The most common response in Israeli public discussions to expressions of doubt regarding the Gilad Shalit prisoner exchange deal has been: “Well, what if it was your son who had been kidnapped?” This phrase, with its underlying accusation of patriotic posturing and hypocrisy, is something of a discussion-ender. It implies that you, the doubter, are willing to strike a cruel and self-righteous pose because of indifference to the fate of a stranger. The statement further implies that this mask of supposed strength and realism would of course rapidly collapse if an individual dear to you, the doubter, were involved in the equation.
This statement expresses two seemingly contradictory assumptions. The first is an immediate conclusion that any appeal to the general good and the collective interest contains an essential hypocrisy and artificiality. The second, however, is a passionate affirmation of loyalty to the communal interest expressed in a particular way: namely, that of non-indifference to the fate of the fellow community-member Gilad Shalit.
The seemingly simple, impassioned statement – “what if it was your son who had been kidnapped?” — is thus not simple at all. Rather, it is an accurate reflection of the attitude of a large body of Israeli Jews today vis a vis the collective “Israeliness” to which they belong. This attitude in turn represents a strategic dilemma for Israel, on which its enemies have pinned their hopes of eventual victory in their long war against Jewish sovereignty. What explains this attitude?
The deal for Shalit’s release saw the release of the kidnapped soldier in return for Israel’s freeing of 1027 Palestinian prisoners. Those freed included the planners of some of the most shocking and universally condemned attacks on Israeli civilians to have taken place in recent years.
From a strategic point of view, it is perfectly obvious that this deal makes no sense at all. Indeed, it is quite unimaginable that any country other than Israel would even contemplate concluding such an agreement. To assert this is not merely speculation, but verifiable fact. A near-direct parallel to the Shalit case currently exists in the case of U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who has been held by the Taliban in Afghanistan since June 2009.
Bergdahl’s captors are demanding the release of 21 Afghans currently in U.S. captivity. There are no indications, however, that the U.S. is considering the offering of any terms at all in return for Bergdahl, a man whose name few Americans know.
So Israel’s response does not typify that of Western democracies. Is it then to be explained by reference to Israel’s unique Jewish identity, and to deeply rooted Jewish communal norms?
It is not. It is important to understand that whatever Jewish tradition may have to say regarding the redeeming of captives, the practice of massively lopsided prisoner exchanges is not of particularly long vintage in Israel. It dates in essence from the Jibril exchange of 1985.
So where has this entirely unique, relatively new, seemingly counterintuitive, passionately supported practice emerged from? I would suggest that it derives from Israel’s unique situation as a Western democracy which is forced by circumstance to require from its citizens a greater degree of collective involvement and willingness to sacrifice than any comparable society. The result is a curious and possibly dysfunctional
version of communal concern. The essential atomization and self-absorption of human beings and skepticism toward communal obligations is taken for granted, in a manner reflective of mainstream public views in most Western democracies today. But unlike in the case of the unfortunate Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, simply forgetting about the fate of a kidnapped soldier is impossible.