Sunday, October 16, 2011


It was barely two weeks ago when I heard my daughter, Hannah, mention the name of Gilad Shalit. As she was leading the Reform High Holiday services at the University of Maryland, Hannah took a moment away from the traditional prayers to remind us all about the horrible ordeal suffered by Shalit, an Israeli soldier, at the hands of his Hamas captors. Hannah implored us to pray for Shalit’s release, and I doubt there was a soul around who didn’t join her. For five years, Shalit has been forced to live in captivity. He was seized when he was just a teenager, and during the last several years, Hamas has refused to permit the International Committee of the Red Cross to visit Shalit to evaluate his living conditions. It is difficult to know whether or not Shalit’s situation would measure up to the Bush Administration’s view of “torture,” but there has certainly been no objective reason to believe he has been treated humanely. This is, after all, Hamas we’re talking about. The words “humane” and “Hamas” have in common the same first letter, but other than that, I don’t see any common ground whatsoever.

Suffice it to say that my view of Hamas is widely shared in Israel, and it is largely for that reason that the case of Gilad Shalit has garnered such publicity there since the time of his kidnapping. Shalit has become a national symbol – a symbol for the innocence of the Israeli people, who the Left sees as militarists and occupiers but who see themselves as a peace loving society surrounded by unfriendly, and sometimes savage, neighbors and morally entitled to behave in self-defense. Gilad Shalit is truly the picture of innocence: a baby-faced 19-year old boy when he was kidnapped, Gilad did not score high on the Israeli army physical fitness tests, but he nevertheless volunteered to serve in a combat unit. Therein lies one of the ultimate tragedies of war – that it claims some of our most noble, giving souls. The Israeli people are well aware of that fact, and they have been determined to ensure that this war would not claim the soul, or the body, of Gilad Shalit.

Shalit has had to wait nearly two thousand days before he could be freed. Fortunately for him, he will only have to wait two days more. This coming Tuesday, Hamas will return Shalit to his loving family in Israel, and in return, Israel will free not one, not one hundred, not one thousand, but 1,027 Palestinian political prisoners. The swap will be eerily reminiscent of an earlier deal – one procured by Shimon Perez in 1985 in which 1,150 Palestinian prisoners were freed in exchange for three Israeli soldiers captured during the Lebanon war. The 1985 swap resulted in the first Intifada and an incredible amount of bloodshed. One wonders what exactly will be the result of this deal – other than incredible joy for the Shalit household and a surge in Hamas’ popularity among the Palestinians.

Let’s be clear that we can all rejoice that Shalit will be free. As birds-in-the-hand go, this is a big one. But I still have many questions for the Israeli Government. The following come immediately to mind: If these 1,027 political prisoners have truly belonged in Israeli prisons, aren’t you saying that they are legitimate threats to the lives of the Israeli people (as well as visitors like my daughter Hannah, who hopes to attend rabbinical school in Israel)? Doesn’t it mean that as soon as they are freed, they collectively can be expected to slaughter dozens or even hundreds of Israelis – bringing the same kind of grief on their families as has been endured by the Shalit family these past five years? By contrast, if these released prisoners don’t pose a threat to the lives of innocent Israelis, why the hell were they imprisoned in the first place? Were they rounded up based on the shakiest of evidence? Is that why Israel is so willing to let them go – because they never should have been imprisoned to begin with? And aren’t you sending the worst possible message to Hamas -- if you’re able to capture one of our citizens, you’ll be amply rewarded?

This is a deal that puts “Empathic Rationalism” to the test. From the standpoint of empathy, it’s a big winner. But rationally, this deal just doesn’t make sense. From Israel’s standpoint, Tuesday’s swap is the kind of event we’d associate with a Jimmy Carter, not a Benjamin Netanyahu, which makes this even more puzzling. I realize that the “Free Gilad” cause is a compelling one, but so is keeping Israel secure from terrorism. If history is any guide, Tuesday’s swap will open the door to freedom for many criminals and death to many innocents. To me, it’s a major head shaker.

This prisoner swap reminds me of one of those classic philosophical dilemmas that ethics students learn about in college. You are given scenarios like the following: Ten men on a boat have swallowed a poison, and they learn that they will die unless they are given an antidote. There’s enough of the antidote around to save nine of the men. But as for the tenth, for him to survive, he would need to consume all of the antidote that is available. So here’s the dilemma – is it appropriate to provide the antidote so as to save the nine lives and allow the tenth to die, or should the ten men draw lots so that the tenth man is given the same chance that each of the others has to live?

When I first heard that dilemma, it was raised by a philosophy professor who had published an article proposing that the men on the boat should draw lots. That, he said, is the only “fair” outcome – all these people must have an equal chance to live. Period. Personally, though, I thought the professor was crazy. At the risk of seemingly overly utilitarian, I couldn’t imagine how one life could possibly be equated in importance to nine. And I would like to imagine that if I were on that boat, I would have gladly given up my life if it meant saving the other nine.

That brings me back to Gilad Shalit. Right now, the deal is being widely hailed. “The end of a national nightmare,” “the return of a national hero,” “a time to rejoice” … Yes, it is all that and more. But we seem to be forgetting that maybe, just maybe, these 1,027 Palestinian prisoners were in captivity for a reason. Just maybe, the Israeli prisons have been filled with Palestinians who have demonstrated a passion for killing Israelis who are every bit as innocent as Gilad Shalit. And maybe, when these political prisoners are freed, they will wreak vengeance on the country that they have surely learned to hate even more as a result of their own captivity. If that happens on a large enough scale, I cannot imagine the Shalit family will believe that the release of Gilad was worth it.

Despite what my philosophy professor said, I still think that “numbers count.” That’s why the Shalit deal doesn’t add up.

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