In Israel it is natural for everyone from political leaders to construction workers to elementary school students to become engrossed in the fate of a young soldier taken captive. His name and face are known by all, and he is the object of national prayer.
It is not so natural elsewhere. How many American third graders, or their parents, have ever talked about Bowe Bergdahl, an American soldier held captive by the Taliban since 2009?
Yes, Israel is different. There is something exquisite and unique about the Jewish soul that has us imagining each Jewish child, and each parent’s pain, as our own.
And yet, in this generation, as in previous generations, the exquisite Jewish intimacy gives way to that excruciating moment, a Sophie’s Choice, so to speak: Will we save this “child,” Gilad Shalit, or that child, name yet unknown, who might die in a future terrorist attack at the hands of one of the 1,027 prisoners Israel is releasing for Shalit’s return? Or perhaps be captured and held in unbearable isolation for 1,940 days while awaiting the freedom of another thousand terrorists as ransom?
Some say the Shalit negotiations might lead to peace negotiations, presuming that the Palestinian leaders who acquiesced in the cruel imprisonment of Shalit desire peace as much as they desired the release of a thousand terrorists in his stead. We would like to think so, but history tells us otherwise.
None of this is new, of course. Since the 1950s, more than 13,509 Palestinian and Israeli Arab prisoners have been released in exchange for 16 Israelis. Somehow the international voices that couldn’t bear the “disproportionate” Israeli response in wartime aren’t as vocal when it comes to the disproportionate demands of 13,509 for 16.
Disproportionate, too, were the many Jewish voices who have protested conditions under which al Qaeda prisoners are held at Guantanamo, without having made any comparable protest on behalf of Shalit’s imprisonment, vastly harsher by any measure, with torture not only for Shalit but for his parents via ghoulish videos and animated films whose only intent was to reach into the Shalit home and taunt and haunt even there.
It is a war crime to act as Hamas has, holding a prisoner for ransom, but the world is silent on that score.
As Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu noted upon the release of Shalit, the first Shabbat of his freedom will find synagogues reading a haftorah from Isaiah, with God’s promise “to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon.”
If even at a wedding we break a glass as a nod to the tragedies that have befallen our people, then while celebrating Shalit’s release let us remember his two brothers-in-arms who were murdered while he was being seized: Lt. Hanan Barak and Sgt. Pavel Slutzker, who will never be coming home. And let us remember those Israeli soldiers captured or missing in action, for whom we still pray: Staff Sgts. Zecharya Baumel, Zvi Feldman and Yehuda Katz (missing since June 11, 1982); Major Ron Arad (captured Oct. 16, 1986); and Guy Hever (missing since Aug. 17, 1997).
It is a cruel enemy, indeed, that allows loved ones to wait a lifetime to hear news of their son, husband, father, brother. We join all Israel in the hope that this act to bring home one of its own will not result in the death of other innocents. It was a noble, compassionate and tender act; only time will tell if it was the right one.
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