Debate on Shalit Deal Honors the Israeli Public

Philosophers at Oxford and Princeton are debating the issue of the weight of the risk of a specific individual's immediate death as relative to the risk of the future death of many whose identities are unknown; here this issue is a reality and an entire nation is grappling with it.

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The deal for Gilad Shalit's release is the very difficult test of maturity Israel is facing now. It is even more difficult than the tents protest. Neither of these matriculation exams has been graded yet, but they do testify to a deep process of Israeli maturation.

In the moderation and sophistication of the civil protest and the emotional courage entailed in the agreement to the Shalit deal, Israel has shown its ability to conduct itself not only as the most properly run of countries but also as one of the most level-headed and rational of them. For every bully who sprays the price tag slogan and sets mosques on fire, there are thousands of people who think democracy and act democracy. The government of Israel is now facing an opinionated, many-voiced public that expresses itself well. Regardless of their opinions on controversial issues, today the Israelis are the most active and communicative civil society in the world.

Noam Shalit on his way to a discussion in the High Court of Justice where terror victims have filed to appeal the Shalit prisoner exchange.Credit: Michal Fattal

Of course, the Shalit affair has been arousing strong emotions but it is the rational aspects of the discussion that are the most fascinating. Both supporters of the release of about 1,000 wicked terrorists in return for one soldier and opponents to the swap have weighty arguments. Somewhat overshadowed by the storm of emotion that sometimes borders on incitement, there is a real and deep moral debate going on here. And as is the wont of such debates in the history of ideas, both sides are (also ) saying sensible things. Hillel and Shammai, Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill would fit perfectly into this principled dispute.

As a supporter of the swap for reasons taken from the philosophy of the social contract and from the republican, civil tradition, I feel great respect for those who opposed the deal on the basis of reasons deriving from other philosophical outlooks. Both sides can rely, for example, on the utilitarian school. What is the correct outcome: the victims of the future or social solidarity? What is the status of the individual: a brick in a wall or the core of society - there is no one correct answer. A deep polemic of many participants will yield a better decision.

This, more or less, was the aim of the sages of the Mishna and the scholars of the Gemara, Marcus Tullius Cicero and John Stuart Mill. Philosophers at Oxford and Princeton are debating the issue of the weight of the risk of a specific individual's immediate death as relative to the risk of the future death of many whose identities are unknown. Here this issue is a reality and an entire nation is grappling with it. We can eagerly await the coming of Israeli philosophers who will write new chapters in the theory of morality on the basis of the tremendous problems of justice in our lives.

This was the case in ancient Athens and in early Modern England. In the early 21st century, the Israeli situation too requires philosophy in its most urgent, living and vivid sense, the way it was in Greece and England in their day, philosophy that is still smeared with traces of blood and mud, yet critical and reasoned.

So many issues come together here: What is the relative weight of the individual and the collective? What should one die for and not concede, and what should one concede and not die for? What is defeat and what is victory? And so many associations: Am I my brother's keeper, lest the daughters of the uncircumcised triumph, and Ze'ev Jabotinsky's contradictory dichotomy: First there was the nation and first there was the individual.

We are no longer concerned with "Tell it not in Gath." Here we have told it in Gaza and as the rejoicing daughters of the triumphant Philistines come out to dance around their hero-murderers, here the joy is mingled with sadness, with anxiety and yet also with quiet pride. For the disagreement itself has been a certificate of honor for Israeli society. Here too the principle of the discussion circle worked.

It is very important that our debate resound in the international media's streets of Ashkelon. At its best, this is a profound and creative debate. The issues of life and death, too, are nearly always decided here by the tongue in the head rather than the point on the spear. And this, in fact, is a pretty good answer to the question of who has triumphed.



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