A Little Reality Check on Prisoner Exchanges

There are few more banal ways to open any kind of blog, article or sermon about Israel than to say “These past few days have been extraordinarily difficult ones for Israel.” But- that having been said- these past few days have indeed been extraordinarily difficult ones for Israel.

The painful reality of the death of both Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, coupled with the necessary release of a horrific terrorist and child-killer, Samir Kuntar, has unleashed a torrent of emotion both here and in Israel. Grief, mixed with anger and frustration, is so real and immediate as to be a palpable, immanent presence. From where I sit, the celebration that greeted Kuntar’s return to Lebanon only served to highlight the sharp distinction that is to be drawn between a culture that glorifies violence and death, and one that will go to remarkable lengths to pursue peace. I am only grateful to be a part of the latter; Baruch She’asani Yisrael!

Where I live in Queens, the weekend editions of all the major newspapers in Israel are available for purchase on Friday, and they constitute my Friday night required reading. Ma’ariv, Ha’Aretz, and pretty much anything I can get my hands on enable me to get a real-time sense of what Israel and Israelis are feeling and thinking.

Needless to say, there’s been a lot of soul-searching in those papers about Israel’s willingness to release such a notorious terrorist, even for the sake of redeeming the bodies of two soldiers. Many have pointed with pride to the IDF doctrine of lo mafkirim bashetach- the inviolable principle of not leaving a soldier behind in the field, regardless of condition. For every soldier and reservist, the lengths that Israel has gone to to bring Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser home are an important reminder that, when they go into the field of battle, all of Israel and its government go with them. It is no small comfort as you are called on to risk your life.

But, of course, there are also those who think that the imbalance of the exchange compromises Israel’s security, and further complicates the delicate negotiations to secure the release of Gilad Shalit, who still languishes in Gaza.

This is an important debate, and both views have merit. Thank God that Israel is a country where such debate is part and parcel of the body politic, and one is free to passionately agree or disagree with a decision of the government without fearing reprisal.

But as I see it, where this debate does not belong is here in the Diaspora. It is a discussion for Israel and her citizens, which, no matter how passionately we might identify with Israel, most of us are not. And as long as we are not, and we live here and not there, who are we to offer judgment on what the right thing is for Israel to do in a painful, no-win situation like this one?

Not far from where I live in Forest Hills, in the Jewishly dense neighborhoods of central Queens, I occasionally see windows that proudly display banners with some of the more ubiquitous slogans of Israeli politics. One in particular that has always caught my attention is Lo Zazzim MehaGolan- We are not moving from the Golan Heights! Every time I see it, I can’t help thinking to myself “Hey, you’re not moving from Jewel Avenue… how can you make claim to have what to say about the Golan Heights?”

I have three children who are of Israeli army age more or less, and a fourth who will be in a few short years. As long as my major decisions and theirs are about how they might be able to afford living on the Upper West Side, which most young Jews their age consider to be Yerushalayim shel Mattah anyway, or which gap year program in Israel to go to before they come back to their dorms and homes here, I don’t see any of us having the right to offer Israel the benefit of our comfortable armchair wisdom. On some religious policy issues, yes. Those issues affect us directly. On security issues like this, no. It’s not our security that is at risk.

My whole birth family lives in Israel. My sister and her family made aliyah almost thirty years ago, and her children have all fought (and still do) in the IDF. One nephew-in-law, about whom I’ve written in this paper, nearly lost his life in the second Lebanon War. My parents made aliyah about six years ago. All of this may grant me some added measure of empathy with what goes on there, along with my own familiarity with Israel from the years when I lived there. But empathy is not citizenship, and neither I nor my children are putting our lives on the line. Crossing Queens Boulevard is about as dangerous as it gets for me.

It is, indeed, a good time for a reality check.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.