Dr. Joel FishmanThe writer is a historian and fellow of a research institute in Jerusalem.
Sometime in the early seventies, I lived in the Boston area and attended a shiur of Joseph Ber Soloveitchik (1903 - 1993), called "the Rav" by all of us. He gave this shiur several hours after the end of the Shabbat in order to permit listeners to come from as far away as Rhode Island.
The Rav discussed several aspects of the Torah portion of the week and then raised a practical issue. It was shortly before Passover, and he explained that elderly Jews were confined to their apartments in New York, and without some help they would not be able to attend a seder. In view of this distressing situation, people asked him to make a decision that would permit the elderly to be brought to seders on Erev Pesach and then delivered home.
The Rav said that this was an attractive idea, and then asked, “Who could oppose it? Why, then, did I decide against this proposal?” He then answered his question in one stroke, “If I ruled in favor of it, I would stop being a Rav.” In short, he made an unpopular decision because of his clear obligation to respect Jewish law.
Beyond this decision and its immediate circumstances, the Rav raised an important principle, which originated in ancient Greek philosophy. What you do determines what you are. A person’s functioning -- how he acts -- determines what he (or she) is.
We cannot expect the righteousness of the angels from the Prime Minister, nor that he be an interpreter of Jewish Law. He has a different job, and effectively he will stay in office as long as he can maintain a majority. But keeping power is not always the same as providing good leadership.
The State of Israel was built on a legacy of heroism and the personal sacrifice of soldiers, civilians and their families. Part of the glue which holds things together is the feeling that, despite the high cost, we have an exceptional society which deserves to be preserved and defended. Israeli society has some core values and respect for them forms part of the unwritten contract which binds it together. This contract binds past and future generations, those who are no longer alive with those who have yet to be been born.
It is the obligation of our leaders to lead and to set a good example in conformance with our values. The decision of the Cabinet to release Palestinian-Arab terrorists offends against the core values of our society.
It is dangerous, because our political leaders, by choosing the path of expedience, will soon find themselves obliged to make even more compromising and dishonorable concessions. However they present it, the decision to set Palestinian terrorists free represents a moral defeat which is dangerous and harmful to our society.
The Palestinian Authority, which regards itself as the enemy of Israel, has studied our methods and duplicated our long-standing Jewish tradition of the redemption of prisoners (pidyon shvuim), which they have used against us. This is significant because taking responsibility for its prisoners adds to the prestige and legitimacy of the Palestinian leadership within their own society.
Even worse, the release of Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails effectively upgrades the status of terrorists to that of soldiers. While they are in jail, the Palestinian Authority gives them and their families financial support, and when they will be freed it will give them recognition and honor.
Terrorists, like pirates, used to be considered to be the “enemies of humanity,” to be shot on sight. In the future, a would-be Palestinian terrorist now knows that there is a reasonable chance of gaining financial benefit and honor for himself and his family. If he is taken alive, the PA will get him out of prison.
A political accomplishment of this magnitude is the equivalent of a victory in battle and correspondingly adds to the morale of the other side, mainly because it gives the hope of more successes. At the same time, this transaction, undermines the core values of Israeli society and demoralizes the Israeli public.
This is dangerous, because it is the government’s job to give the other side the understanding that they will never win. As reported in the press, the release of the Palestinian prisoners was a concession based on weakness, on the assumption that our position in the world is so poor that it would be better to concede than stand firm.
Our government has mindlessly given the Palestinian Authority a priceless victory in the form of a bakshish.