By Michael Oren
Today marks the hundredth-day anniversary of the atrocities of October 7th, the massacre of 1200 Israelis by Hamas and the taking of more than 240 hostages, 132 of whom remain in captivity. Their suffering is incalculable brought on by, torture, deprivation of lifesaving medication, and sexual abuse. The mere thought of what they have endured for those 100 days torments every Israeli.
Yesterday, on Shabbat, I sat for lunch with a typical Israeli family and had what's become an inescapable Israeli conversation. The topic was not, as might be expected, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s recent criticism of Israel’s conduct in the Gaza war or even Israel’s need to defend itself against the charges of genocide in the International Court of Justice. The sole subject was the hostages.
“The government has to do everything in its power to bring the hostages home,” began the mother as she laid bowls of hummus and tahini before us. “The state sent those people to live on the Gaza border and didn't protect them and now it must get them home even if it means freeing all the Palestinian terrorists in our jails.”
The father agreed, stressing, “If the state fails to redeem the hostages, no one will be able to send their children to the army again. Pidyon shivuim,” he noted, the redemption of captives, “is the most sacred Jewish value."
"No way,” the daughter interjected while passing around the kebabs. "We know what happened the last time we released prisoners in exchange for one hostage, Gilad Shalit. They all became the leaders of Hamas and killed even more Jews.” Her hand landed flat on the table. “In ten years from now, I’ll have to fear that the terrorists we release today will kill my children. I am unwilling to live with that fear.”
Then came my turn to comment. The terrorists, I noted, are in jail because they killed Israelis. And in releasing them, the state would have to explain to the bereaved families why the murderers of their loved ones get to go free. “The terrorists will go home to a hero's welcome while those they killed will never come home at all." The effects on Israel’s national morale would be devastating, I predicted, but not as harmful as the encouragement it would give to terror. “Hamas will conclude that taking hostages pays off and will seek to take even more of them in the future. Terrorists will kill Jews knowing that they’ll only spend a few years in prison before they are released in a prisoner-for-hostage exchange.”
My remarks should have been an appetite-killer but, this being an Israeli family, nothing deterred us from proceeding with the Shabbat meal. Only when dessert came, did the son hasten to add that Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar showed no signs of being interested in any exchange agreement whatsoever but rather seemed intent on achieving either victory or martyrdom. “We’re all talking as if there is actually a deal on the table,” he said sadly. "There may be, in fact, no deal. There may not even be a table."
This, finally, ended the conversation and, with it, most of the meal. Dessert and coffee were served in silence.
No doubt similar discussions were conducted around Shabbat tables throughout Israel, and perhaps even around the Jewish world. Frustratingly, excruciatingly, everyone’s position is right, and yet no one answer is correct. This is the horrendous dilemma that has fettered Israel for the last hundred days and seems destined to shackle us for the foreseeable future. It appears we have no choice but to continue our campaign to corner Hamas and force it to release hostages and end the terrorists’ rule over Gaza.
Today, some 120,000 Israelis gathered in Hostage Square for a 24-hour assembly demanding the hostages’ release. Among the posters and exhibits profiling each of the 132, was a table set with a similar number of settings and chairs–all of them empty. For those who still have the privilege of sitting freely around their tables, we ask one thing.
We ask that American and all Diaspora Jews to understand the depths of our dilemma and to continue to stand by us in our hour of pain. While much of the world condemns us for war crimes and denies us the right to self-defense, Jews everywhere must remember the words of Rachel Goldberg-Polin, mother of hostage Hersh Golberg-Polin. “It will take a molecule of the weight that I am carrying off of me knowing that you are carrying it as well.”