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David-Seth Kirshner

Streams of Anxious Consciousness 48

Zhou Enlai, the first premiere of the Communist People’s Republic of China was in conversation with Henry Kissinger in the early 70s, discussing the impact of revolutions on world order. Kissinger asked Enlai “What effects did the French Revolution (1789-99) have on world perspectives of peace and capitalism?”

Énlai replied, “It is too early to tell.”

I do not think he was kidding.

Enlai, like other dictators not bound by democracy and term limits, take a deep long look at history. Democracies look at shorter spurts of time. Kings refer to America and Israel as fickle, because we elect new leaders on a set schedule of every two and four years, or in Israel, as soon as we are fed up with them. Enlai and monarchy like-folk look at history over 250 years at a time. Western democracies look at history over 25 years at a time. The divide is ten-fold.

Enlai and Kissinger – Getty Image

When Gilad Shalit was released in October of 2011, after five years of Hamas captivity in Gaza where he was deprived communication with his family or visits by the International Red Cross, I was ecstatic. This boy who was abducted at gun point from his tank in sovereign Israel was coming home. His parents, who had set up camp in a tent outside the Prime Minister’s residence and sat vigil for years to advocate for his release, would finally get their wish. They could hold their son again in their arms. Gilad’s siblings could hug him again. Joke with him again. Their family would be reunited. The country would be whole.

I remember crying when watching on the news, Gilad and his dad in each other’s arms. I remember feeling the energy of the country, buoyed by his homecoming.

Israel paid a hefty price for Shalit. More than 1,000 prisoners, most with blood on their hands, were released from Israeli prison.

This included the driver who brought the suicide bomber to the Park Hotel in Netanya on Passover, who later killed 30 civilians and injured 140 people.

Also on the list of freed prisoners was Walid Abd al-Aziz Abd al-Hadi Anajas (36 life sentences) – who took part in the execution of the Café Moment bombing (2002), the Hebrew University bombing (2002) and the Rishon LeZion bombing (2002).

Tamimi Aref Ahmad Ahlam (16 life sentences) – Assisted in the execution of the Sbarro restaurant suicide bombing in the summer of 2001 was released as well.

Even with these names, and scores more just like them, I thought it was worth the exchange. Israel needed to prove to its citizens, all of whom conscribe to the army, we will bring you home, no matter what happens. Even if you are murdered in captivity, we will bring your body home for your family and for a final resting place in your home country. We will go any lengths to prove Israel will always have your back and never forsake your plight.

One person put a mathematical equation on the exchange: each Jewish life is priceless. 1000 people, as bad and dangerous as they might be, is a small price to pay to bring one Jewish boy home.

Arik Einstein, the Bruce Springsteen of Israel, composed a short song upon Shalit’s release. The ballad melodized how great it is for us (the country of Israel collectively) to see him again. I watched the YouTube clip of Einstein’s song and the reunification of Shalit about 500 times over the three days of euphoria Israel and Diaspora Jews enjoyed, following Gilad’s return.

, freed Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit (Photo by IDF viaGetty Images)

One terrorist who was released for Shalit was Yahya Sinwar (4 life sentences). Sinwar took part in the kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers in 1989 and was sentenced to life in prison. Sinwar is the founder of the Hamas security apparatus in Gaza. His brother organized the abduction of Gilad Shalit in 2006. Upon Sinwar’s release, he was elevated in Hamas governance and made the second in command of Hamas’ ground operations in Gaza. Sinwar was the mastermind of the October 7th massacre.

Enlai’s words are ringing in my mind causing me a painful headache. Was this a good idea to release 1000 terrorist prisoners in jail for crimes they were found guilty of in a respected court? Was it right for one Israeli soldier who was abducted from his post inside a tank within undisputed territory to yield so many criminals?

What I thought was a great moment in Zionist history was just the harbinger of something much worse. Something despicable. Something grotesque. An event so unspeakable, we could not have even dreamt of its depravity or crudeness.

Was our celebration in 2011 over Shalit’s release premature?

What the Shalit deal proved is that Israel will make unbalanced, “disproportionate” trades for murderers. That is what made the value of 250 hostages stolen on October 7th, an astronomical price that could yield the emptying out of Israeli prisons throughout the country.

Knowing what I know now, would I still advocate for the Shalit exchange? Would you?

It feels sacrilegious to be cavalier or emotionless when talking about any Jewish, living soul. Shalit is a son, a brother and now, because of his release, a husband. He is not a number. To consider the strategic implications and not the human ones is equivalent to putting the case in a Petrie dish. It goes against the grain of the Jewish spirit. The Talmud teaches clearly, each hostage is worthy of redemption. There is no expense to be spared for the release of a Jew. Still, what if it costs more Jewish lives and hostages later?

Gilad Shalit’s release evoked mixed opinions in Israel. While indeed, all were happy to see Gilad home, many thought the price was too high to pay.

One of the opponents of the Shalit deal was Miriam Wachsman. A Jew born in a German Displaced Persons Camp, who emigrated to Brooklyn and then Israel, Wachsman was a regular on the literal and figurative other side of the street across from the Shalit tent near the Prime Minister’s residence, in Jerusalem.

In 1994, Wachsman’s son Nachshon, was given a ride along the highway for his weekend break from the army. The group that picked him up were thought to be ultra-Orthodox Jews. In fact, they were terrorists from Ramallah dressed as observant Jews with the intention of abducting and torturing Israeli soldiers.

