Tears for Gilad Shalit and Israel

October 19, 2011 by

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First appeared in Jewish People, Jewish Texts, Jewish Homeland.
Jonathan Boyd is the Executive Director of the Institute for Jewish Policy Research

Sometimes it is just too hard to hold back the tears. Like during the unetaneh tokef of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur when contemplating the simple words “who will live and who will die; who at their predestined time and who not at their predestined time” and trying to come to terms with our extraordinary vulnerability. Or while singing hayom harat olam after hearing the blasts of the shofar on Rosh Hashana – “today is the day of the world’s creation” – and trying to behold just how beautiful our world can sometimes be. Or when watching our young children’s sheer delight on entering the sukkah for the first time and seeing the world for an all too brief moment through their eyes.

And then there is Gilad Shalit’s release. It’s impossible to imagine what he has endured for the past five years and four months since his capture. It seems that he was treated well and has returned in good physical health, but the psychological scars inflicted by living in near solitary confinement and in the knowledge that his life hung in the balance every single moment are just too much to contemplate. What his parents must have been through too is simply unimaginable – to have your own child taken away from you in that way and to live with the constant possibility of tragic news is too horrendous for words. I could not hold back the tears this morning upon hearing the news that he had been safely released; I have never met him or any members of his family, but the relief and gratitude I feel upon his return overwhelms every other emotion. Gilad Shalit is free.

I am aware, of course, that there is another side to his release. 1,027 Palestinian prisoners are also being released, over one hundred of whom are hard core militants. Amongst them include the perpetrator of the Park Hotel bombing in Netanya, who was given 29 life sentences for his despicable crime, as well as many others who contributed to similar atrocities. The tears shed by the friends and families of the victims of these attacks are immeasurable. Not surprisingly, the details of those being released and the 1027:1 ratio has been the cause of much debate and considerable anger in Israel. There can be no doubt whatsoever that the risks involved in this deal are huge; it seems not only likely but probable that Israelis will lose their lives as a result of it. And this is not an isolated incident; Haaretz journalist Bradley Burston notes that the overall ratio in these prisoner exchange deals now stands at 13,509:16.

I have watched the debate from the sidelines for the past week, partly in the media and partly via friends’ postings on Facebook. And amidst all the relief, the anger, the joy, the vengefulness and the often sickening way in which people engage with one another online, I am struck most by the casual nature of discourse about “us” and “them” and “life” and “death”. Some have chosen to quote Hasan Nasrallah’s infamous line – “the Jews love life and we love death” as proof text of the inhumanity of “them”. A dialogue included the insight that whereas “life is cheap for them”, “life is dear to us”. One person almost gleefully noted that even Hamas agrees that 1000 terrorists = 1 Israeli life. Another called for a law to be made now: “for every Israeli kidnapped, we will execute 1,000 terrorists”.

Many have called for the death penalty to be instituted in Israel for terrorist acts. And arguably the quote of the week comes from former IDF Chief Rabbi Avihai Rontzki who stated the terrorists like those who killed members of the Fogel family “should just be shot, exterminated. They were terrorists that murdered people and should be killed in their beds”. If this is the voice of a Jewish moral authority deserving the title “Chief Rabbi” of anything, then I cry tears of despair for Israel’s future that vastly outweigh any emotions I feel for Gilad Shalit and his family.

There is a culture of death that exists in parts of Islam and the Arab world. It is not all pervasive, it is held only by a small minority, but it is there. There is no question about that. But there is an imperative that sits at the heart of Judaism that holds the opposite position that should be repeated and repeated and repeated again: “I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life, that both you and your seed may live.” We cannot change others; only they can do that. But we can live up to the core principles of Judaism – that life trumps death. Every time, in every instance.

I don’t deny for one minute the difficulties that entails sometimes. “Choose life that both you and your seed may live” is not always a simple proposition. But we choose life. That is who we are. We don’t kill people in their beds. We don’t indiscriminately kill 1,000 people, irrespective of who they are and what they have done. And we don’t institute the death penalty. Why? Because we choose life. Every time, in every instance.

If we struggle to hold back the tears of joy we feel on seeing the sheer delight of our own children at play, if we struggle to hold back the tears of anguish we feel as we contemplate the enormity of the words of unetaneh tokef and the vulnerability of our lives, if we struggle to hold back the tears of relief we feel on seeing Gilad Shalit returned to his family, we have no right to deny others the opportunity to shed similar tears. Indeed, we have a responsibility to ensure that our belief in life compels us to guarantee those rights at all times, not just for us, but for all humanity.

In the first interview with Gilad Shalit after his release, he said he missed three things during his captivity – family, friends and freedom. When push comes to shove, they are all that matter. May his release cause us to renew our commitment to ensure that all people – Israelis, Palestinians, and all humanity – are entitled and able to live their lives with these three immeasurable gifts that were denied to him for so long.

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