Welcome Home, Gilad Shalit.

Gilad Shalit was welcomed home today after five long years in the Hamas prison system. (The Telegraph is live-blogging his homecoming for those interested.)

The 477 Palestinian prisoners who were freed today in exchange for Shalit are also celebrating their own homecoming, albeit under different circumstances. (The remaining 550 prisoners will be released in two months.) Though Israel hopes the terms of Shalit’s release will lead to renewed peace efforts, Gazans have already greeted their released compatriots with demands for more kidnapping and violence:

“The people want a new Gilad!” the crowd chanted, suggesting the abductions of Israeli soldiers would mean freedom for thousands more Palestinians imprisoned in Israel.

…most of the 477 prisoners freed Tuesday had been serving life terms for killing Israelis, and their release violated a long-standing Israeli pledge not to free those with “blood on their hands”…

In his speech, Abbas praised the released prisoners as “freedom fighters.”

He suggested that his method of negotiations was also bearing fruit, saying that “there is an agreement between us and the Israeli government on another batch (of releases) similar to this batch after it finishes.”

His comments marked the first time he referred to an additional prisoner release, and there was no immediate Israeli comment.

The Boston Globe has some sobering (and gruesome) details about several specific Palestinian soldiers and the reasons they had been imprisoned. JTA has more here.

Even so, polls indicate that an overwhelming majority of Israelis supported the terms of the exchange–likely because universal conscription means nearly all Israelis can strongly identify with the desire to leave no soldier behind.

Curiously, polls also indicate that 66% of Israelis have little hope for a peaceful solution to the Palestinian conflicts. 67% of those polled last month also said that President Netanyahu did not believe peace with the Palestinians is possible.

It’s as if Israelis are desperate for an end to the conflict, but have all but given up hope that an agreement will ever be reached. No doubt Palestinian families feel the same way, though many of their leaders seem bent on continuing the conflict at all costs.

Netanyahu noted this morning that “On this day, we are all united in both joy and pain.” That may be the best, most universally applicable summary of this situation yet uttered. And as Palestinians welcome home their loved ones today, no less loved for having blood on their hands, it’s hard to imagine a time when the pain and the joy will not be thus co-mingled.

Photo courtesy of the Israel Defense Forces


What if Spock Was Right: Gilad Shalit, the Many, and the One

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Hamas announced yesterday that Gilad Shalit, the young Israeli soldier held captive by Hamas since 2006, will be released.

In exchange for Shalit’s freedom, more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, hundreds of them convicted terrorists, will also be released.

The lopsided nature of this one-for one thousand exchange has not gone unnoticed, especially since similar past exchanges have not worked out well for Israel. It’s generally agreed that Hamas is set to be the winner in this instance, and though many believe Israel ought to be commended for a renewed commitment to life and hope, it seems probable that the freeing of these hundreds of convicted terrorists will bring an end to many, many more lives in both Israel and Palestine.

Has Israel made the right decision? It’s hard to know.

Perhaps it’s trite, but I can’t help thinking here of two exchanges between Spock and Captain Kirk in the Star Trek movies.

As Spock sacrifices himself at the end of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, he tells Kirk,

Spock:“Don’t grieve, Admiral. It is logical. The needs of the many outweigh…”

Kirk: “The needs of the few.”

Spock: “Or the one.”

Later, when Kirk and Spock are reunited after Spock’s rescue, Spock is puzzled—why was he spared when so much was at stake?

Spock: My father says that you have been my friend. You came back for me.
Kirk: You would have done the same for me.
Spock: Why would you do this?
Kirk: Because the needs of the one… outweigh the needs of the many.

In the Star Trek universe, Kirk found a way to save both the many and the one. Spock sacrificed himself for his shipmates, and they in turn sacrificed themselves for him. It makes for a good story—but real world struggles rarely end so neatly. In buying Gilad Shalit’s freedom at an almost impossibly high price, Israel may end up sacrificing its own people for the sake of a compelling national narrative.

It’s bold. It’s risky. It’s what the “good guys” in the movies would do. But is it wise? Perhaps not.

This tension between the needs of the one and needs of the many is, by the way, an old problem for Israel. In John 11, when the chief priests and Pharisees are discussing what to do about the man whose actions threaten their own power, Caiaphas convinces them to simply do away with Jesus:

“…You know nothing at all, nor do you take into account that it is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish.” (John 11:49-50)

In the past, when Israel acted out of fear and favored the “many” over the “one”, Jesus died. (Of course, Gilad Shalit is not Jesus, and both stories are complicated. This is not a perfect analogy!) This time, though it’s easy to criticize the country’s desperation, they are at least moving forward boldly, and without obvious fear.

Maybe that’s good. Maybe it’s bad. I don’t know.

“Pray for the peace of Jerusalem”—and pray for Gilad Shalit. That much, at least, is clear.


The Irvine 11: Pity They Settled For So Little

The verdict was just announced a few hours ago, but, predictably, the Irvine 11 have already been turned into hero-martyrs all over the web. Though there’s no knowing yet whether the  students involved planned this kind of treatment for themselves, their website and twitter stream make it appear that they’ve been ready and waiting for this for some time.

This makes it doubly important that people look at both sides of the issue.