Within 24 hours after his kidnapping, intelligence lasered in on Wachsman location. Israel put together an elite team to retrieve Wachsman and eliminate the abductors. The intelligence did not know that the room where Nachshon was held was behind a wrought-iron door that needed breaching through heavy explosives. The ruckus outside the door alerted the terrorists. They shot Wachsman, after having ruthlessly tortured him, and one of the elite members of the IDF rescue team was killed in the operation too.

Miriam Wachsman would regularly say that she has deep empathy for the Shalit family. That if Israel could bring back their son, they should but, not by enabling more death of innocent people. Wachsman’s worry was that the release of her son’s murderer and other criminals would result in more bloodshed, anguish, pain and hurt for individuals and the country.

These bloody-handed terrorists set to be released were not rehabilitated in prison. They were emboldened. The bombers and killers would come home to a place free of scorn and full of festivity for the actions that led to their arrest and of course, their release. These fanatics hold a different ethical compass. Wachsman and her camp of followers held that the release of 1000 prisoners was too steep a price to pay.

While she did not know this at the time, Nachshon Wachsman’s murderer, Jihad Muhammad Shaker Yaghmur, was released for Shalit in 2011.

Getty Image of Wachsman (z’l) and his mother, Miriam

International media is painting a sense of equivalency for the current release of the opening 13 hostages for 50 Hamas prisoners.

First, hostages and prisoners are not equal. Ever.  Second, 13 does not equal 50. Why Hamas, who are the bad guys here, always gets more is worthy of examination.

How would most Americans react were (fictious case, of course) Adam Walsh to be reunited to his parents after his abduction in a Florida mall in return for the release from prison of Jeffrey Dahmer, the Unabomber, John Wayne Gacy, Timothy McVeigh, Charles Manson and Ted Bundy? Now multiply that by 1000. Or in this case, 3 terrorists for every innocent person abducted. It hardly seems fair since Walsh committed no crime and these other convicts did.

The bombers, stabbers, saboteurs and criminals being released now for these hostages are in prison for attempted murder, detonating bombs and stabbings. These are not conscientious objectors. They are not people who imprisoned for tax evasion or refusing to pay child support. They are bad people who did horrible things.

Juxtapose that to the four-year-old girl being released by Hamas, coming home to her country without parents – they were both murdered by Hamas on the 7th of October– committed the crime of being Jewish, and living in Israel. Unbalanced is not even the right word. Having to negotiate with demonic forces in such an uneven trade is a hard pill to swallow.

As I type this Stream, reports (no pictures yet) are flowing in about the release of these children and parents. Skepticism is keeping my hopes in check.

I was not alive in 1972, but I know the excitement my parents felt when Israeli Olympians were brought by bus and then helicopter to what they were hopeful was the end of a nightmare ordeal of their captivity by Palestinian terrorists in Munich, Germany. Sadly, it was just the first act of more brutality to follow.

ABC’s Jim McKay’s words linger in the reel playing in every Jewish mind, “They are all gone.”

Not until the hostages from Gaza are home, in Israel, reported as safe and healthy, will the light on that reel dim and the glow from smiles and embrace, prevail.

I wait impatiently.

I also have no trust in the devil we are dealing with. Israel has had countless ceasefires with Hamas. Every single one has been broken by Hamas. Even today, minutes after the agreed upon lull took effect, sirens blared, and rockets flew into Israel from Gaza. Like a bell ringing to end a round and the boxer takes some extra cheap shots against their opponent before heading to their corner, so too, Hamas launching rockets and firing shots after the cease fire takes place is flabbergasting. We cease and they fire. Sadly, the referee (read United Nations and civilized world) has come to expect this behavior and do absolutely nothing to reprimand the bad actor or actions. Instead, we negotiate the release of innocents with them. Why? Because we love life more than we believe in standing on ceremony.

The world is restless to see proofs of life of the balance of hostages. We are hopeful the ICRC will soon see the rest held in captivity and provide medicine and care. We must get word to the parents and children of loved ones about their family. Not many are expecting Hamas to meet the moment with honesty. Israelis are all excited 13 are home. We are anxiously ready and waiting for the other 235.

Does any group worry that Israel will not release the Palestinian prisoners and uphold their end of the deal? That Israel will welch? Of course not. Another example of the disproportion between these two parties.

The sun has set in Israel. Shabbat has begun. I am filled with hope and anxiety that these young, released hostages will celebrate the holy Sabbath with loved ones in Israel for the first time in seven long and dark weeks. I pray these kids will soon be savoring Challah bread and sips of sweet grape juice. I have faith that the overwhelming love and nation-wide embrace will quickly erase the nightmare of the past 2 months for these innocent precious souls.

Please God, this Shabbat, may this dream be willed too.

About the Author
David-Seth Kirshner is the senior rabbi of Temple Emanu-El, a Conservative synagogue in Closter, New Jersey. He is the past President of the NY Board of Rabbis and the NJ Board of Rabbis and is a Senior Rabbinic Fellow at the Hartman Institute and serves on the Executive Committee of the JFNA. Rabbi Kirshner was appointed to the New Jersey/Israel Commission by Governors Christie and Murphy. Rabbi Kirshner is a National Council member of AIPAC.
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