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Everyone’s Son

In opposing the mass release of terrorists in exchange for Gilad Shalit’s freedom, I felt as if I was betraying my own son

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A rally this summer marking the fifth anniversary Gilad Shalit’s capture. (David Buimovitch/AFP/Getty Images)
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Moving On

The movement to free Gilad Shalit, the long-captive IDF soldier soon coming home, was a necessary precursor to this summer’s protests in Israel

‘A Normal Family’

Yoel Shalit expresses relief and joy about his brother’s pending release, while Israelis mostly celebrate at the family’s Jerusalem encampment

For the last five years I have tried not to think of Gilad Shalit. I avoided the newspaper photographs of his first months as an Israel Defense Forces draftee, a boy playing soldier in an ill-fitting uniform. Sometimes, despite myself, I’d imagine him in a Gaza cellar, bound, perhaps wired with explosives to thwart a rescue attempt. And then I would force myself to turn away.

I tried not to think of Gilad because I felt guilty. Not only was I doing nothing to help the campaign to free him, I opposed its implicit demand that the Israeli government release as many terrorists as it takes to bring him home. Israel has no death penalty, and now we would lose the deterrence of prison: If the deal went through, any potential terrorist would know it was just a matter of time before he’d be freed in the next deal for the next kidnapped Israeli.

But the argument could never be so neatly resolved. Each side was affirming a profound Jewish value: ransom the kidnapped, resist blackmail. And so any position one took was undermined by angst. What would you do, campaign activists challenged opponents, if he were your son? “He’s everyone’s son,” sang rocker Aviv Gefen.

One day I passed a rally for Gilad in a park in downtown Jerusalem. Several counter-demonstrators were holding signs opposing surrender to terrorism. “I happen to agree with you,” I said to one of them. “But don’t you feel uneasy protesting against the Shalit family?”

“We’re not protesting against the Shalit family,” he replied. “We’re protesting to save future victims of freed terrorists. Those victims don’t have names yet. But they could be my son or your son.”

Every debate over Gilad ended at the same point: your son.

We never referred to him as “Shalit,” always “Gilad.” The Gilad dilemma set our parental responsibilities against our responsibilities as Israelis—one protective instinct against another. The prime minister’s job is to resist emotional pressure and ensure the nation’s security; a father’s job is to try to save his son, regardless of the consequences.

And so I tried, too, not to think of Gilad’s extraordinary parents, Noam and Aviva. Even when denouncing the government they spoke quietly, incapable of indignity. The best of Israel, as we say here, reminding ourselves that the best of Israel is the best of anywhere.

For more than a year the Shalits have lived in a tent near the prime minister’s office. When I walked nearby I would avoid the protest encampment, ashamed to be opposing the campaign. This past Israeli Independence Day, though, I saw a crowd gathered around the tent, and wandered over. “GILAD IS STILL ALIVE,” banners reminded: It’s not too late to save him. Inside the tent, Noam and Aviva were sitting with family and friends, singing the old Zionist songs. I wanted to shake Noam’s hand, tell him to be strong, but I resisted the urge. I didn’t deserve the privilege of comforting him.

I wanted to tell Noam what we shared. As it happens, my son served in the same tank unit as Gilad, two years after he was kidnapped. I wanted to tell Noam that that was the real reason I couldn’t bear thinking about his family. That in opposing the mass release of terrorists for Gilad, it was my son I was betraying.

Now, inevitably, the government has given in to the emotional pressure. Inevitably, because we all knew it would—must—end this way. A few months ago, as part of its psychological war against the Israeli public, Hamas released an animated film depicting Gilad as an elderly gray-haired man, still a prisoner in Gaza. No image tormented us more.

Still, there are few celebrations here today. Even those who supported the campaign to free Gilad must be sobered by the erosion of Israeli deterrence. And those who opposed the campaign are grieving for Gilad’s lost years. All of us share the same unspoken fear: In what condition will he be returned to us? What have these years done to him?

