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The Shalit Redemption and the Changing Social Contract

October 24, 2011 – 5:45 pm24 Comments

Gilad Shalit seemingly being coerced into the now infamous Egyptian TV interview

By Geoff Bloch
Now that the euphoria and relief at the redemption of Gilad Shalit has begun to subside, it is time to appraise the deal with our heads rather than with our hearts.

Some wonderful and positive things have emerged from the prisoner swap. A precious soldier’s life has been spared. The anxiety and suffering of his family, friends and indeed the wider Jewish community have at last been relieved. Israel’s affirmation of the sanctity of human life stands as a shining beacon in a dark ocean of tyranny and brutality. Israel has reaffirmed its pledge to every Israeli family that every effort will be made to rescue or redeem captured soldiers. And at long last, Israelis have been united in joy and celebration.

But just as surely, most Jews understand the obvious dangers inherent in a deal which required the release of over one thousand convicted Palestinian terrorists and criminals, including despicable serial murderers, for one Israeli soldier. First and foremost, the deal has not yet been fully paid for by Israel, because more innocent Jewish lives will be lost when the recidivists or those inspired, trained or encouraged by them, return to murder and maim or kidnap other Israeli soldiers. By capitulating to terrorists, the future cost of meeting their unreasonable demands has been driven to new heights. In Israel’s zeal to save the life of Gilad Shalit, she has tragically condemned others to die. And to all this must be added the unimaginable grief and misery inflicted on terror victims’ families as they see the murderers of their loved ones cheered home and honoured as heroes.

But weighing the positives against the ghastly negatives is not my focus despite the annoying tendency of politicians and media analysts, riding a wave of popular approbation, to characterise the deal as “the right thing to do” when only time can answer that question.

Nor is my focus the halacha of pidyon shvuyim (redeeming captives) which, if strictly applied, would almost certainly have ruled this particular transaction impermissible. That is because the halacha does not require everything possible to be done to redeem a captive but requires the needs of the wider community to be carefully considered and brought into account.

What has been gnawing away at me is an instinctive doubt that a deal on such unfavourable terms would even have been entertained in years gone by, notwithstanding previous prisoner exchanges which have taken place.

Since the establishment of the State of Israel, over 400 Israeli soldiers have been declared missing in action and although almost all must have died in battle, several have been listed as “captured but presumed to be alive”. Indeed, we prayed for years in our synagogues for their release, referring to them by name. Why is it that none of their families set up a protest tent outside the Israeli Prime Minister’s residence and orchestrated a public campaign for their release? Why is it that virtually every Israeli family identified with Noam and Aviva Shalit, yet most would never act as they have? Are Gilad Shalit’s parents to be admired for their tenacity or was their constant pressure on the Israeli government, virtually blaming the Israeli government for their son’s incarceration, objectively unacceptable even if, subjectively, they themselves are beyond criticism? Is it ethical that a government should have made so crucial and dangerous a decision – a decision far more compassionate than it was just – placing the plight of parents so hopelessly conflicted above the security of all other citizens?

Israelis have long understood that their sons and daughters may be called upon to make the ultimate sacrifice for Israel’s survival. The primacy of the State above the individual is a principle perhaps best expressed by President John F. Kennedy in his inaugural address: “Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country.” It is, or at least should be, the cornerstone of the social contract between the citizen and the State.

After his son’s release, Noam’s Shalit proclaimed triumphantly “We won our son back!” His statement is undoubtedly true. The Shalit family indeed succeeded in importuning the government to comply with their private demands despite the unarguable danger to Israeli society. And the pressure will not stop there. By capitulating to terrorists’ demands, not only has the cost of redemption skyrocketed to new heights, it sets a precedent for the simple reason that once the government has answered the Shalits’ distress, how could anything less be done for the next family which, God forbid, finds itself in a similar position? The Shalit case therefore represents a dangerous shift in the social contract and a reversal of the primacy of the State over the individual. This cannot be a good thing.

Although there are, no doubt, many factors which have caused Israel to act as it has, there may be a worrying correlation between this paradigm shift in Israel’s relationship with its citizens and the progressive preoccupation of younger generations in contemporary society with a sense of self and personal entitlement, to the detriment of the greater whole. It is timely that Israel should consider how this worrying trend might be addressed.


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