The value of a life

We have become huge fans of Jerusalem Post editorial page editor Saul Singer. His new book — Confronting Jihad: Israel’s Struggle & The World After 9/11 — collects his mostly war-related Post editorials and columns from the period 1997 to mid-2003. Despite the instant judgment demanded by daily opinion journalism, Singer’s work not only withstands review, it illuminates in retrospect. It is a remarkable book made all the more important by the fact Israel and the United States now face approximately the same enemy.
Reading the book one gleans personal facts about Singer himself. He is a native New Yorker who emigrated to Israel after college. The pieces collected in Confronting Jihad occasionally allude to the death of his brother while serving in the Israeli Defense Forces; he pleads with Israeli politicians not to make the ultimate sacrifice of so many Israelis a mockery.
It is a feeling that runs deeply through Israel, a small country whose survival has been under constant attack ever since its founding. Few countries pay the price for poor statesmanship so dearly or so immediately as does Israel.
Martial sacrifice is ubiquitous in the country. Turn to the dedication page of historian B. Netanyahu’s lifework — his authoritative history of the Inquisition, The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth-Century Spain — and one finds testimony to the “unrelieved grief” of the author, the father of Jonathan Netanyahu (Benjamin’s older brother), who was the leader of the Entebbe rescue mission and the only Israeli to fall in the operation. Professor Netanyahu dedicates the book to the memory of Jonathan.
Today’s Wall Street Journal features Saul Singer’s column on the prisoner exchange that Israel has agreed to with Hizbullah. Unfortunately, the Journal has not made it available on its OpinionJournal site. Here’s Singer’s column:

After 17 years, it was not a phone call we expected. And not from a reporter. But on Monday night the call came: “How do you feel about your brother’s killer being released?”
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My brother, Alex Singer [pictured above], was born in White Plains, N.Y., on Sept. 15, 1962. After graduating from Cornell, he moved to Israel in 1984, and eventually became an officer in the army’s Givati Brigade. On Sept. 15, 1987, he was dropped by helicopter on a rough hilltop in southern Lebanon. It was his 25th birthday. Night had just fallen, and Alex’s unit was tasked with intercepting terrorists on their way toward the Israeli border.
The soldiers, sent to ambush the terrorists, were ambushed themselves. Ronen Weisman, Alex’s commander, was hit first, leaving Alex in charge. Running under fire with a medic, Alex reached Ronen’s body, and was shot and killed. Pvt. Oren Kamil ran to help his fallen commanders and was killed on the same spot.
After the battle, one terrorist was found wedged among some rocks with a narrow window pointing toward the spot where all three soldiers died. Only now have we become aware that Anwar Yassin had been in an Israeli jail for the past 17 years, sentenced to serve until 2017. We learn that Yassin became well known in Lebanon and, at the age of 36, can expect a hero’s welcome.
For all these years, none of us thought about Alex’s killer. We never dreamed that any prisoner release would touch us personally, forcing us to address a side of the equation that had been deliberately shunted aside.
We had immersed ourselves in Alex the soldier-poet, artist and writer; publishing a book of his art and letters, creating a Web site, letting the unselfconscious narration of his own life affect so many who never knew him. It may seem odd to those who have not been through it, but Alex’s killer was not worth wasting a moment’s thought on.
Perhaps this was a defense mechanism, because we knew that if we let ourselves think about the person who killed Alex, we would become obsessed with avenging what we lost. And if we did not feel such passion for justice, its lack seemed a betrayal of Alex.
Yet our reaction seems to be a common one among bereaved families. “It doesn’t matter to us,” Oren Kamil’s parents said, “[the killer's] imprisonment does not lessen our pain.”
As common as the passion for revenge is in film and fiction, real life doesn’t seem to work that way. I imagine I might feel differently if Alex had been killed by a terrorist on a bus. But maybe not. The loss simply crowds out other emotions.
Yet it is difficult to escape the seeming imbalance of this prisoner deal, in which Alex’s killer is among 35 prisoners from Arab states, one German caught trying to carry out a terrorist attack for Hizbullah, and 400 Palestinian prisoners — in exchange for one man, Elkhanan Tenenbaum, and the bodies of three Israeli soldiers.
To muddy the waters further, Mr. Tenenbaum, a former army officer, is reported to have been kidnapped while pursuing an illicit drug or weapons deal, and his family expects that he will be under investigation when he returns to Israel.
Like revenge, the calculus that pits the freedom of one suspect Israeli against the potential victims of released killers is too overwhelming to contemplate. Polls show Israelis evenly split between compassion for one concrete man, and concern for the unknown payment due.
What is known is that, despite the hero’s welcome Yassin will receive, the value placed by this deal on his freedom is less than 1/400th of that of one Israeli. There is perhaps no greater measure of the value Israelis attach to life than their willingness to risk their lives for another. Indeed, that is how my brother lived — and how he died.

UPDATE: Saul Singer has written us from Jerusalem asking that we bring to your attention Alex Singer’s book Building a Life: The Story of an American Who Fell Defending Israel Told in His Letters, Journals and Drawings. Saul writes: “My real goal in all this is to get people to read Alex’s book, which moves everyone who reads it, and helps us continue his life and work.”
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Amazon has an extensive entry on the paperback edition of the book. Click here for the link. Dennis Prager writes of the book: “Not only was Alex Singer a great human being, he was also a gifted writer and artist. These letters, diary entries and drawings are quite simply riveting.”

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