Hamas leaders are boasting of victory. If so, it is a victory of shame. Hamas is celebrating the release of symbols of “resistance,” not of human beings. Hamas’ victory is an expression of the Arab crisis. The Arab world’s challenge is to shift from a culture that sanctifies honor to a culture that sanctifies dignity. Honor is about pride; dignity is about human value. Hamas may have upheld its honor; but Israel affirmed the dignity of a solitary human life.

In recent months the campaign to free Gilad demanded that the government worsen conditions for convicted terrorists in Israeli jails, to psychologically pressure the Palestinian public. So long as Gilad was being held incommunicado, activists argued, Palestinian families should be barred from visiting their imprisoned sons. While Gilad’s youth was wasting away, terrorists shouldn’t be allowed to study for college degrees.

The government promised to oblige. But as it turned out, there were legal complications. A newspaper article the other day noted the results of the government’s get-tough policy: Imprisoned terrorists would no longer be provided with the Middle Eastern delicacy of stuffed vegetables.

How is it possible, Israelis ask themselves, that so-called progressives around the world champion Hamas and Hezbollah against the Jewish state? Perhaps it’s because we’re too complicated, too messy: a democracy that is also an occupier, a consumerist society living under a permanent death sentence. Perhaps those pure progressives fear a contagion of Israeli ambivalence.

For all my anxieties about the deal, I feel no ambivalence at this moment, only gratitude and relief. Gratitude that I live in a country whose hard leaders cannot resist the emotional pressure of a soldier’s parents. And relief that I no longer have to choose between the well-being of my country and the well-being of my son.

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peggy cidor says:

well down, Mr Klein Halevi.
I wouldn’t have been able to enunciate it better – thank you for saying it so well.
At the end of the day, and no matter how tough are our “neighbors” the most important issue remains who we are, how we act and react, and how decent we remain despite all.

The terrorists among the released prisoners will go back to doing what they do best: commit more acts of terrorism. Pray that your son is not among their next victims. I guess the politicians forgot the admonishment of Arie Ben Canaan in the movie “Exodus” about not getting hysterical over the life of one Jewish child. Are you in favor of capital punishment for terrorists?

Bill Pearlman says:

This situation would be rectified if Israel had the death penalty for terrorists. Samir Kuntar for one should have been dead within days after capture.

Blackmail washes, degenerates, and celebrates galore, and what is more, no doubt there is more of this patented policy idiocy galore in double sides of ready store. Checkmates and stagnates what is there to really celebrate? Let’s have a fine farce for 50 more fine years…three mules for sister Sarah and Budweiser beer.

For those who are unfamiliar how the Goebbels type propaganda of the leftist media works there is good example from BBC. In one sentence they changed the order of words to make a lie and to create completely different impression: ” There are about 6,000 Palestinians held by Israel – some of whom have been convicted of serious crimes, but others are being held without charge.” (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-15273206), instead of saying “There are about 6,000 Palestinians held by Israel – some of whom are being held without charge but majority of whom have been convicted of serious crimes.” Such propaganda trick intends to create an impression among naive and/or ignorant readers that Israel’s justice system is not better than it was in USSR and Nazi Germany and that majority of Palestinian prisoners are innocent people. Shame on BBC.

Penny Kanefield says:

I feel your words and compassion~Am Yisra’el Chai~

this well-reasoned piece reflects yossi’s characteristic honesty. it’s a pleasure to
read what he writes.

Richard Stark says:

Excellent article. “A Gut Gezook’t”
I am also of two minds on the issue. Israel used to have a strict policy of “We do not negotiate for the return of hostages”. The reasoning was that doing so only encouraged more hostage-taking. I still basically believe that that was the correct policy. But I do understand the conundrum. The only way to solve it is to shoot terrorists on the spot, instead of giving them a trial and prison sentence. Let the soldiers decide at the scene. But I know that will never happen.

Because of these deals…God forbid…we will go through this again, and again, and……….etc,

I believe the false premise to this article is that imprisonment is a deterrent. Terrorists and criminals act (a) spontaneously on impluse and/or (b)with the belief they will elude capture and/or (c) having already committed themselves to pay the price if caught. The deterrent makes sense to the non-criminal/terrorist, but I don’t think it matters to those people it is designed to deter.

