These and Those

Musings from Students of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem

the Shalit Debate

Posted on November 9, 2011 by Suzi

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On Monday, October 24, Pardes students and staff were treated to a brilliant intellectual exercise as Pardes Dean Dr. David Bernstein and Pardes teacher Rabbi David Levin-Kruss debated the recent events which brought hostage Gilad Shalit home to Israel in exchange for over 1,000 incarcerated Palestinian prisoners.

The twist?  Neither man knew which side of the debate he was to defend until lots were drawn in front of the audience of nearly three dozen students, faculty and staff members.  Dr. Bernstein introduced the topic and the rules of engagement.  He sketched the situation, saying the exchange included a number of people with blood on their hands, responsible for numerous civilian deaths.  He also commented that some of those released were sent to Turkey, Egypt and Qatar rather than to their “home” countries.

Rabbi Levin-Kruss (DLK) speaking first, argued against the deal, while Dr. Bernstein (DDB) responded, defending it.

Their most salient points included:

  • DLK: The Entebbe air raid was one of the most powerful events in my life.  In 1976, hostages were captured and the Israeli Air Force went in and saved most of them.  Last week was entirely different.  At Entebbe Israel used strength to save people.
    And the price on victim families is tremendous.  It will cause trouble between Israeli soldiers too.  Sometimes it’s sad in life, an individual has to suffer for the whole; the collective, the society comes first.  I’d have felt differently if the price had been more equivalent.  But now, terrorists know they’ll be traded when the next trade comes.
  • DDB: (holding up a faded green ribbon that used to be yellow):  This was on my car for years.  Shalit’s family tried to create support to bring him home.  He was taken from the pre-67 side of the border, from inside Israel.  We quickly started saying psalms for him daily.  Today it’s eerie in its absence, happily.
    There’s no question that this was a difficult decision.  The cost was very high.  But close to 80% of Israelis supported the exchange.  Almost 80% said they expect it to lead to more terrorist activity, but they still support it.    People in the tent cities, at mass rallies, mentioned his name to express approval that he should be freed.
    Bibi agreed to do what seemed a crazy exchange, but he was doing the people’s will.  We have exchanged hundreds of prisoners for dead bodies. We wanted Gilad back alive.  He represents every man, every child, every soldier.  There’s a feeling that this could be my child.  He was just a few miles away, but you can’t always pull off an Entebbe.  The public wanted him back alive.  The only way was to pay a high price.
    All the freed prisoners had to sign a document agreeing not to revert back to terrorism (laughter in the audience at this statement).  Either 40% or 60%, according to two sources I saw, do not revert.
    Why ever, maybe the deal isn’t as bad as it looks at first.  He created a tremendous amount of solidarity in the country.  I can only compare it to Yom Ha Atzmaut, because the statement was made—when we can do an Entebbe, we will.  When we can’t, we’ll still bring them home alive.
  • DLK in rebuttal:  We rule by democracy—Churchill said that democracy is the worst form of government but it’s still better than the others.  It’s not good to rule by the public, who will say, “It won’t happen to me, but to somebody else.”  People should vote, but that said, these deep decisions shouldn’t be made by popular sentiment, but by the knowledge and wisdom of elected, informed leaders.
  • DDB: Terrorists are always trying kidnapping.  It’s one of their tactics.
    They will continue to have high motivation. Families felt bad seeing murderers go free.  Two Pardes students were killed in the attack at Hebrew University.  Their killer was let go.  Still, many families supported the deal.  The price of 1,000 is close to the number Israel has had to pay to release our people since 1948-that’s been the going price.  There has been a cartoon, published in the International Herald Tribune, circulating, showing two prisoners walking out of jail.  One is saying to the other I did the math—I’m worth 70 grams of an Israeli soldier.

A lively discussion followed the mock debate, with students asking pointed questions aimed at the debaters’ real thoughts as well as their assumed positions. Each gave a sense of his actual feelings on the topic.

  • DDB: Before the announcement, I’d have said no exchange, but once it happened I was happy.  I’m ambivalent—an unhappy mind, but a happy heart.
  • DLK:  Once I had to make a very difficult personal decision.  Someone sent me an email saying there are some decisions that are just too hard to make.  Our leaders have to make those decisions, for better or for worse.  My heart and mind are unhappy but I waver.  My argument works in a theoretical way, but it’s an important discussion.
  • DDB: (Asked about the possibility of instituting the death penalty for terrorists)…The death penalty exists, but it’s only been used once, for Adolf Eichmann.  There’s popular support for it when terror is high.  I don’t think it will happen.  Judges and lawmakers are against it.
    To Israelis, wanton killing is wrong—even of our enemies.
    (Asked why the trade happened now)  Hamas and Bibi were at a low point; they both needed a deal.  Also, there was a fear that Egypt is moving in an uncertain direction and can’t be trusted to be a partner in the future.  The social protest movement was a factor too.  This is an attempt to resurrect Bibi politically.
  • DLK:  Why now and not two years ago?  We knew he was alive now.  We can’t be sure Hamas would keep him alive.
  • DDB: There were feelings of guilt over Ron Arad—we presumed he was dead.  Israel believes that Ron Arad died in captivity; he was certainly alive when captured, and for a period afterwards as well.  We didn’t want to reenact what happened with him.