During centuries of exile and wandering, the Jewish people has, sadly,
accumulated immense experience with extortion and abductions. Wherever they
went, Jews tended to excel but, unfortunately, often lacked the means to defend
the fruits of their labor. Too often they became easy prey for
Jews’ strong emphasis on the value of life, their belief that
they share a common fate and their strong feeling of mutual responsibility led
them to go to extreme measures to free hostages. And this was ruthlessly
exploited by their enemies.
Throughout the ages, Jewish communities have
been forced to face the inherent dilemmas that characterize any prisoner
release. A rich rabbinic literature developed to grapple with the moral and
legal aspects of what was referred to as “redeeming hostages” [pidyon
The founders of the State of Israel hoped to change the course
of Jewish history and eradicate the endemic vulnerability of the Jewish
condition in the Diaspora. And they largely succeeded.
However, with all
their accomplishments and impressive military might, the Jewish people in Israel
have been unable to shake off some old challenges.
Israelis, like their
ancestors, continue to value life immensely and believe strongly in the concept
of mutual responsibility [areyvut]. And since IDF service is mandatory, lines
are blurred between soldier and citizen. Israel’s many enemies do
everything in their power to take advantage of these “weaknesses.” (Other
cultures, such as in the US, lack this Achilles’ heel, because they see POWs as
a necessary price to pay for fighting wars.)
Many of the moral deliberations
surrounding the prisoner exchange deal to release Sgt. Gilad Schalit have been
agonized over by Jewish sages for ages. And there are no easy answers. The
Mishna, written in the first centuries of the first millennium when many Jews
lived under the Roman Empire, already prohibits redeeming captives “for more
than their monetary value” to foster “society’s welfare” [tikkun olam]. Payment
of exorbitant ransoms, explains the Talmud, might bankrupt the
community. Also, it notes, the knowledge that Jews are willing to pay
dearly to release hostages might encourage future kidnappings.
of Rothenburg (1215-1293), who was kidnapped in Germany, famously issued a
ruling from jail prohibiting his followers to pay his ransom. He died in
captivity. Indeed, this no-dealing-with-extortionists approach is eminently
logical. Hamas has already indicated that Schalit “will not be the last soldier
The release of 1,150 Palestinian terrorists, including Hamas
founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin – in the May 1985 Ahmed Jibril deal – helped spark
the First Intifada. Of 238 terrorists freed in the Jibril deal who reached Judea
and Samaria, 48 percent returned to terrorism and were recaptured by the IDF,
according to the Almagor Terror Victims Association. And since 2000, it says,
some 180 Israelis have been killed in attacks planned by Palestinian terrorists
released in prisoner exchange deals.
Then again, Maimonides (1135-1204)
states: “There is no commandment as great as the redemption of
And Rabbi Yosef Karo (1488-1575), in his Shulhan Arukh, notes:
“Each instant that one fails to redeem captives when it is possible to do so, it
is as though one has shed blood.”
Some contemporary rabbis have
extrapolated from these rulings to support prison swaps.
Shas mentor Rabbi Ovadia Yosef has argued that in cases such as Schalit’s, the
clear and present danger to the life of the hostage outweighs the potential
danger to Israelis who might become the future targets of the freed
Rabbi Shaul Yisraeli (1910-1995), a leading national
religious Halachic authority, ruled that an unwritten agreement exists between
the State of Israel and the soldier that no efforts will be spared to secure a
release in the case of kidnapping.
This obviously serves to bolster the
soldier’s morale and is a reassuring message for the soldier’s family and loved
Sadly, the Jewish people’s trials and tribulations have not ended
with the creation of the State of Israel. And while our rich tradition offers no
definitive decision on the Schalit deal, it does provide unique insight into the
many facets of an age-old dilemma with no easy answers.