Harvard Law School Professor Alan M. Dershowitz defended on Thursday Israel’s decision to secure the return of captured soldier Gilad Shalit in exchange for the release of around 1,000 Palestinian prisoners as part and parcel of Israeli democracy, something that he said Western observers do not take sufficient care to understand.
Dershowitz made the remarks at a talk alongside Rabbi Jonathan H. Sacks, the chief religious leader of British Jews, and said that Israel’s decision to agree to a swap represents a vital democracy insofar as the movement to secure Shalit’s freedom was a popular one that was led by his family and carried out in the court of public opinion.
“No matter what we may think in the halls of academia ... ultimately, the decision has to be made by Israelis,” Dershowitz said.
Many observers have criticized Israel’s choice to release a large number of prisoners in exchange for Shalit’s return, a decision that many say will lead to further kidnappings of Israeli soldiers to be used as bargaining chips. Dershowitz pushed back against American criticism of Israeli policy by saying that American critics of Israel do not adequately take into consideration Israel’s status as a democracy, which he said entitles it to a greater degree of independence than some of its critics grant.
In the wake of the exchange, Dershowitz and Sacks both said it was important for Israel to retain its Jewish identity even in the hailstorm of conflict, adding that the long-standing tension between Israelis and Palestinians should, in principle, be able to lead to a sense of understanding between the two peoples.
“If there is anyone on earth who should be able to understand Jewish struggles, it’s Palestinians,” Sacks said. “And if there is anyone on earth who should be able to understand Palestinian struggles, it’s Jews.”
Dershowitz said that while the conflict is headed in the wrong direction politically, it is moving in the right direction intellectually.
“It can’t be based on ‘it’s our home’ or ‘it’s your home,’” Dershowitz said. “It’s the home of both people and both people have to live in peace with each other.”
Both Sacks and Dershowitz, two highly vocal advocates for a Jewish state, recognized the difficulty of the conflict. For all their expertise on the matter, neither Sacks nor Dershowitz had a clear view of whether the effort to achieve peace is progressing in the right direction.
Both men said that there was an inevitability to the tie between the Jewish people’s history and today’s Israel. Because Jews are unique in their perpetual homelessness, Israel remains a product of Jews’ history of trauma and expulsion, Sacks said.
“Jews discovered that there was not one inch on the face of the planet that they could call home,” Sacks said.
“It’s hard to see how, in a world in which there are 56 Islamic states and at least 82 Christian states, there isn’t room for one Jewish state,” Sacks added. “Whatever criterion you use, Jews have a right to this very small space.”