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House Debate

March 24, 2007

Shortly after the media began carrying the story of former IDF chief of General Staff Moshe Ya’alon’s comment that sometimes prisoners of war must be sacrificed if the demands for their return are too high, I found myself at home with two of my kids. My son, headed for the army in just a matter of weeks, had just finished reading the story on the Web. “Sounds like Ya’alon stirred up a hornet’s nest,” he said.

“Pretty painful stuff,” I replied, as I’d been trying to imagine what it must feel like to be the parents of Gilad Schalit, Eldad Regev or Ehud Goldwasser, and to have as respected a person as Ya’alon say that, especially this week.

“True,” my son said, “but he might be right.”

“Or he might be wrong,” chimed in my daughter, who just got out of the army after three years of service. “How do we then tell soldiers that we never leave a man in the field? Are they supposed to go to war knowing that we might not, in fact, do everything to get them back?”

The exchange was brief, but significant, for it made clear that Ya’alon had accomplished something that the entire echelon of Israeli political leadership has failed to do in the two years since the soldiers were captured. He has engendered debate. Read the Web. Follow the talkbacks. Listen to the radio. Suddenly, people are talking, debating and disagreeing. It’s not terribly important whether or not one agrees with Ya’alon. What matters is that finally, someone’s got us talking, and maybe even thinking.

FOR THE many months that there has been talk of a trade for Gilad Schalit at an extremely high price, Israelis have engaged in virtually no significant public debate. Of course the Schalits and the Goldwassers were right that Ya’alon would not have said the same thing had it been his own child in captivity. The Schalits are doing what every decent parent must do – they are using every tool at their disposal to get their son back. They are right to do it, and for the dignity with which they have shouldered their burden and pressed their case, they deserve our abiding admiration and respect.

But painful though it may be to say, a country like Israel, with a steadily deteriorating strategic position made all the worse by a government that has raised playing its cards poorly to a virtual art form, needs to restore a public square pulsing with serious national debate.

Is it really true that we will do everything – regardless of the price – to bring soldiers home? What are the dangers of such a policy? Or will we not? And what would that decision say about our values? These questions are beyond agonizing, and we could make a strong case for either side. But what is more tragic than the fact that we will have to decide is the fact that we’ve lost the ability to discuss, and possibly to think.

This is a country that has become far too comfortable with ducking the hard questions. How often in recent weeks have we heard the absurd refrain, “Of course we want peace with Syria; we’re just not willing to give up the Golan”? It’s utterly meaningless chatter. Everyone knows that there’s no deal to be had with Syria that does not involve negotiating the status of the Golan. Perhaps some sort of long term rent-back, or some other creative solution, is possible. But if the Golan is not in some way on the table, there is no peace to be had. So let’s either discuss giving up the Golan, or declare that we have no interest in peace with Syria. Either is a defensible position; but bumper stickers in the place of national discourse will not save the Jewish state.

THERE’S A certain poetic appropriateness to the recent news that the OC Chaplaincy Corps will now be examining the evidence as to whether Regev and Goldwasser should be declared “killed in action.” Imagine that – the first thing that the rabbinate says or does after two years of captivity is to possibly declare two people dead. For those Israelis who’ve long assumed that Regev and Goldwasser are no longer living, this rabbinic decision will have added nothing. And to their families, who will understandably want much better proof, rabbinic pronouncements will also be meaningless.

It’s a perfect metaphor for the rabbinate, and for Israel’s alleged leadership at large.

In the days preceding Shavuot, as I read the advertisements for the various tikkunim across the city, I came across a poster for the lecture to be given by one of the chief rabbis at the Great Synagogue. The topic? Something about the views of halachic experts on the custom of praying at the graves of righteous men (tzaddikim). I was dumbfounded. That is what the Chief Rabbinate thinks the Jewish state should be discussing in 2008? That is the sort of topic that will bespeak the richness of the Jewish tradition to a population no longer convinced that Judaism has anything of value to say?

IF JEWISH statehood matters at all, it matters because sovereignty affords Jews the opportunity to build something unique, distinctly Jewish, informed by the very best that the Jewish and Western traditions have to say about human life and the nation-state. There were days when this society was racked by debates about what we should build here. Socialist versus free-market. Religious versus secular. Jewish or bi-national. While it is true that today’s abundance of small political parties is a serious liability, we ought also to remember that those parties grew out of deeply held convictions as to what the Zionist project ought to be about.

Moshe Ya’alon made some people very uncomfortable this week. He may be right; he may also be wrong. But he got us talking, and thinking, about the values that ought to lie at the core of the Zionist enterprise. There’s a word for what he did. It’s called leadership.

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