I was in a group with Ambassador Oren just an hour or two before his speech in Irvine, at a pastor’s reception at Mariner’s Church. He had a lot to say about the opposition he knew he’d probably face at Irvine. It’s a shame his comments have not been more widely aired, as they were both interesting and illuminating.

Here’s a video in case you haven’t heard what happened. In February, 2010 Ambassador Michael Oren, Israel’s Ambassador to the United States, was invited to speak at the University of California, Irvine. Though school officials practically begged the hecklers to behave, a number of students so disrupted his talk that a planned Q & A session was cancelled and several students from UC Irvine and UC Riverside were afterwards arrested.

This morning an Orange County, CA court found ten of the students guilty of conspiring to disrupt the Ambassador’s speech, and of then following through with plans to disrupt it.

As he was leaving the pastor’s meeting, Ambassador Oren mentioned that he expected to meet some opposition in the coming hours at Irvine—and that he was glad his detractors would likely be present, because he really wanted to spend time listening to and dialoguing with them. I can’t quote him directly, but I do know he said that such people were the audience he most cared about. He appreciated that they were passionate about an issue he also felt passionately about, and he expressed a strong desire to fully understand their objections and to spend time addressing their concerns.

Of course, anyone can say that. But Ambassador Oren spoke so firmly about his desire for fair, honest, productive dialogue with Palestinians and their supporters that it’s hard to discount him. Had the students who disrupted his speech instead asked him to have a real conversation about real issues, he surely would have given them his time.

Unfortunately, it seems that’s not what the Irvine 11 wanted.  Too bad—if they’d really wanted to start a conversation, as their website claims, they could have had quite a conversation with Michael Oren that day in Irvine. It’s a pity they decided to settle for less.

War of the Words: Israel and the U.S.

As Israel struggles to stay afloat beneath the nearly universal condemnation of its conduct in the recent flotilla incident, I can’t help wondering: When did racism suddenly become so socially acceptable – and even fashionable – in the U.S.?

To be sure, the decades-long struggle between Israel, Palestine, and the rest of the world is far from simple, and atrocities have doubtless been committed by both sides.  War is ugly, and we are rightly repulsed by it.  We make an enormous tactical mistake, however, when we allow this to separate us form our long-time ally–because that is exactly what our mutual enemy hopes for.  The U.S. government is doing no one any favors by distancing itself from Israel’s recent actions—no one, that is, except the flotilla organizers.  They depended on just this sort of reaction to solidify Israel’s place as Most Hated Nation. By making their own enemy the enemy of the civilized world, the Islamists behind the flotilla have gained an entirely new set of friends and potential allies.

Anti-Zionism is often merely a half step away from anti-Semitism. Though the two ideologies are not precisely identical—anti-Semitism was around long before the state of Israel existed—they are very closely related—so closely related, in fact, that in stoking the flames of anti-Zionism across the globe, the organizers of the flotilla have, at least temporarily, made anti-Semitism a Western virtue.  And almost no one has noticed.

Israel’s account of the events leading up to this week’s international outrage is fairly straightforward.  In fact, it’s the only unambiguous part of this whole PR nightmare.  Every other nation’s reaction has been so heavily contextualized with emotions and memories of past events that it’s a wonder we know what happened at all.

This is intentional.  Cold, hard facts are easy to confirm or deny; symbols are not. The flotilla, its cargo, and its passengers were selected to confuse the issues by serving as a symbol of Israeli aggression or of Palestinian hardship or of . . . whatever else it might take to turn the world against Israel.  Mostly, it was intended to spark anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic sentiments all over the globe.  It worked.

The international media’s emotional outrage is clearly about a lot more than just the deaths of the protestors on the flotilla.  It’s about the much longer struggle, stretched out over decades, between Israel and Palestine.  It’s about the resentments on both sides, and about how hard it is to wait patiently for a resolution between two competing worldviews.  And it’s about the belief, implicit in all these frustrations, that the world would be a better place without both Israel and the Jewish people.

In other words, it’s about the Islamist narrative.

Why is the leadership of our government buying into this narrative? It’s not a narrative that will ever be good for the U.S.  Neglecting our longstanding relationship with Israel will merely lead to the deterioration with our other Middle Eastern alliances.  With Iran so close to developing a nuclear weapons arsenal, we cannot afford to cause unnecessary shifts in the balance of power.  Not only can we not afford to alienate our ally, but we also can’t afford to endorse anti-Semitism in any form—not only because it is wrong, but also because where anti-Semitism thrives, anti-Americanism too often follows.

Yet we are endorsing it, as is the rest of the world, when we refuse to give Israel a fair trial.  This is not to say that Israel is incapable of error or that we should support our ally without reservation or precondition. Like all nations, Israel is a flawed state composed of imperfect people.  But in being so quick to assume that the international media narrative is correct, we are opening ourselves to exactly the sort of feelings and opinions that our enemies have been hoping for.

Islamists have ennobled their own position in the world by making Israel a global outcast.  They’ve encouraged us to turn against one of our best allies, endangering our own security in the process. They’ve also enflamed the anti-Semitic suspicion and hatred that is frequently associated with anti-American convictions.

The media frenzy surrounding the flotilla will quickly subside and most of us will forget about it within weeks. But next time Israel acts in a way that the world doesn’t approve of,  it will be easier for us to uncritically condemn them, and easier for us to learn to hate them.  If we don’t stop ourselves we will become so much like our enemies that they will defeat us without our even noticing. ‘