The price of return

In the middle of the summer, Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser came home. They did not return to Israel in triumph. They came home in coffinstwo black boxes.

For two years, Jews everywhere had prayed for their return. They prayed and wished and hoped. Some added the names of other Israeli soldiers taken over time. Regev and Goldwasser, along with Gilad Shalit, kidnapped by Hamas only days before the two reservists had been ambushed by Hezbollah, stood in for them all.

But this was not the return we had prayed for. No one prays for captive soldiers to come home dead.

Yet even to the last minute, even as the newspapers were reporting that Israel was about to cut a deal with Hezbollah, even as the New York Times reported that the Israeli government believed them to be dead, I think we all hoped that they’d walk across the border on their own two feet before the television cameras and news teams, weary, perhaps emaciated and battered from the long ordeal, but alive. We had hoped, even when we knew that it probably was not so, that Eldad Regev and Udi Goldwasser – their faces now familiar to us as those of our own sons, brothers and husbands – would return to their lives and be reunited with their loved ones.

And if anyone deserved a happy reunion, it was Karnit Goldwasser, the wife, now widow, of Ehud. While the kidnapped soldiers became a stand-in for all Israeli soldiers, Karnit became a living stand-in for us all. She represented our hopes.

When I heard Karnit speak in December, she was intense, persistent. Though worn, she projected a passion and strength that was incredible. Over the time that had passed since her husband had been abducted, it had become her job to represent the families to Jews everywhere, to keep their memories before us, bright like a flame. She was an excellent vehicle, small and pretty, yet she defied a stereotype of a helpless woman — standing up to Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad at a United Nation’s press conference, reminding us all that if he and his Syrian proxy, Hassan Narallah wanted to be taken seriously as leaders, they had to play by the world’s rules, not their own.

Karnit Goldwasser never spoke publicly of her Udi without also speaking of the plight of Regev and Shalit. She spoke to us all, because she was so easy to relate to, a young wife, embarking on marriage, who awoke one day to find her life completely redefined by horrible circumstances over which she had no control.

She was, also, in the truest sense, an agunah. She was not a “chained woman” in the modern sense we’ve come to attach to a word – a woman whose husband will not give her religious divorce. She was one in the way the rabbis had originally perceived the problem, a woman whose husband had gone to war, but who had not returned, no body found, no sign of life. But with no witnesses to offer evidence to the contrary, an agunah stays married, chained to a man no longer coming home.

Karnit Goldwasser wore those chains heroically, proudly. Though the Israeli government attempted to have her husband declared dead well before the exchange, she never wavered in presenting him as still alive. When she spoke of him, it was always as if he was going to just reenter her life one day, just pick up where they’d left off. She probably had to do so, to get through each nightmarish day.

“When I will meet my husband again – and I will do it – I will tell him about this place,” she told the audience at the Barnert Temple in Franklin Lakes, N.J. And I hope that next time I will be with Udi, and I might sit in the audience, and he will speak.”Udi will never get to speak again. And in the middle of the summer, when the soldiers came home, Karnit was quiet, finally allowed to sit shiva and begin the mourning process.

In exchange for Golwasser’s and Regev’s bodies, Israel released a known terrorist, Samir Kuntar, 199 bodies of Hezbollah members and four other Lebanese prisoners.

Samir Kuntar’s return was the most controversial. In 1979, he and three other members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, came to Nahariyah by boat, killed four policemen, and kidnapped Danny Haran and his four-year-old daughter Einat. The terrorists took them to a nearby beach, where Kuntar killed Haran, then smashed the child’s head with the butt of his rifle. Smadar Haran, Danny’s wife, hid at home in a crawlspace with her two-year-old, who she accidentally smothered while trying to keep her quiet and avoid detection.

Kuntar wiped out almost an entire family. It does not seem right that he should be able to walk into his home, pardoned by the Israeli government in exchange for two Israeli soldiers who have probably been dead since the day they were seized. There is fear that the price for the Israeli soldiers was too high, that Israel should not have not have pardoned one guilty of so much without securing a better deal.

But perhaps it was the only deal available. If Goldwasser and Regev were ever to come home, even if only to be buried in Israel’s soil, then what were the terms Israel was to dictate? Hezbollah knows just how important it is to Israel, and to Jews, to not leave soldiers behind.

In Parsha Behar, we learn that a kinsman is obligated to redeem a relative in servitude to a non-Israelite. This obligation extends to redeeming captives, and through the ages, Jews have used this teaching as the basis and justification to save our fellow Jews in inhospitable countries at almost any price. Wasn’t it Israel’s duty then, out of respect for the dead, for soldiers who served dutifully, to bring them home? The price may be high, but leaving them captive was perhaps a price higher still.

As of this writing, Israel is proposing to release hundreds of Palestinian prisoners, a gesture of goodwill from Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. The goal, it seems, is to strengthen the Palestinian government and further emphasize Israel’s sincerity about peace. What can we say of this gesture, of its cost?

In the middle of the summer, as we approached the month of Av, Israel’s sons came home. The month of Av is one of mourning. We prepare for Tish B’Av, the day when we commemorate the destruction of the two Temples and just about every other dreadful moment in our history, by taking on the restrictions of the mourner: no bathing, no haircuts, no weddings, no new clothes, no mirth.

On Tish B’Av we read from Eicha, also known as The Book of Lamentations. But there is no verse in Eicha that helped me understand this exchange. In Eicha, the prophet tells us that Israel has sinned and brought destruction on itself. What were the soldiers’ sins?

They are back now, buried in Israel. Regev in Haifa and Goldwasser in Nahariyah. Only Gilad Shalit, remains captive. We can only imagine what the price will be for Shalit. At last word, he was still alive.

Marla Cohen is editor of the Rockland Jewish Reporter. You can email her at