assumes, because a regional escalation might take place which would be unacceptable to the US and the European Union, and we are dependent upon their good will economically, diplomatically and militarily. This means that our sovereignty has limitations. And here, therefore, is the second and larger dilemma. But what this also means is that all of us are hostages! CERTAINLY THE people of Sderot are hostages when their lives are threatened daily by terrorists sworn to kill Israelis and Jews any way they can. And before Sderot it has been any number of other places in Israel and outside Israel - wherever Jews find themselves. What we are in fact telling the people of Sderot - and ourselves - is that we are hostages, forced into hanging on to the horns of our larger dilemma. We have the power to destroy the terrorists - certainly in our neighborhood - but we cannot unleash that power because of "other considerations." Thus, our government is constrained from taking decisive action to destroy the terrorist cells and to prevent the massive smuggling of arms through the Egyptian-Gaza border. Our chief of General Staff quotes the classic moral justification for preemptive acts of self-defense: Haba l'hargakh hashkem v'hargehu - "Rise and kill first those who are coming to kill you!" We all know that he has at least two examples where the government of Israel did in fact act in anticipatory self-defense: destroying the Osirak reactor in 1981 and attacking Egyptian airfields on June 5, 1967. It may be argued, of course, that the Egyptians started the Six Day War in any case by blocking the Straits of Tiran. It may be similarly argued that the Palestinians have been starting and restarting the terrorist war for 40 years - or is it 100 years? WHY THEN should it be a dilemma? Menachem Begin didn't ask Washington for permission to bomb Saddam's nuclear reactor, nor did Levi Eshkol ask Lyndon Johnson for the go-ahead in 1967. At those two junctures in our contemporary history, Israel resolved its security dilemmas by acting decisively. Yet we seem to have accepted this larger dilemma as a permanent given. We have the power to defeat Palestinian terrorism, but for prudential international reasons we tolerate the terror "on a low burner." Is this acceptable? Should we allow it to be acceptable, if we have the power to eliminate it? Unless the larger dilemma has another basis entirely - namely, the dogged refusal of our current government to admit that the Oslo-Palestinian state-disengagement strategy is moribund. The Palestinians are not ready for statehood. They will be ready when they've abjured terror and accepted de facto, de jure, religiously, culturally and educationally that a Jewish state in the Land of Israel is as legitimate as any Arab state in the Middle East. In the meantime, they can be helped - if they wish in good faith to be helped - to achieve greater and greater economic and political maturity and autonomy. If they refuse to become politically mature, they are condemning themselves to permanent hopelessness. Dilemmas by definition have no satisfactory solution. They can be resolved, however, assuming one has moral conviction. In the case of the first dilemma, the Jewish way, the Israeli way, the moral way is to get Cpl. Shalit home safely any way we can. In the case of the second larger dilemma, let's remember what historian Paul Johnson said regarding the experience of the 20th century: "…self-imposed restraints by a civilized power are worse than useless. They are seen by friend and enemy alike as evidence not of humanity but of guilt, and of a lack of moral conviction." The writer is rabbi emeritus of Moreshet Yisrael, a Masorti congregation in Jerusalem.