This is a guest post by Elliot Jager. This article was first published on March 16, 2012 as “Martyr in Waiting” by Jewish Ideas Daily and is reprinted with permission.
The Palestinian Islamic Jihad operative Khader Adnan, currently under administrative detention in Israel, has announced the end of his 66-day hunger strike in exchange for a commitment by Israeli authorities to set him free on April 17. His pending release raises this moral dilemma: If Adnan is a significant figure in PIJ’s West Bank infrastructure and was detained because he posed an imminent danger to Israeli citizens, was it ethical for Israeli authorities to capitulate to his demands?
Roughly 300 Palestinian Arab security prisoners are currently held in Israel without trial. Other democracies, the United States and the United Kingdom among them, also employ this stopgap measure. Apparently no democracy has been able to combat terrorism without such an expedient.
Unless one is privy to the intelligence reports, one cannot know whether Adnan is, as his defenders claim, merely a PIJ spokesman or, as the authorities believe, far more lethal. Even if he is not one of PIJ’s ticking bombs, Adnan certainly runs with those who are. Yet he will go free because authorities feared that his self-inflicted martyrdom would trigger paroxysms of rioting and bring international opprobrium from the Palestinian amen corner and others insulated from, or indifferent to, the potentially fatal consequences of his release.
Perhaps living in a Palestinian polity that incubates fanaticism stokes a propensity toward self-punishment. In January, Palestinian Women’s Affairs Ministry staffers undertook a hunger strike to protest corruption within the Palestinian Authority. Political prisoners in Mahmoud Abbas’s West Bank statelet have also waged hunger strikes. Or perhaps the phenomenon is more universal: Those who equate compromise with betrayal and see only their own Truth may lean to self-destruction. Think of the deadly hunger strike undertaken in the late 1970s by fanatics in the Baader-Meinhof Gang or the ten IRA militants, led by Bobby Sands, who starved themselves to death in 1981.
Whatever the cause, other jihadist prisoners have used Adnan’s tactic. The most recent was Hana Shalabi, who was released in the Gilad Shalit exchange after an earlier stint in administrative detention but—like the Palestinian who stabbed a soldier in Hebron on Purim—returned to terrorism. Because Adnan’s hunger strike was not unique, the ethical dilemma it poses is especially pressing.
Administrative detention leaves civil libertarians, liberal and conservative, deeply uneasy. I posed the following hypothetical to Tel Aviv University philosophy professor Joseph Agassi, who describes himself as a liberal nationalist: Imagine that during the Weimar period a young monster was arrested and sentenced to five years in Landsberg Prison. The historical fact is that he received friendly treatment there and spent his time co-authoring a screed that outlined his nefarious worldview. But what if the inmate had been treated harshly, become depressed, and commenced a hunger strike? Would it have been immoral to let him die?
Agassi rejected my scenario. “Wouldn’t it be better,” he asked, if Israelis considered “whether it is not easier and wiser to change the situation rather than torment ourselves with the impossibility it imposes on us?” Of course, it was wrong to let Germany slide into the hands of a criminal sadist (though another misfit might “quite possibly” have taken his place). But the “real question,” said Agassi, “is, how come a civilized country like Israel has overflowing jails?”
A leftist Israeli academic went farther, saying my pre-World War II analogy was flawed because Adnan, compared with Europe’s Jews, “is also a victim, as a Palestinian, of morally dubious policies, and of a violent occupation and dispossession.”
In other words, there are those on Israel’s ideological left who oppose Adnan’s incarceration altogether. Convinced that Israel has “lost its soul” (or never had one), loathing the “occupation,” and holding Benjamin Netanyahu wholly culpable for the deadlock in the “peace process,” some post-Zionists would release all Palestinian “political” prisoners. And, indeed, if you maintain that Israel has no right to any presence beyond the 1949 armistice lines, disregard the refusal of Palestinian “moderates” to negotiate with Netanyahu unless he accepts those indefensible boundaries, and ignore what Hamas and the PIJ intend for Israelis, it follows that you would want prisoners like Adnan lionized, not caged.
But what if you believe that imperfect Israel remains a moral enterprise? What if you shy away from promiscuous moral relativism and hold that PIJ’s goals are downright evil? Then, like Abraham Feder, a Conservative rabbi and theologian in Jerusalem, you come to a different conclusion.
Feder believes Israeli society is under no moral obligation to save Adnan if he chooses to “martyr himself for his announced cause of destroying Israeli society.” Nor would Feder compel Israeli doctors to save him. Feder explains his opponents’ case this way:
In Genesis 21:17, Hagar and Ishmael are in the wilderness on the brink of death. An angel shows Hagar water. She and the boy are saved. The Midrash presents a dialogue in which the angels in heaven plead with God to let Ishmael die, since in the future he will cause the children of Israel suffering and death. God sees this future but refuses to let the boy die. The biblical phrase underlying God’s judgment is “ba’asher hu sham.” This means, the Midrash says, that the boy must be judged as he is now—and now he is innocent.
This is interesting, says Feder, but it does not apply to Khader Adnan. First, Adnan is not an innocent boy but a member of a murderous organization. Second, it is not Israeli authorities who are killing him.
There is no way to know whether Israel’s capitulation to Adnan will save more lives than letting him die. If he had died, perhaps Palestinians would have gone on a binge of rioting. When he is set free, he will kill or enable those who do. Only this is certain: The cause for which Adnan was prepared to die is Israel’s destruction. In this circumstance, perhaps one way to judge a person’s moral compass is to ask whether he or she is gratified by the prospect of Adnan’s release or, at the very least, anguished.