Displays throughout the country’s billboards, newspapers and magazines are demanding that the hostages who have been held in Hamas captivity since the Simchat Torah Reign of Terror be brought home. Nobody is disputing the sentiment expressed in this message; on the contrary, a moment doesn’t go by that we, as a nation, are not reminded of the nearly 250nmen, women and children who are languishing in Gaza basements and dungeons. What is left unsaid in those messages, however, is that there is no consensus on what bringing them home involves.
The families of the hostages are, understandably, demanding that the government do whatever is necessary to secure their freedom. This includes, presumably, a readiness to exchange the hostages for Hamas terrorists currently imprisoned in Israel, or to have them used as bargaining chips to secure a cease fire. But while the spouses, children and siblings of the captives are singularly focused on getting their loved ones back home, the prime minister and his coalition has no choice but to respect a number of red lines that dare not be crossed.
From the start, there was an understanding that the principal objective of this war is to destroy Hamas from start to finish, and that no cease fire would interrupt the momentum as Israel’s military forces strike both from the air and on the ground. The prime minister did infer some days ago that there will be no cease fire unless the hostages have been released, but his bluff, fortunately, was not called. Despite considerable pressure from abroad, there has been no crippling cease fire, and hopefully there will not be one. Consequently, the Bring them Home Now campaign demand needs some, well, clarity.
Israeli media has been, not surprisingly, obsessed with this subject and have provided the public a number of interesting perspectives on what can be expected. The prevailing opinion among the supporters of the coalition, in the first place, vehemently argue against any release of Hamas prisoners, referencing the “lopsided” deal that freed Gilad Shalit. Oddly, I wouldn’t hesitate to wager that the families of more than a few of the hostages anxiously awaiting their rescue from captivity share the opinion – as do I, by the way – that the deal freeing the young man was altogether unreasonable and contributed in no small way to the current hostilities. Now that the point of view has changed, however, those families are pushing the government to do whatever is necessary to bring the captives home. Which may include an agreement to a disastrous cease fire or the release of thousands of blood-stained terrorists from Israeli prisons, or some combination of the two.
Others, of course, argue that Hamas must not be given the opportunity to barter the lives of the hostages for either a cease fire or a prisoner exchange. Both would be, for the most part, acts of defeat. What I find hard to accept, though, is how straightforward advocates of this point of view make the situation appear. Admittedly, the available options are few, but suggesting that the families of the hostages ready themselves for the upcoming period of mourning appears rather cold and heartless. You would think that rabbis holding this opinion would emphasize the possibility of a miracle rather than the need to face a stark reality. On the contrary, the point that has been made from the onset is that achieving the two parallel objectives – destroying Hamas and bringing the captives home alive and well – will require nothing short of a major league miracle. Notably, I’ve seen very few suggestions that the distraught families should start praying for one.
I would have thought, moreover, that an addendum to existing liturgy would by now have been introduced, one that addresses this fog we’re all enmeshed in. Those who survive a life-threatening experience – including release from captivity – recite Birkat Hagomel (Blessing of Thanksgiving), and someone who is approaching the end of his or her life may choose to recite the Viddui (Confessional). But what about the families of the hostages? What can comfort them, or to whom can they turn? Perhaps a third-person version of the Viddui might be appropriate, or maybe an additional blessing to the daily prayer service, in which an acknowledgement is made that the death of a loved one is imminent. I’m not sure if the traditional proclamation that is made upon hearing of a death – Baruch Dayan Emet (Blessed is the true judge) – can be said in advance, but if the families of the captives are to be given very little or no reason for optimism, surely some expression of acceptance is better than nothing.
There have been, on the other hand, calls to free the hostages by force. Considering that they are most likely being held in multiple locations and Hamas would not hesitate to kill them all rather than have them rescued, the idea is more than a little unrealistic. That doesn’t, of course, detract from taking a proactive position and suggesting the possibility that achieving both objectives should be considered. The conditions that allowed the legendary Entebbe rescue, unfortunately, are not present in Gaza. And like many others, I find myself unable to resignedly bid the hostages farewell and thank them for the sacrifice they and their families are making. It appears, though, that this is precisely what I will most likely have to do.
Interesting, isn’t it, that the religious segment of the Israeli population is encouraging a policy that will most assuredly bring an end to the lives of the hostages. In addition to more than few modern orthodox rabbis who have adopted this position, the black kippah wearing Heritage Minister Amichai Eliyahu expressed “metaphorical” readiness to “nuke” Gaza, even if the Israelis languishing there would be among the victims. I find this very disconcerting since the basic sources of Jewish law in more than a few places emphasize the importance of redeeming hostages from captivity. Unlike many others, avowed secularists who have had more than a fair share of skirmishes with the religious community are not yet ready to turn their backs on the captives.
There is still, to be sure, the possibility of a happy ending to this woeful saga. Some weeks ago there was a report of a “major [rescue] operation” that was being planned. Alas, the report had more bark than bite, and was undoubtedly a feeble attempt to keep the national spirit from sinking to dangerous depths. But it’s fair to assume that the pounding Hamas is taking very well may force concessions regarding the hostages.
In the meantime, though, the government must continue to resist arm-twisting demands for a cease fire even if the fate of the hostages becomes a crucial part of the equation. As for the rest of us, well, all we can do is try and maintain some optimistic perspective while hoping for the best but preparing for the worst.