Anti-government protesters in Tel Aviv
Anti-government protesters in Tel AvivMiriam Alster/Flash90

Israel has a serious problem with binary options. I’m not talking about investment scams, but about the way we argue. Much has been written about the toxic ways in which commercial media and social networks are hardwired to amplify the natural human tendency to over-simplify, categorize, and radicalize. Either you’re with us, or against us. Either democracy or reform. Either yes Bibi or no Bibi. And even in the wake of October 7th, despite everyone talking about the need to change the nature of our discourse, we just can’t seem to kick the habit. But when we face questions where the stakes are literally life and death, like the argument over freeing the hostages or destroying Hamas, this addiction is potentially fatal. We need a new way.

The first step in the right direction is to recognize that there is a true tension between these two values that cannot be ignored. The proper alternative to an overly simplistic “either-or” framing is not an overly simplistic “both-and” framing. There have been attempts, especially from the government, to try to ignore the tension and to push a narrative that in fact, a decisive military victory is the only thing that can ensure the safe return of the hostages. But this narrative is less and less convincing when we see that, with one exception, all of the hostages that have come back alive have been thanks to a negotiated agreement, and the long period of intense fighting since that agreement has not returned a single hostage, but has tragically killed an unknown number of our loved ones in captivity. With each passing day, it becomes increasingly harder to argue against those who claim that the government’s narrative of “both-and” is simply a cover for a practical policy that has made the choice in favor of military victory, over the fate of the hostages.

This, it must be admitted, is a legitimate position to hold, just as the opposite position is legitimate. A person who believes that the most important thing in the world right now is to destroy Hamas is not necessarily an insensitive, unthinking monster only interested in death and destruction. More likely, she is a very moral, gentle human being who desires a safe and secure life for her family, her nation, and her country, and who views the sacrifice of the hostages in the service of that goal as no less painful, no less tragic but no less necessary than the sacrifice of so many of our best and brightest young men and women on an almost daily basis who fight to defend our basic right to survive here. What is more, she can find support for her position in classic Jewish sources, in the idea that “we do not redeem captives for more than their worth, for the sake of fixing the world.” Sometimes, to fix the world, one needs to enact seemingly cruel decrees, and make tragic decisions.

By the very same token, anyone who believes that the most important thing in the world right now is to bring as many hostages as possible back home alive is not necessarily an unpatriotic bleeding-heart individualist who isn’t willing to think about or to sacrifice on behalf of the needs of the nation. More likely, he is someone who has proudly and patriotically sacrificed a great deal, and who appreciates the meaning of our national survival, but thinks that a government’s first responsibility is towards the citizens who are still alive and in immediate mortal danger in enemy hands, and all the more so after that government’s abject failure to fulfill that obligation on October 7th. He, too, can find ample support for his position in Jewish texts that speak of redeeming captives as an ultimate and overriding value, of turning a blind eye to the plight of hostages as being tantamount to shedding their blood, and even in modern rabbinic rulings that authorize the release of thousands of terrorists for the sake of a single captive.

It would seem that if these two mutually contradictory positions are both legitimate, we are left with no choice but to choose. Either defeat Hamas or redeem the hostages. Either focus on the needs of the collective, or of individuals. Either, or. But on the other hand, the fact that both of these voices have such strong backing in Israeli society, and such deep roots in Jewish values forces us to reject a forced choice between binary options, and to embrace the complexity of holding onto values in tension as the very secret and foundation of our survival. This, perhaps, is the profound meaning beyond the cliché of “Together, we will win.” Not by erasing the differences and the disagreements, but by understanding how to find a practical solution that stubbornly holds onto both horns of the dilemma.

Once we accept that there is a tension between two values, and commit to hold onto both of them, the necessary next step is to define what would be considered giving up on each value, as opposed to merely compromising on it. In our case, giving up on the value of defeating Hamas would be accepting their conditions for a total cease-fire and cessation of hostilities, so that they have the capacity to continue on their genocidal path. To accept that “we were defeated on October 7th, and we have no choice but to give in,” as one family member of a hostage said recently, is not an option. On the other hand, we must admit that there is a limit to how long the hostages can survive, an hourglass that has been running for over 100 days. We have no idea how many grains of sand are left, but we can be certain they are few. Therefore, in order not to completely give up on the value of redeeming the hostages, there is an immediate, urgent need to cut a deal, even though this will presumably demand problematic and painful compromises. So long as these compromises do not constitute giving up on our commitment to defeat Hamas, they are a necessary consequence of our commitment not to give up on either value.

Is this complex and messy? Certainly, much more so than choosing one value and abandoning the other. But is it impossible? On the contrary! After October 7th, this is precisely the skill that is most crucial for us to develop. The civil war that tore us apart in the months preceding that day was defined by a complete inability to simultaneously hold onto multiple values that are critical to our survival. If we are able to embrace a position of “both-and” in the life and death questions of military victory and the hostages, we can hope that this will serve as an essential asset as we return to our old arguments, which still exist and still demand solutions.

Avidan Freedman is the co-founder and director of Yanshoof, an organization dedicated to stopping Israeli arms sales to human rights violators, and an educator at the Shalom Hartman Institute's high school and post-high school programs.