Dick Mulliken says:

Thank you for a deeply moving reflection on a tortured issue. It led me to a related, if hypothetical dilemma: would I trade Marwan Barghouti for Pollard? As an American I am firmly committed to the belief that Pollard should serve his entire sentence, as required under the espionage act. The assault on America’s security and integrity is just too great to compromise about. Yet, while I am sure Barghouti has hands dipped in blood, I admire him as an exceptionally talented leader, who might be able to heal the rift among the Palestinians and prove to be the leader who might finally negotiate a two state solution. So, answering my own hypothetical,I think I would trade Pollard for Barghouti. Not that there is a chance of this, since America has no skin in either the Pollard or the Barghouti game.

Lynne T says:

Jules:

Please keep posting comments like the clever ones you have published on this thread. Maybe Tablet will see fit to start moderatating the comments.

Bill Pearlman says:

Jules is sorry he missed those good old days in the einzatsgruppen

The most depressing aspect of this whole affair is that nobody–and I mean nobody–is questioning the assumption that Israel’s only choices were either to surrender to blackmail or to grimly stand pat. In fact, during the 2008 Gaza campaign, rumors were rampant that the IDF would not leave without Gilad Shalit, that it would pound Hamas into surrendering him, however long it took. But nothing of the sort happened–Israel left after a few short weeks, having accomplished virtually nothing, let alone Shalit’s release. Presumably, the government was afraid of international condemnation–which came in droves anyway–and of further casualties–which will come soon enough, once 1000 more terrorists are busy plotting their operations.

The whole point of the state of Israel is to provide the Jewish people with a country capable of acting to protect its own. If it’s instead going to be a passive victim of terrorist kidnappers, wailing and gnashing its collective teeth before finally paying an exorbitant ransom, then it has failed at the very purpose of its existence.

Your original position was right and you have no reason to feel guilty. This exchange is bad for Israel. Nonetheless, if my son was kidnapped I would do anything to get him back, pressuring society, embarrassing the government, probably breaking the law and perhaps even kidnapping someone else to take his place. That doesn’t make it right for society to do what I want. We need to recognize that the needs of society often contradict the needs of some individuals. We need to understand and sympathize when those individuals take anti-social (in the literal sense) actions to advance their own needs, but we need to keep our society’s interest at heart when we make decisions that affect our society.

Bill Pearlman says:

Couldn’t agree more Dan. And I would also point at that if Samir Kuntar bashed in the head of a little Jewish girl in Texas, Florida, Alabama, etc. And was caught. He’d be long dead. In Israel, all you have to do is wait it out for the next 1000 to 1 exchange. Classes, family visits, red cross, and all the rest.

JamesPhiladelphia says:

I wonder how the Muslim people interpret this exchange of prisoners. One Jew for 1,000 Muslims. It must be devastating for self esteem, does it mean that six million Israeli Jews (subtracting the Israeli Arabs ) are equivalent to six billion Muslims? And there are only 1.5 billion Muslims today. I would feel if I was a Muslim devastated. They look around them and see a confirmation that their horrendous conditions of poverty, oppression, hatred, violence, fanaticism is only a confirmation that results into: 1 Israeli Jew = 1,000 Muslims . This is a fatal defeat to Hamas and all of the Islamic world. No rational human being can interpret this exchange differently.

Bill W says:

Excellent presentation of the great dilemma. As a father I acknowledge I wouldn’t have behaved any differently than Noam Shalit. As a pragmatist I am beyond fearful that 1000 terrorists are now released to perform the bidding of the hamas terrorist entity. All we can do is pray that at least some of those traded are too old, too sick, and too unwilling to engage in hamas directed wanton murder. I wish I did not believe that my last statement was horribly naive!

Of course, there are too many Israeli families of whom parents cannot lean on their sons & daughters for any support as Yossi was doing – because Arab terrorists already killed them.

Now, we face future deaths of sons & daughters.

Would Yossi join me in demonstrating in from of the Shalit home if, God- forbid, but is statistically inevitable, one of those freed will kill again?

