Gilad Shalit: A New Beginning, An Old Dilemma
Sermon, Shabbat Bereshit 5772
VaYehi Erev, VaYehi Voker, There was evening, there was morning. With these opening words of Genesis our tradition signals that our conception of time is unique. For most cultures, dawn marks the beginning of a new day, but for us, each day begins with night. Each Friday night, our ritual begins with the kindling of lights marking the beginning of Shabbat. Jewish history is well acquainted with the night: the darkness of oppression and the callous slaughter of our people have plagued so many chapters during our collective journey through the centuries.
VaYehi Erev --For Gilad Shalit, the dark night lasted over five years.On June 25, 2006, Gilad Shalit was kidnapped by Hamas terrorists from within Israeli territory and taken to the Gaza Strip. The kidnapping was part of an unprovoked attack by seven armed terrorists using a tunnel dug under the Israel-Gaza border. Gilad was 19 at the time of his abduction. During the course of the attack, two IDF soldiers, Pavel Slutzker and Hanan Barak, were killed, while five others were wounded. For the past five years, Hamas denied Gilad his most basic humanitarian rights, including access to the Red Cross.
VaYehi Voker--On Tuesday, October 18, the dawn finally broke for Gilad Shalit as he was released from captivity to make his way home. After 1,941 nights and 1,941 days in a dark pit, Gilad found his way to the morning light. What a day that was for our people, for our Jewish State, for all people of conscience and decency. Unforgettable.
Our first glimpse of Gilad Shalit was incredibly emotional as wewatched this gaunt, frail, exceedingly pale young soldier salute Prime Minister Netanyahu and then embrace his father on internationaltelevision. It was hard not to compare him to the well-fed seemingly healthy Palestinian prisoners who had been treated so humanely in comparison.
It was also hard not to wonder what took so long. The deal has been more or less on the table for several years. Was it that both sideswere ready to finally get this done? Many have suggested that Hamasand the Netanyahu government made very shrewd political calculationswhich closed the deal. The exchange appears to have undermined thestanding of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, leader of themore-moderate Fatah, while raising the profile of Hamas, whichnegotiated the exchange through Egyptian intermediaries. Surelypolitics were a part of the deal as Hamas' popularity and Netanyahu'shave risen dramatically in recent days, but the negotiation for GiladShalit's freedom goes far deeper.
Not all Israelis believe that the exchange rate was smart. One Gilad Shalit for 1027 Palestinian prisoners--that's an outrageously lopsided equation. But still 79% of Israelis supported the swap with just 14% opposed.
The cabinet vote was not unanimous. Three prominent ministers opposed the deal: the Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, Infrastructure Minister Uzi Landau and the Deputy Prime Minister Moshe Yaalon. Thispast July, I had the opportunity as the incoming President of the URJ to meet privately with the Deputy Prime Minister Moshe Yaalon in his office. He is a no-nonsense man who carries an enormous responsibility. He is the person Netanyahu trusts to set security policy for the government. Yaalon's vote against the deal expressed his belief that the Israeli government should not negotiate with terrorists. Last week, Prime Minister Netanyahu broke with that longstanding Israeli position.
Maybe we haven't fully understood who those 1027 Palestinian prisoners are. Among those released by Israel are Muaz Abusreikh and Fadi Ju'aba of Hebron, who in 2003 sent a suicide bomber into Haifa, where he blew up a bus, murdering seventeen; Amana Muna, a young Palestinian woman, who in 2001 lured, through the internet, a16-year-old Israeli, Ophir Rahum, to meet her in the West Bank town of Ramallah, where her friends killed him; Ahmed Duglas, the head of the Hamas network that caused the horrific carnage in Jerusalem's Sbarro restaurant in 2001, in which fifteen died. Altogether, it has been calculated, the Palestinians to be released killed 588 Israelis, almost all of them civilians.
Given the painful, blood-soaked chapters of Jewish history, it is not surprising that the sages of the Babylonian Talmud faced the question of ransoming captives over fifteen hundred years ago.
In tractate Gittin, the Talmud declares "one may not ransom captives more than their value for the benefit of society." (Gittin 45a) The key question the Talmud explores is what is meant by "for the benefit of society." The text offers two interpretations:
One fears that by giving in to captors, the community will be impoverished by having to pay exorbitant ransoms in the future. The other concern is that redeeming a captive will encourage the capturingof more people down the road.
These concerns were more than theoretical. One of the greatest rabbis of the 13th Century, Rabbi Meir of Rottenburg, was himself taken captive in Lombardy. The Jewish community raised an enormous ransom. He issued a responsum, based on the text just cited, concluding it was forbidden to pay such a ransom, and as a result lived out the remaining seven years of his life in captivity.
Those wise sages seem to have understood our fears as well. Jewishlaw argues persuasively that we should not pay outrageous ransoms to redeem captives. But that's exactly what the State of Israel just did.
To put it plainly, the deal with Hamas to free Gilad Shalit makes no rational or Talmudic sense. This decision will likely lead to more bloodshed and more abductions of Israelis. Akram Abdullah Kassem, oneof the prisoners released in Gaza, spoke for most of his fellow Palestinian prisoners when he said, "I'm demanding to the resistance not to spare any effort to kidnap more soldiers."
It's worth considering how Israel handled similar cases in the past. In 1985, the Jewish State had to decide whether to return 1,150 Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners in exchange for the release of three Israeli soldiers.
