Swords of Iron

The Hostage Dilemma

It is common to think that despite the extensive political, religious and cultural differences between different identity groups in Israel, on really important matters—such as survival in the face of enemy attack—they can all come together.

Indeed, it seemed that this was illustrated by the total mobilization of Israeli society after the Oct. 7 Hamas massacre.

Yet recent days have shown that this is not entirely true. There is one very important matter that has not enjoyed total consensus: The hostages being held in Gaza by Hamas. While the media and most of the public seemed to endorse the now-defunct “truce” between Israel and Hamas, as well as the following exchange of terrorists in Israeli prisons for Israeli hostages, some have sounded a note of dissent.

This dissent has mostly come from the religious right and has, in some cases, involved outright opposition to the truce and exchange. National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir denounced them, while Finance Minister Betzalel Smotrich and Minister of Settlements and National Missions Orit Strook expressed deep reservations but were eventually “won over” by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Rabbinic statements have been made against the deal. Participants in the vigils led the hostages’ families have noted the absence of religious people.

Why does only one sector dissent from what appears to be the consensus view of the rest of Israeli society?

The answer probably lies in differing views of Jewish nationalism and the social contract between the individual and the body politic.

Enlightenment philosophers such as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau held that a person joins with other individuals to form a state in order to regulate and adjudicate their social relations because, in a state of nature, a lone person is exposed to loss of life, liberty and property via such things as murder, theft and enslavement.

In the Israeli version of this view, the individual knows that, in order to flourish, they must be part of the collective, which often means the state. At the same time, the individual expects that, in exchange for mobilizing for the collective good, the state will ensure the flourishing of the individual.

The Religious Zionist community has a different vision of Jewish nationalism and the state. It endorses integral and organic nationalism. The very being of the individual is held to derive from the collective, understood as an organic whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Since the individual derives their very existence from the nation, it is expected that the individual will subordinate their interests to those of the nation. This is likely why the self-sacrifice of religious soldiers in the current conflict has been notable.

These two different readings of nationalism are not exclusive to Israel. They have also characterized the history of France, Germany, Poland and many other countries.

The truce and hostage exchange pitted the interests of the individual against those of the collective. They permitted Hamas to reorganize and regroup, and it stands to reason that the just-resumed fighting will be harder and more dangerous for Israeli troops as a result. The release of Palestinian terrorists is also clearly not in the collective interest. Nevertheless, the hostages and their families can make the claim that, as citizens, the State of Israel has a duty to serve them as individuals.

Thus, a philosophical debate with roots in the 17th century has enormous impact on Israeli policy in the 21st century, and on the lives of Israeli citizens, soldiers and hostages.

We must bear two things in mind: First, empathy should not be impinged upon. Religious people, and especially rabbis and other religious leaders, should feel empathy for the hostages and their families even if they disagree with particular policy decisions. Such empathy and emotional support should not be construed as support for policies that religious people do not endorse.

Second, even though I have presented two alternative views of nationalism and the body politic, they should not be understood as a binary but rather as a continuum. Religious Jews are more collectivist and secular Israelis more individualist, but it is not either/or, one or the other. Every policy dilemma on these issues should be judged on a case-by-case basis. Philosophical differences may affect Israeli solidarity, but should not be allowed to rip it apart.

Published by JNS

Photo Credit: Shalev Shalom/TPS