I don’t generally think of myself as a man easily brought to tears, but I tried in vain to hold them back when I heard the news that Gilad Shalit would be coming home. Over five years ago, on the morning of June 25, 2006, several Palestinian militants infiltrated an Israeli army base on the Gaza strip border, killing two, wounding three, and abducting 20-year-old corporal Gilad Shalit. Since that day he has been held in captivity in unknown conditions, deprived even of access to the Red Cross and contact to his family—basic rights due to prisoners of war under the Geneva Convention. A bleak situation, to say the least.
Israel does not take lightly the wellbeing of its soldiers, and the political and cultural turmoil in that country over the predicament has been powerful and persistent. Gilad’s parents, Aviva and Noam, have become prominent public figures tirelessly advocating for their son’s release. The issue has been near the top of successive administration’s agendas and has weighed heavily on Jews everywhere. Not a few synagogues introduced into the weekly liturgy a prayer imploring God for Shalit’s rescue, and some regularly announced the exact number of days passed since the abduction. And of course, Gilad Shalit is a human being, with all the rights and privileges that entails, and commanding the respect and dignity fundamentally his due thereby—and the world community has taken notice.
And so, when on October 11 news broke that the Israeli government had struck a deal with Hamas, that Gilad Shalit would finally be returning home, tears were shed—tears of joy and relief. Aviva and Noam for their son, Israel for its soldier, Jews for their brother, and all humankind for its fellow person.
To be sure, the news was not without its downside. To free Shalit, the Israeli government had to agree to the release of over 1,000 prisoners, not a few of which are convicted terrorists with innocent Israeli blood on their hands. Setting loose so many proven murderers poses an obvious danger, and though I trust the Israeli security community—unfortunately driven, by painful necessity, to proven excellence—to handle the situation with competence, ensuring that the prisoners released will not pose any direct threat to life, the risks involved surely cannot be disregarded as entirely negligible. It is a blow to all those who suffered at these men’s hands, who deserve to see justice done. Politically, the deal will embolden Hamas, tilting the scales of Palestinian opinion away from moderation and charting a course further down the road of fanaticism and violence. The deal rewards terror, and in trading 1,000 criminals for a single innocent man, concedes success to a cynically twisted, warped moral position.
But after all has been said and all arguments heard, the editorials written and the debates run their course, there really is no question here: When it comes to the value and dignity of even a single human life, there can be no calculations of utility, no negotiation of practicalities. Whatever the pros and cons, they cannot hold water against the infinite worth of a person and the sacred regard owed to it by us all. And that’s to say nothing of the loyalty due Shalit as a soldier, citizen, son and brother.
Judaism has always placed the highest value on pidyon shevuyim (the redemption of captives), sparing no expense or effort in ensuring that those imperiled are brought back to their homes. According to the Talmud, funds and materials consecrated toward the construction of a synagogue may not be diverted for any cause, no matter how important, with the single exception of pidyon shevuyim. With force and clarity, Maimonides writes that “there is no greater deed than the redemption of captives.” Addressing the other side of the coin, the Shulkhan Arukh (the preeminent systematic code of Jewish law) says that “every moment of delay in the freeing of captives is tantamount to murder.”
Of course, this tradition of extraordinarily high concern for the captive’s plight did not arise from nowhere; it is but one star in the expansive constellation of Judaism’s central, fundamental concern for human life and its due dignity. Jewish monotheism brought to the world the idea that every person is created in the image of God and therefore bears inestimable and unassailable value. Judaism also introduced the idea that there is a God who cares for all his creatures; that life is to be chosen over death, and good over evil; and that we are all called to partner with God in the mission of bettering his world. And so, for Judaism, and for those religions which carry on its heritage, there are few causes more precious than the preservation of human life in freedom and security.
That hundreds of terrorists must be released to save a single person is a moral travesty and a mockery of justice, but it is also a profound moral success, a resounding victory for life, goodness, and our assuredness in the incalculable value of a human person. Certainly, the terrorists know our vulnerability, and are sure to exploit our moral fortitude whenever and however they can. But far from discouraging our conviction, these encounters with evil should only strengthen our resolve in championing our values and realizing our ideals, redoubling our efforts in fighting courageously for the good. We are rightly frustrated by our enemy’s cynical and audacious perversion of justice, but with that, we stand tall and proud in our refusal to compromise our own moral integrity.
If all goes according to plan, Noam and Aviva Shalit will soon embrace their son Gilad, as he returns at long last to his home, to freedom, to life, and while acknowledging and lamenting the sacrifices involved, we should celebrate the event as a victory for the cause of good, as a success for the moral human spirit. Perhaps more than anything, we should simply rejoice, with tears and all, for the return home of Gilad Shalit, our son, soldier, brother and fellow person.
Alex Ozar is a junior fellow at First Things.
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