Monday, 17 October 2011

Flying the flag for Gilad

It's just one moment, that solitary second at a Jewish wedding when all those rejoicing are reminded that all is not well. The groom raises his foot and smashes the glass that's on the floor in front of him. It marks that no Jewish celebration is full of complete joy. At some weddings, a song that tells of the everlasting Jewish dream and hope for a rebuilt Jerusalem and reunited Jewish people is sung either just before the glass is smashed or whilst this is done. Some people I've spoken to have told me that at that moment, as they tinge their joy with sadness, they think of relatives or friends who couldn't join physically in the festivities, but whose spirits are there to celebrate. 

No joy in Judaism is totally free from sadness. And so too, days of joy in Israel are touched by memories of those who helped make dreams a reality and are not around to witness it themselves. The day of celebration of Yom Ha'atzmaut, Israel's Independence Day, is always preceded the previous day by Yom Hazikaron, Remembrance Day for all those who fought for and died over many years, including in terror attacks, for that very independence. 

The impending joy of Gilad Shalit's release is more than just touched by sadness - it is engulfed in it. Hundreds of what the Western press calls prisoners, but who should be more accurately described either as terrorists at the very least, or mass murderers at their worst, are about to be released from Israeli prisons. Some will head back to their own homes, some will be exiled, but all will be free. Hundreds of murderers in exchange for one Israeli soldier. It's an awful price to pay. It's a price that no other government would even consider, but one that the Israeli government, after indescribable tormented debate, has no choice but to pay.

It has no choice because of an age old solemn promise that Israel will always look after its soldiers, and the army is sworn never to leave an injured soldier in the field. These are promises that keep morale high in the IDF and in society at large, and if threatened, have the potential to change the very fabric of Israeli society. 

It is a choice enforced by the fact that the Jewish State holds precious the lives of its citizens in a way that no terrorist organisation ever has, does, or will, whether those lives be those of their enemies or even their own people. 

It is a choice that everyone prays will never have to be made again. 

Hundreds of mourning Israeli families, whether or not they were pre-warned, having looked at the list of those being released, are once again grieving for their lost sons, daughters, parents, friends. Israeli society and the Jewish world at large is torn apart. When is the price just too high? When is saving a single life, a life that the ancient Jewish sages tell us is worth an entire world, just not worth it? When should the Israeli government just say no? 

Tomorrow, if the rumours are to be believed and if all goes to plan, Gilad will celebrate his independence. His family will welcome him home, his friends will celebrate, his brothers-in-arms will breathe a sigh of relief. Israeli flags will fly, mine included. But there's something inside that tells me that out of respect to those who are hurting, the flags should only be flown at half-mast.