The exhilaration of seeing Gilad Shalit returned alive to his family in Israel after half a decade in captivity is nonpareil. These are the rare moments when we get to claw back some territory from the grasp of evil.
Yet the morality of trading a thousand Palestinian prisoners for one soldier is shaky indeed. Many of these were just losers arrested for varying degrees of lowlife-hood, people who might be better placed sponging off their parents than eating free food supplied by the Israeli taxpayer. They are thrown in to the deal to give it some bulk, like the plastic packing bubbles in the shipping box which all but smother the item being retailed.
Sadly, however, the kidnappers could not be bought off so easily. They demanded and received some of the worst murderers alive today. I was a few blocks away, visiting in Jerusalem, on the day in 2003 when Doctor Applebaum of Shaarei Zedek was blown up with his daughter at a sidewalk cafe in the Emek Refa'im neighborhood. She was to be married the next night and her father, originally of Detroit, invited her out for a farewell coffee, never imagining they would leave together on a final journey.
Her beautiful white bridal gown was resewn into a curtain and hung in the Tomb of Rachel. At least the Biblical Rachel managed to spend fifteen married years with Jacob and to leave two children as her legacy. All that is left of Nava Applebaum is that curtain with its broken promise of a future built on purity.
Now her murderer can walk free and laugh at those naïve Jews who unleashed him again on the world. He is joined by the man who found an Israeli girl walking alone and cut her heart out of her chest. Another member of this group ran his truck into a crowd of soldiers at a bus stop, killing seven and wounding more than twenty. There is the female conspirator of the man who blew up Sbarro's Pizza thirty days before September 11; she says she is happy that Israeli children were killed by their operation.
All in all, these are the Who's Who of the Middle East terror world. Any famous incident that you can recall where people were killed and the bomber did not blow himself up is represented by a newly released perpetrator. This is like declaring an amnesty for Charles Manson and Ted Bundy and Jeffrey Dahmer and John Wayne Gacy, all on the same day.
The families and friends of all the victims whose killers were traded take personal offense. Some are bothered by the fact of the exchange; others could have swallowed it if the government had consulted them… or at the very least, notified them in advance. My grim conclusion is that they are in the right, even if the joy of Shalit's return should not be diluted by that calculation.
The Talmudic law sets a limit of ten-to-one for most ransoms as a strategy to limit future kidnappings. I suspect that when families can afford to pay, they are likely to honor this rule in the breach. The most famous case of a Jew who prevented his coreligionists from paying an exorbitant ransom was Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg (1215-1293), who died as a captive in the Tower of Ensisheim.
Here a greater issue obtains. By freeing unrepentant killers we are endangering new generations of potential victims. Certainly the saving of one life today cannot justify creating the potential for more violent deaths in the future. Sherri Mandell, mother of the brutally murdered Koby, is right to protest the deal.
But these are tough calls to make and one can hardly fault the Israeli government, even if a strong legal argument could be made that the sovereignty of a government does not include the right to free convicted killers for diplomatic considerations. These are the awful Sophie's Choice situations which are the product of our unredeemed existence and the lack of courage on the part of civilized societies to fight evil to the death.
As the second part of the Sukkot holiday ("the holiday of our joy") begins on Wednesday night, we can be grateful to have one of the good guys back in the fold. There is some balm in Gilad after all! And we can pray for an age of enlightenment and decency where we are not called upon to be more tough than kind.
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