Sunday, March 26, 2023 -
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Damned if you . . . damned if you don’t

To read the Israeli news of the prisoner exchange is to read and cry. What a dark day. Truly, a day of mourning and grief. It seems like the official three week period of national Jewish mourning came just a few days early this year. I’m just so so sad.

And hearing and watching the news — what a day of contrasts and contradictions. A true disparity of images and emotions. On the one hand, there are Hezbollah’s joy and triumph at the aliveness of a cold hearted murderer, Samir Kuntar. And on the other, there is the terrible, subdued silence and tears of our nation of Israel, specifically of the Regev and Goldwasser families, burying their sons. Death and life. Silence and glee. After heartwrenching decisions at heart-wrenching prices.

Such an asymmetrical swap. Such a complex day.

Last week, I wrote about living with uncertainty. Conspicuously missing from the column was living with the worst kind of uncertainty: the uncertainty of a hostage crisis. The agonizing doubt of not knowing whether your loved ones are alive or dead, being treated humanely or beaten abusively. Nothing. Now that is uncertainty. The worst kind of all.

It came to pass after I sent off my column that we found a very bitter kind of certainty. The certainty of death. As last week’s issue went to press I was hearing about the prisoner exchange deal about to take place between Israel and Hezbollah. The Goldwasser and Regev families were going to finally know.

As it turned out, they were indeed condemned to certainty.

But with a child’s naivete, despite the government’s official word not to expect the boys to come home alive — I held my breath. The unbearable tension of the final moments of this long and harrowing two years was about to unfold, and I was shocked when I saw the two black boxes released from the back of the truck, brought over the border to Israel. Along with the soldiers lining the road standing guard, I wept. Even if there was only a smidgen of hope, a hope against hope, we all hoped until the very last second.

Maybe part of the reason was because I could not imagine Israel freeing Samir Kuntar, who murdered a father at point blank range before the very eyes of his little girl, then crushing her skull against a rock. All this causing the mother, who was hiding in an attempt to save her and her other child’s life, to accidentally smother her two-year-old baby. Could it be? Kuntar — alive and well, released and feted as a hero — for two cold corpses?

Yet, it is not so simple. There is no perfect solution to such a horrible scenario. The enormity of the pain involved for the families who were victims, who had their loved ones kidnapped, is unimaginable. To go to sleep and to wake up — day in and day out — not knowing the fate of their sons and husband for two arduous years — hell.

Of course, the Regev and Goldwasser families fought a brave battle to have their children and spouse returned home — even if it meant returning them home to be buried. As they should have.

If it were my loved ones I would go to the ends of the earth to do whatever it takes for them to be out of harm’s way, to protect them and, yes — even give them a final resting peace and place.

These families have been wracked with probably one of the worst kind of grief. Loved ones in enemy’s hands, without the smallest sign regarding their status. Absolutely tormenting.

As much as every Israeli parent hears his son proclaim the haunting and chilling “ani nishba!” promise that he will die for his country — amplified by the chorus of hundreds of other soldiers from the unit echoing off the Kotel, when each soldier is given a rifle and a Tanach — there is a parent’s instincts that overrides that.

It’s one thing to die for the country, quite another to be thrown to the wolves without a trace of information.

How can the government ratify deals based on the heartrending cries of the families when, quite realistically, the decision can set a precedent for further kidnappings? At any cost! Dead or alive, the terrorists get the same thing — so why bother taking care of Israeli prisoners or abductees?

This is the clear message that was sent. Total capitulation. By nature, the appeased always view the appeasers as weak. Here we are burying two more abducted soldiers, returned dead, when it seems like yesterday in 2004 when Israel did a similar prisoner swap — only that time we received three corpses and buried three of our boys.

The families should fight their fight, and we truly are heartbroken with them, but the government must decide as a government, and not be swayed by thinking like a mother, father, sibling or spouse.

Is this what “v’shavu banim li’gvulam” means? At any cost?

Famously, the Maharam (Rabbi Meir) from Rotenberg, captured for ransom, died in prison, unredeemed. He heroically refused to be ransomed in order not to set a dangerous precedent for kidnapping Jewish leaders. Now, in Israel, a petition, “al pi Rabbi Meir,” is being circulated and signed by some soldiers, saying they do not want to be returned to Israel dead or alive at any price — or used as negotiation leverage — should a similar situation arise.

Still, I feel torn. I’m thinking maybe sometimes doing the wrong thing is the right thing to do. It’s true, we seem weakened to our enemies, and the decision itself has dangerous ramifications.

On the other hand — look how strong we are as a people. To really feel that “kol yisrael areivim ze ba-zeh” — that all Jews are interconnnected and responsible for each other — to the point of making a decision that from any other angle does not make sense!

That is powerful stuff for us as a people — and maybe even in some way, strengthens us in the eyes of our enemies.

Let it be known: The Jewish people’s Achilles heel is that we care about each other so much, and we care about the fate of our boys so much, that we make decisions that otherwise don’t make sense.

That’s soul. That’s life, not death. Despite the coffins, unlike Hezbollah — a death cult that appallingly but not surprisingly welcomes a child murderer home as a hero — we affirmed life. We affirmed that we care about each other at all costs, in life and in death. Now that is a life worth living, and a country worth dying for.

I’m worried, though. Transparent as we are about what is most precious to us, revealing so openly to our enemies what means the most to us, gives us no negotiating power.

The sound around the world has been heard that Israel will do whatever it takes to secure release of abducted soldiers. The stakes have just been raised in securing Gilad Shalit.

Forget about humanitarian concerns from these barbaric terrorists, but now there simply is no tactical, strategic or psychological incentive or self-interest for Hamas or any other terrorists group to give a hoot about in kidnapping a soldier or a citizen, or in keeping him alive.

The reality on the ground for Israel is frightening. We are entering a scary time. From the government’s point of view — it failed miserably. Not a smidgen of proof about the soldiers from the Red Cross in two years — now that is weakness. This ending seems but the final weakness in a string of failed negotiations for too long now.

Of course, I had a fantasy of Israel reneging on the agreement with Hezbollah as soon as it saw the two black coffins instead of two live soldiers walking across the border. Of shooting Kuntar on the spot and returning him, too, in a coffin.

In a perfect world that’s what should have been done. Now it seems the message Israel sent was pure and simple: terror pays and Jewish life will be ransomed at any price.

But in our complex reality, how can we not ask ourselves: Would not giving up on a soldier, or on a fellow Jew, also not be a form of losing?

May the Goldwasser and Regev families be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem. My heart is with you at this time of terrible pain.

Hamakom yenachen etchem b’toch she’ar avelei Zion viYerushalayim.

Please see our obituary section for Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev’s full obituary.

Tehilla Goldberg

IJN columnist | View from Central Park

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