What is the Worth of a Human Life? | Congregation Beth Am

What is the Worth of a Human Life?

By Rabbi Chuck Briskin on
January 30, 2004

What is the worth of a human life? This is the question that was posed yesterday in Israel, and was discussed and debated in cafes, offices, and living rooms. What is the worth of a human life? What is one willing to exchange in order to know for certain the fate of a loved one? Yesterday morning after three years of delicate and complicated negotiations, the Israeli government released four hundred and twenty nine prisoners—members of the Lebanese terrorist organization, Hezbollah—in exchange for the remains of three Israeli Defense Forces soldiers, and one living civilian, a suspicious Israeli businessman. What is the worth of a human life, or even the remains of the deceased? We learned the Israeli answer yesterday.

For Palestinian terrorists, the answer is radically different. Rather than doing whatever one can to preserve life, many place a value on death. Israelis were reminded of that brutal fact once again yesterday as yet another person turned himself into a human bomb.
The worth of a suicide bomber is measured by the number of innocent civilians they kill or maim. What is the worth of a human life?

Yesterday, these two perspectives became very clear. If you read the accounts of yesterday’s events in the New York Times, two articles on page six would have struck you. An entire page was devoted to Israel, which is not entirely out of the ordinary. However, the juxtaposition of the articles was jarring. The headline on the top of the page read, “Suicide Bomber on Jerusalem Bus Kills 10 and Himself.” The headline just below read, “Israel and Hezbollah Trade Prisoners and War Dead in Flights to and From Germany.” On one single day, Israel had its hands tied simultaneously by two terror organizations. The Palestinian Al-Aksa Martyrs Brigade who launched an attack on Israel at the same time that the Lebanese based Hizbollah saw the return of several hundred living prisoners in exchange for three dead soldiers and an allegedly corrupt businessman.
The account of the exchange does little to garner relief or goodwill between these enemies.

Four hundred Palestinian prisoners were released through several checkpoints in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The prospect of these newly freed men returning to potentially further the work of Hezbollah, or any other terrorist organization is troubling and frightening indeed. More disturbing, however, are the comments made by Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah. At a jubilant reception of the twenty three prisoners released in Lebanon, Nasrallah made defiant, disparaging, and disgusting remarks. He insulted the families of the dead soldiers and threatened to kidnap more Israelis in order to foster further prisoner exchanges. His remarks evoked an enthusiastic response from his Lebanese supporters.

A couple hundred miles south of Beirut, the mood was very somber as the coffins of the dead soldiers were met by family members and top Israeli officials at a small ceremony at the Air Force base at Ben Gurion Airport. Elhanan Tannenbaum, the captured businessman was returned alive, but sent for questioning by the police as the circumstances of his presence in Lebanon in the fall of 2000 was being determined. Ben Gurion Airport was not a place of celebration. It was a place of tears. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon remarked, “This is not a time of happiness; this is a time of relief and composure.” (NYT 1/30/04). The return of the bodies was simply the end of a very long and painful chapter in the lives of the families of the soldiers, Adi Avitan, Benny Avraham, and Omar Souad. Their worst fears were now confirmed, at last: their sons were dead.

This exchange has fueled impassioned debate between those who think Israel made a mistake and those who believe that one must, “Bring the boys home,” no matter what. Some critics feel that the Israeli government fell right into a trap set by Nasrallah, and that they exposed their Achilles heel—their willingness to go to extraordinary lengths for their dead. Four more P.O.W.s remain in Lebanon, including Ron Arad, whose high profile captivity has been on the Israeli public’s radar screen for almost twenty years. How many Hezbollah prisoners will it take and what vile concessions will be made to get these men released? What are their lives worth? These are the difficult question that Israel must grapple with as negotiations for its missing soldiers continue and terrorist still strike.

Yesterday’s events left a bad taste in my mouth. It did in the mouths of most Israelis as well. One may argue that this was not Israel’s proudest moment. It was, however, a necessary moment, for when we consider what a human life is worth, it is important to look to Israel as an example.

“Bringing the boys home”--Israeli prisoners of war, soldiers missing in action, and those killed on foreign soil to Eretz Yisrael—the land of Israel—has been a sacrosanct principle of the Israeli Defense Forces since its inception. Few efforts are spared to free prisoners, even if it means risking the lives of those whose mission it is to free them, or in this case, exchanging prisoners for corpses in a grossly uneven swap. The names of Adi Avitan, Benny Avraham, and Omar Saoud, are known by all in Israel.

Their return to Israel and the confirmation of their deaths will enable their families to grieve in the traditional manner—with a proper burial, a second round of Shiva, perhaps, and an ability to close this excruciatingly painful chapter in their lives, and perhaps move on. Israelis are joined in performing the mitzvah of nichum avelim—comforting the bereaved—as they gather as a nation to mourn with and to support the families of these fallen soldiers.

The government of Israel, like the United States, has always declared forcefully that it would never negotiate with terrorists. To a certain extent, it appears that this value was outweighed by the need to “bring her boys home.” Will Israel be forced into another difficult round of negotiations to secure the release of POWs Ron Arad, Zecharya Baumel, Zvi Feldman and Yehuda Katz? Perhaps, yes, and indeed it will be painful again, and it will leave a sour taste in our mouths, but it will be necessary.

So how do we come to terms with yesterday’s difficult events? By acknowledging that Israel not only must often take drastic measures to protect her people, but also that she must make difficult and painful concessions in order to bring a sense of shleimut—wholeness, and shalom—peace, for specific families, and ultimately for the nation. There is little joy in Israel this Shabbat. The victims of yesterday’s suicide bombing have been buried, and shiva will commence tomorrow night. For the families of the returned soldiers there is relief and closure, but certainly no joy. Perhaps, there remains a small spark of optimism for the remaining POWs that they too may come home, to their place of rest. What is a human life worth? For Israeli soldiers, it is knowing that the nation and its people value life above all else and that Eretz Yisrael will always be home, in life and in death, where one can live or rest in peace.


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