The Release of Palestinian Prisoners

The Release of Palestinian Prisoners

The following was written as a response to a blog post authored by Rabbi Carl M. Perkins discussing the Israeli release of Palestinian prisoners as a precondition to the commencement of the current set of negotiations, posted on a listserve I belong to.  The original post (linked to here) was in part a tribute to Prof. Menachem Stern of Hebrew University, murdered by a Palestinian in 1989, and whose murderer will apparently be released shortly.  I should note that despite his criticism of the prisoner release, Rabbi Perkins did not suggest that the Israeli government should not have implemented the release.  I assert in my rejoinder below is that it is short-sighted to focus solely on your own side’s pain; without understanding both the humanity and the political goals of the other side there can be no comprehension of the larger picture. 

With all respect to Rabbi Perkins, and even more to Menachem Stern z”l, his article misses the point.  Rabbi Perkins’s seeming inability to comprehend that there are two sides to this war – or even that it is a war – is perhaps the greatest danger to this fragile peace process.

No one could defend the murder of Menachem Stern.  But no one could defend the murder of many thousands of people – Arabs and Israelis – who have died in this struggle, not a few – on both sides – as undeserving of death as he was.  The brutal fact is that Menachem Stern’s murder was not a criminal act but a political one;  it was part of a war.  And prisoners of war are released as part of a peace process.  Usually at the end of the process, but most do not last for 20 years (the 20th anniversary of the White House handshake is next month).

I would not expect the relatives of people killed to take this larger view.  Their loss and grief is personal, but a person somewhat removed – especially a rabbi – has a duty to take a larger view.  And Rabbi Perkins seems unable to recognize this.

This is an asymmetrical war, as so many are now.  Could anyone seriously maintain that, had the Palestinians not engaged in their struggle over many years, including numerous attacks against civilians in Israel and abroad, that their nationhood would have been recognized by Israel in 1993 on the White House lawn?  And those who murdered Professor Stern were in effect the Palestinian soldiers who brought Israel to negotiations.  Those are more brutal facts that anyone seeking to understand this conflict – including the murders of civilians on both sides – has to recognize.

I want to make clear I am not defending those who engaged in murder of civilians.  I do think there is a moral difference between a soldier who fights on a battlefield and someone who kills an unarmed civilian.  However, those of us who are partisans of the infinitely stronger side – Israel – have a responsibility to take a larger view when there is a chance of ending the conflict, and ending the murders of more Menachem Sterns and their Palestinian equivalents.

Palestinian families want their men back just as Jewish families do.  And if they are expected to compromise for peace, then they are entitled to have them.  And rabbis should be the ones who remind Jews that Palestinians are people with the same feelings as Jews – and entitled to the same rights.  Israelis elected Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Shamir – terrorists by any definition – prime ministers of their country.  Palestinians likewise see their own terrorists as heroes.  We do not have to agree with them, but if we want to live in peace with them then we have to recognize the larger picture.

Rabbi Perkins does a disservice to the larger value of peace by focusing simply and solely on Jewish pain.  There are two sides to any war, and a spiritual leader should be pointing that out.

I have no idea if this current process will work.  But Israelis can make it more likely to succeed by recognizing the common humanity of their enemy, even when it involves releasing the murderers of people like Menachem Stern.
By | 2013-08-07T02:33:00-04:00 August 7th, 2013|Blog|8 Comments


  1. Ralph Seliger August 7, 2013 at 3:23 pm - Reply

    Rather than chastising Rabbi Perkins for being small-minded, I’d emphasize his clenched-teeth bitter acceptance of the deal as illustrating how difficult it is for so many Jews and Israelis (understandably) to come to terms with what may be necessary. It’s a hopeful sign that he does allow in the end for “hope … that it will bear fruit …”

    I also wouldn’t want to simply classify the murder of Prof. Stern and other victims of terrorism as acts of war; intentional attacks on unarmed civilians are crimes. While it is true that they are committed in the name of fighting for Palestinian rights, their heinous terrorist nature makes it more difficult for otherwise liberal-minded Jews and Israelis to embrace this cause, within the context of a peace agreement for two states that both Paul and I support.

