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Reflections on the Gilad Shalit Deal

Parsing the “what if it was your son?” argument.

by
Jonathan Spyer

Bio

October 20, 2011 - 8:03 am
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Israel, after all, is a small country that demands a great deal from the Jews who live in it. The country, in order to survive, has no choice but to maintain military conscription (only partially imposed in practice, but that is another discussion). So individuals are bound up in the experience of the state. But the attitudes they take toward that state are increasingly those of any other early 21st century skeptical public. They are utilitarian, self-centered, disenchanted.

For this reason, the public identifies with Gilad Shalit and his family. But any argument to the effect that the country is at war, the attitude toward the preservation of every life that would be desirable in peacetime is impossible in such a reality, we must all make sacrifices for the common good and so on becomes literally un-makeable. The ground-level assumptions upon which such a case would rest are simply not there, or are not there with sufficient depth and weight.

Quite understandably, but dangerously, Israelis demand after 100 years of conflict to live under the rules of peace and normality. They want, they insist upon the natural warm and caring attitude to the life of their young that peace makes possible.

The problem is that the long war in which Israel is engaged is not merely an illusion. It possesses also tangible reality. There really is a coalition of countries and movements — including Hizballah, Shalit’s Hamas captors, Syria, and other elements which are committed to the destruction of Jewish sovereignty.

The leaders of this coalition are entirely indifferent to the lives and welfare of their own people. Their strategy is based on exploiting precisely the contradiction which the Shalit episode and others of its type exposes. This contradiction is the very great difficulty which a modern, individualistic Western society has with the notion of engagement and sacrifice on behalf of the collective. The United States and other Western countries get around this by maintaining volunteer militaries whose members are loyal to a professional code, and with whom the public are largely unfamiliar except on a symbolic level.

Israel is too small and exposed for an option of this kind. More must be required of the citizens. Israel’s enemies wish to locate the particular gap between what the state must logically require, and what the society of individuals will be willing to give. In this space, they believe, is located the factor which if properly exploited will lead to their eventual strategic victory and the termination of Jewish statehood. In this space, they believe, they can paralyze the Jewish state, leave it without options, render all its shining machinery useless.

This space does exist, as the Shalit deal and other episodes of its type suggest. This does not mean that Israel’s enemies will be victorious. There are many other factors and variables at play, many or most of them to Israel’s advantage. Yet the question of how to adequately combine the modernity of outlook essential for social and economic success, with the communal commitment necessarily for societal survival remains a central andcurrently insufficiently unanswered one for Israel, on which the hopes of its enemies rest.

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Jonathan Spyer is a senior research fellow at the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center, and a fellow at the Middle East Forum. He is the author of The Transforming Fire: The Rise of the Israel-Islamist Conflict (Continuum, 2011).
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