Rabbi David Ellenson, the President of the HUC-JIR and a scholar of contemporary responsa, especially those of the Israeli chief rabbis,offered analysis of this case, contrasting the positions of two prominent rabbis, Shlomo Goren and Haim David Halevi - who addressed the so-called Jibril agreement of 1985.
Rabbi Goren, in an article written on May 31, 1985, stated that Jewish law absolutely forbade the Israeli government from redeeming"our captive soldiers in exchange for 1,150 terrorists," and based his ruling on the Talmudic passage from Gittin 45a. Rabbi Goren emphasized his great distress at the personal plight of these captives -they were surely in "mortal danger." However, he still insisted that the state should not redeem them, as an exchange for the release of known terrorists bent on the destruction of Israel and its Jewish population surely would imperil all Israeli citizens and only fuel Arab attempts to capture more Jews in the future. The price exacted from Israel through the release of these terrorists was simply too steep for the state to afford.
Rabbi Halevi disagreed with Rabbi Goren's ruling arguing that unlike Talmudic times the modern State of Israel faces terrorist threats regardless of whether prisoners are released in exchange for Israeli soldiers.
It is worth noting who went free in the 1985 Jibril agreement. Among the prisoners released by Israel were Kozo Okamoto - one of the perpetrators of the Lod Airport Massacre who had been sentenced to life imprisonment, and Ahmed Yassin--a Gazan Muslim Brotherhood leader who went on to become the spiritual leader of Hamas.
While we can hope that Shalit's release will usher in a new time of peace and harmony, history and Halachatell us we are deceiving ourselves. It is likely that many of theterrorists released this week will murder innocent Israelis at somepoint in the future.
Israeli journalist Ari Shavit believes that the deal that Israel madeto secure Gilad Shalit's release poses a grave danger going forward. He frames the dilemma with two Israeli soldiers. The first is Yoni Netanyahu, the late brother of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who died bravely commanding the rescue of the Jewish hostages in Entebbe, the second is Gilad Shalit. (Haaretz Oct. 19, 2011)
Shavit hopes that there won't be another Shalit deal believing that Israel should behave like Australia, Great Britain and the United States.
There are so many powerful arguments to oppose the deal to release Gilad Shalit, but I disagree with them. I believe Israel did the right thingin making this deal. How many of us know the name Bowe Bergdahl? My guess is that few of us have any idea who he is. Bowe Bergdahl is a Sergeant in the United States Army who was captured in Afghanistan in 2009. He is believed to still be alive and in enemy captivity. The Haqqani Network,the militant group holding Bergdahl, regularly releases propaganda videos featuring the 25-year-old soldier, who looks increasingly haggard and frightened. U.S. soldiers like Sgt. Bergdahl are largely invisible here at home. The White House and Pentagon rarely mention him and have made clear that they won't consider paying ransoms or freeing prisoners in exchange for their release, as Israel has done.
So why do Americans not know Bowe Bergdahl and yet every single Israeli has known about Gilad Shalit for years? Do Israelis have a higher regard for human life than Americans? Hardly. Is it because Gilad Shalit's parents love their son more than Bowe's? I doubt it. Then what is going on?
The case of Gilad Shalit brought out the best in Israelis. In June of 2010, the Shalit family led a 12-day march from their home in the north of Israel to the Prime Minister's residence in Jerusalem. Hundreds of thousands of Israelis joined in at least part of the march to free Gilad Shalit. The march concluded in Jerusalem with a massive rally in Gan Ha'atzmaut. I was there. And what was amazing is that Israelis from across the political spectrum stood together in solidarity. I stood next to Israelis from the left and the right but somehow that's not what mattered; this young man mattered.
In Israel he became known simply as Gilad, his parents are Noam and Aviva to all. When I met with Noam last July at the Knesset, I was amazed at how his family had become a part of all of ours. Noam and Aviva's son was our son. Our hearts were bound up with theirs.
This Gilad Shalit deal makes no rational sense and yet our hearts tell us it is the right thing no matter what this deal spawns in the future.
My colleague Rabbi Avi Weiss shared a conversation he had with his grandson who lives in Israel whose name happens also to be Gilad. Avi's grandson will soon be enlisting in the Israeli Army. When Gilad Shalit's release was announced, Rabbi Weiss's grandson told him, "Just remember, Sabi, I'm not worth a thousand." There was silence on the line. Rabbi Weiss continued, "Tears streaming down my cheeks, I found it difficult to speak. Finally, when I could, this hardened activist, who years back argued exchanges should not take place but now feels differently, lovingly responded, 'Gilad, you're right, you're not worth a thousand; You're worth at least a million."'
VaYehi Erev, VaYehi Boker, There was evening, there was morning. Gilad is free and yes, it brings with it significant risk. But more importantly, for the first time in years, Israelis of all political stripes, even those who have opposed the deal are bound together in pride and love, that "their" Gilad made it home alive. And even Jews around the world who don't always feel so connected and responsible for the Jewish State feel a deep bond with the Shalit family and the people of Israel. That is not a small thing; that is what all of us who love Israel have been working so hard to achieve.
We may be the People of the Book, and we may love to use our intellect, but not in this case. In the case of Gilad Shalit, we let our hearts lead us to this impossible deal that unites our people from the four corners of the earth.