Shalom Freedman says:

I largely share the sentiments expressed in this article.
But it does not make enough of one other truly painful , and difficult factor. What of the families of the victims? How do they feel seeing the murderers of their loved ones go free? This is another very large price being paid.
The Shalits are one family but there are hundreds of others who will suffer more because of this release. And this is not to speak of those in the future, who God forbid, may know loss because of this releasing of terrorists with much blood on their hands.

Michael says:

Your words ring so true. It has always been our dilemma to balance knowing how to fight in order to survive with retaining our humanity.

I have no idea if the release of these Palestinian prisoners will lead to a spike in terrorism, but I balance that uncertainty with the certainty that, in one form or another and at one time or another, the people that use terror as a weapon against us will strike again, and we, again, will be forced to seek our inner balance as we decide on our resultant course of action.

Perhaps our reality simply cannot be grasped by those abroad who constantly castigate us. At the same time, we must — as you so poignantly have — look into ourselves constantly and remain in touch with our own moral compasses.

I hope that many people, everywhere, have a chance to read your eloquent description of one aspect of our unusual reality.

Hershel (Heshy) Ginsburg says:

Israel’s conundrum on Shalit was best summarized by an Israeli radio commentator who observed that the confluence of two anniversaries during the next month best express Israel’s dilemma:

Sunday, 16 October is the 25th anniversary of IAF navigator Ron Arad’s being taken into captivity when his jet was shot down over Lebanon.

Friday, 11 November is the 50th anniversary of the publication of Joseph Heller’s classic novel, “Catch-22″.

hg

jzsnake says:

Great article.

Jehudah Ben-Israel says:

“…free Palestine.­..” some say.

In more than one way, such a country has been in existence for many decades. But to fully understand it, one must appreciate the legal-history of the evolving of the subject.

In the beginning of the 20th century the geographic region called “Palestine­” consisted of present day Jordan-Isr­ael-WestBa­nk-Gaza. And, on this basis the Balfour Declaratio­n was issued in 1917, calling for “Palestine­” to be the “national home for the Jewish people”.

The Balfour Declaratio­n was then incorporat­ed into the San Remo Conference decisions, 1920, the first truly legal document.

But, Britain that controlled the region, instead, handed over 78% of “Palestine­” to the Muslim-Ara­bs in which to establish an independen­t Muslim-Ara­b state there, that today is called Jordan.

The League of Nations, 1922, in its resolution of that year incorporat­ed the San Remo Conference decisions viewing, legally, the rest, 22% of the geographic region called “Palestine”, as “the national home for the Jewish people”, or the nation-sta­te of the Jewish people if you will, to use present day terminology.

The United Nations that replaced the League of Nations in 1945 adopted the League of Nations’s resolution­s, not to be changed, thus etching in the corpus called ‘internati­onal law’ the fact that the nation state of the Jewish people must include present day Israel-Wes­tBank-Gaza (22% of “Palestine­”) while the rest, (78% of “Palestine­”) now called Jordan is legally the independen­t Muslim-Ara­b country that some seek.

Bill Pearlman says:

When I saw who Israel was letting out it was truly amazing. If Hitler was in an Israeli cell it would only be until the next 1000/1 exchange.

excellent piece

I hear your ambivalance. I fear that we have played out our last card. Our sages teach that those who are too gentle with the cruel will in the end oppress the righteous. The kindest thing that the state could do would be to institute capital against terrorists.
By by buckling under to emotional pressure the Israeli government has endangered its citizenry.

Sharon B. says:

As a mother, I am thrilled for Gilad’s family, as a Jew, I am not so sure this was a wise move for Israel. At what price freedom! What will it really cost Israel in terms of safety? Only time will tell… Let’s pray that my doubts are for nought, for Israel’s sake and that of all Jews everywhere.