  2. Anonymous August 7, 2013 at 8:50 pm - Reply

    Great piece, Paul. In the five years, starting in 2006, Israel killed 28 Palestinians for each Israeli killed. Seventy-six Palestinian children were killed for each Israeli child killed. When will it be enough for Israelis to recognize the pain and terror they inflict upon their neighboring enemy? Or do they see Palestinians as roaches to be crushed when expose to the light?

    Source of figures: Israeli human rights group B’Tselem and Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs

  3. Ralph Seliger August 7, 2013 at 10:30 pm - Reply

    It’s telling that this grim accounting of relative death tolls by “Anonymous” leaves out the bloody years of the Second Intifada, in which nearly 1,000 Israeli civilians were slain and several thousand injured. It also ignores the takeover of Gaza by Hamas following Israel’s withdrawal in 2005 and the thousands of rockets launched into southern Israel from this territory.

    S/He is correct that the death toll post-2005 has been overwhelmingly against the Palestinians, which only emphasizes the foolishness of attacking Israel instead of negotiating a peace agreement.

    Unfortunately, the ongoing conflict with Gaza has only reinforced hardline attitudes and policies from the Israeli side when it comes to reaching a final agreement. Let’s hope that Kerry can help both sides reach a workable accord.

  4. Anonymous August 8, 2013 at 12:14 am - Reply

    I wonder how this discussion would take place if Israel had instituted the death penalty for terrorist acts resulting in the death of unarmed civilians.

  5. Peretz Rodman August 8, 2013 at 6:23 pm - Reply

    Since both you, Paul, and Rabbi Perkins are friends of mine, I can say with some assurance that there is far more on which you agree than on which you disagree. I understand your sensitivity to his blog post, which does dwell at length on prisoner release as appeasement and, perforce, encouragement of terrorism. The psychological truth of his claim cannot be denied, and he takes pains to point out that he perceives a wider picture, balancing that point with other considerations.

    By stating that the conflict between Palestinians and Israeli Jews is a war, you imply that no matter what each side does to wage that war, there’s at least a rough moral equivalence. That’s as irksome to many of us Israelis as Rabbi Perkins’ column is to you.

    Ultimately, all these arguments will have to be jettisoned if we are to make progress toward a solution, by which I mean a two-state solution. Any such progress will entail gross injustices to many individuals. Helping those dealt such unfairness to cope with the solution will require validating the legitimacy of their claims, on both sides of the conflict — precisely in order to enable them to accept the price they would be paying for enabling the two sides to live in peace.

  6. Anonymous August 8, 2013 at 9:28 pm - Reply

    Ralph, you are right. In the second intifada, the ratio of Palestinian to Israeli deaths was only about 3-1. I suppose the wall and other oppressive acts did the job. But what is the future for Israel if it keeps up the repression? For all it’s amazing accomplishments, Israel will be the most hated state in the world -and that is a major label considering the competition.

  7. Ralph Seliger August 8, 2013 at 10:50 pm - Reply

    Anonymous (above) is exactly right, and this is one of several reasons why we advocate a negotiated two-state solution and oppose the further expansion of settlements into the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

  8. Paul L. Scham August 8, 2013 at 11:12 pm - Reply

    Thanks to all who wrote in; I appreciate your thoughtful responses. I want to respond to Peretz’s particularly. I guess I do find a “rough moral equivalence” between the sides; both are “righteous victims,” in Benny Morris’s apt phrase. And I understand that irks many Israelis. I am a partisan too but I try to take a larger perspective in my teaching and writing – and I don’t think either side needs more reinforcement that they are the good guys; both need reminders of the humanity of the other side. “I have, by the way, tried to do that with Arab audiences as well; also difficult.) I think it is appropriate that the negotiations began with a human gesture, not a political one. Israelis have no captives currently held by the Palestinians but Israel, as we all know, goes to enormous lengths to bring captives back. This gesture means most to the families of the prisoners, all of whom have been locked up for at least 20 years. I do not discount the pain of the Israeli families, but little can be done for them other than trying to end the conflict that is the cause of their bereavement. Thus, I think the release was a moral step, IN THIS CONTEXT, as well as giving Abu Mazen some political cover against the charge of collaborator, and also showing that Israel doesn’t only release prisoners to Hamas.
    I look forward to more conversation on this difficult topic.

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