10/26/2011 09:08 EDT | Updated 12/26/2011 05:12 EST

Gilad Shalit: The Value of it All

When "we" stop congratulating ourselves for how much we honour and value human life, so much so that we are willing to risk future soldier abductions and terrorist attacks for bringing the captured Jewish boy home, can we try to think more deeply and honestly about how best to honour those values?

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This week, mea culpa, I discovered I am a fairweather friend to the Gilad Shalit cause. Unlike many other Jews, I had not appended a Gilad badge to my Facebook profile for the duration of his captivity. Instead, I had gazed ambivalently at the billboard-sized Gilad posters that had hung in our local Jewish Community Centre. The blank look in his eyes, his forearm raised, and his unsmiling expression suggested, to me, a collective Jewish defiance. In my cynical moments, I felt that the diaspora focus on Gilad Shalit served to bolster a mindless tribalism at the expense of deep knowledge about Israel and Jewish identity, a knowledge that might have served to be transformative.

How many Gilad followers in the diaspora, if pressed, could even spell his name in Hebrew? How many of these diaspora Jews could discuss Israel's political spectrum with any fluency? How many had spent meaningful time visiting or living in Israel outside of the climate-controlled confines of Jewish Federation "missions?" How many knew even the basics about Israeli policies, including the nature of Israel's relationship with the Palestinians?

But on the day of his release, I shoved all that aside and became fully caught up in the human drama of it all. When I awoke on Tuesday, I hungered for images of him back on Israeli soil. I watched Gilad's painful and unplanned interview with Egyptian television until I could no longer bear to witness the reporter's vacuous questioning, delaying the poor boy from returning to his family. I watched as Gilad saluted gingerly and as the hardened Sabra top brass extended him tender hugs.

I eagerly listened to his father, Noam, speak openly and graciously to the supporters and reporters gathered outside the family home, as he acknowledged the moral complexities in such an inequitable prisoner trade, thereby including the many grieving families in his verbal embrace.

And then I reflected on the days of moral posturing from across the Jewish community that had emerged as soon as the deal was announced and which will no doubt continue for weeks to come. I watched with measured fascination as one tweeter posed a question ("Who do you think was treated better?") along a photo of a pale, thin Ashkenazi'ed-complexion Gilad with sunken eyes adjacent to photos of dark-skinned, smiling, Arab men: the released Palestinian prisoners. The lesson was clear: Israeli prisoners emerge from demonic Palestinian dungeons appearing sallow and weak, while Palestinian prisoners are released from benign Jewish incarceration looking ruddy and strong.

I read how much "we" value human life, compared to "their" murderous, "sociopathic" criminality. One thousand and twenty-seven prisoners for one boy soldier. Choose life, as the Torah famously says. Those are Jewish values.

Of course, "their" released prisoners were making "V" signs out their bus windows, the symbol that Israelis and Jews the world over can't help but associate with the terrifying image of a Palestinian man leaning out a window during the second Intifada, showing off his glistening, crimson palms after the unforgettable lynching of an IDF soldier in Ramallah. After all, writes one Israeli commentator in an article spewing one of the more shocking expressions of hatred against Palestinians that punctured the otherwise joyful and unifying day: Palestinians possess a "pure lust for Jewish blood."

But now I am thinking more deeply about those values that my fellow Jewish nationals are celebrating. When "we" stop congratulating ourselves for how much we honour and value human life, so much so that we are willing to risk future soldier abductions and terrorist attacks for bringing the captured Jewish boy home, can we try to think more deeply and honestly about how best to honour those values?

Strategically, everyone knows the prisoner exchange deal is risky. Some have described the deal as representing an internal clash of values. But the way to seriously advance Jewish values is to take the next step. Having brought Gilad home, Israel should now press seriously for peace. Only by seeking to recast the game can Israeli soldiers be safer patrolling their own borders. Only by redefining enemies into rivals (if not friends) can the value of choosing life be truly actualized.

The process of honouring Jewish values might also require delving further into the Jewish pantheon of teachings. There is a custom that visitors should refrain from speaking to a mourner before the mourner speaks first. Jews are taught to to value life, but we are also taught to hear. We are a people of talkers and questioners, but we also need to listen to others' truths, truths that aren't always easy to absorb.

We need to listen to the narrative of the Other, even if that narrative is difficult to hear. For Israelis, that two-fingered victory sign is inextricably tied up with the release of terrorists and thus images of the brutal killing of civilians juxtaposed against the pale, sunken eyes of one kidnapped boy-soldier who was conscripted to defend his country's borders. But for Palestinians, that same "V" signifies steadfastness in the face of the humiliation of occupation, the vagaries of European colonial history, and the sting of statelessness.

This week, let us be buoyed by the elation of seeing Gilad return home to the embrace of his family and of his entire nation. This week, let us shout and sing that our son is home. But next week, let us pause to listen. Let us listen closely for ways to eke out a new peace. Armed with Jewish values, that path will surely be Israel's best defense.

**A version of this article appeared on**