Robbie Sassover says:

God gave us a great gift: freedom of choice. that is an essential tenet of Judaism I learned as a child. The problem is that this gift has always been our greatest burden. Abraham: kill my son, or what? Spanish Jewry: convert, even covertly, or what? Even I, who as young yeshiva student had to decide on a daily basis whether or not to buy Drake’s delicious, albeit crappy, Coffee Cake Juniors, the kashrut of which had yet to be fully sanctioned. And Yossi Klein Halevy and the rest of Israel, who had to decide whether to watch their adopted son Gilad waste away or support an action that could well ultimately kill their biological sons. The expression, “It’s hard to be a Jew” is no cute Yiddishism, but has been a core theme in Jewish life ever since the day Jacob had to deal with the hairy truth that there may have been something not quite kosher about his tripping the birthright from Esau, his unpleasant, hirsute, yet technically deserving older brother.

Jews are always playing a version of “Let’s Make A Deal” that features two, not three doors. Behind one is always some sort of grace. Behind the other can and often has been a Zonk for the ages.

sillyrabbit says:

Israel must immediately end all prisoner perks. No TV, no cell phones, no visits from family, no special meals. That must happen regardless of the fact they have already gotten Gilad back. Next the death penalty must be given to any terrorist who successfully attacks. Life sentences for any terrorist support no matter how cursory.

Sherry gilman says:

Terrorists are murderers, murders are imprisoned in every country in the world, murderers serve their time and are eventually released back into society, every society experiencing murderous acts suffers from fear and could refer to this fear as a form of terrorism. Israel is holding an additional 5000 murderers in prison for which Hamas has claimed they will kidnap more soldiers to barter with. I believe we should release all of the murderers before Hamas acts, and before we spend any more tax money to fatten the murderers. It costs 1,000,000 shekels p/year per murderer with no help from other countries to cover this enormous expense. Release them, put them on a boat, send them out onto the sea, away from our beloved Israel and our people. Let their people rescue them, or let them float away to another land that criticizes Israel for her need to survive. Let our people, our soldiers be safe. There is an endless amount of murderers, Muslims total 1.5billion in the world and are a majority in 56 countries; Israel has to change the approach to this global, out-of-control problem.

Gianna says:

I’m related to an NGO and I visited Palestine and saw how badly you are beating them. Israel is illegal we all know. We want to save our beloved USA from clever jews. you are the only one who don’t want piece. We hate you and want to kick off you from our homeland USA.

Free Palestine for peace.

The subsequent time I read a blog, I hope that it doesnt disappoint me as much as this one. I mean, I know it was my choice to learn, but I really thought youd have one thing attention-grabbing to say. All I hear is a bunch of whining about one thing that you would fix in the event you werent too busy searching for attention.

the Motion in E.. MOTION. A story about compassion and compassionate truth.

It seems life exists in the gray area, and that issues of ethics, almost always enter this area and force us into the angst of weighting the consequences of our actions, the one way, or the other, that sway. We marshall our thoughts on both sides of the equation as in the taking and release of Gilad Shalit. Yet we, as Jews, do posit the Shema as our mantra. One God, One Peoples, and surely this must apply to not only us, but the entire world. What is wholly is also, holy. We believe that each one of us can, save the world, as if we act for the entirety, in the one.

And so I feel deeply, that what was done in the release of Gilad Shalit rings with this deepest truth, about mercy and merci, meaning Thanks, because one life is the universe, and the univers is ONE and one verse.

I see in Gilad the word GLAD in English, and I am so glad for his release to his parents, who love him, and I feel this is justice and not just ice. We must not forget those who go into conflict to keep us all safe, and whose deepest wish, no doubt, is that this should not happen, not ever, that there would be no need for wars, for the need to self-protect.

A noble deed offsets the mindset of another “side” that would take this and use it for worse, for more terrorism, as a kind of leverage. That is not about dignity, not about humane, but rather a lowering, and I think those among us who perceive life as precious, and this neverending conflict as wrong, would perceive that higher standard, that which was born, and is borne, in doing what was right, to save one life, the life of a young man, whose beating heart is very important to us, and should be, to the world. Because in a deep way, he IS the world.

and so I both understand the conflict with all its gray, but maintain, ethics here rose to a very high level, and we should be proud, of making such a decision, fraught and fought with such angst.

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Everyone’s Son

In opposing the mass release of terrorists in exchange for Gilad Shalit’s freedom, I felt as if I was betraying my own son

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