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.
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.