Nigeria rejects Boko Haram offer to swap schoolgirls for prisoners

Rescuing captives is one of highest moral imperatives in Judaism, say heads of US Jewish groups that have spoken out on issue.

May 13, 2014 05:11
3 minute read.
A police officer in the northern city of Kano.

Nigeria, Kano 370. (photo credit: REUTERS/Radu Sigheti)


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NEW YORK – The Nigerian government on Monday rejected an offer made by Boko Haram’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, to exchange more than 200 schoolgirls who were kidnapped a month ago from their school in northern Nigeria for Boko Haram prisoners held by the government.

Speaking via video Monday, Shekau made the demand in a video that also showed approximately 100 of the kidnapped girls.

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Obtained by Agence France-Presse, the video shows the girls wearing veils and praying. Shekau claimed that the girls had converted to Islam.

Over the weekend Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu and French President François Hollande offered their services to the Nigerian government, which announced it would accept Israel’s offer of counter-terrorism expertise.

A statement from the Nigerian president’s office in Lagos said that Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan had “briefed Mr. Netanyahu on actions already being taken by Nigeria’s armed forces and security agencies to locate and rescue the girls, [and said] that Nigeria would be pleased to have Israel’s globally acknowledged anti-terrorism expertise deployed to support its ongoing operations,” AFP reported.

The United States offered assistance immediately after the abduction, CNN reported, but Nigeria initially turned it down until the matter attracted more international attention.

The Jewish world has also begun to speak out. Over the weekend several prominent Jewish groups issued statements pressuring US elected officials to offer assistance again. Nancy K. Kaufman, CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women, said in a statement, “We all must redouble our efforts to help change the conditions that produce such terror. The alternative is the terrible sacrifice of a generation of girls to oppression and violence. We must fight back to prevent such a future.”

Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, said that “acts of violence committed in the name of religion reflect the basest instincts of humanity and remind us that religious intolerance remains a threat to peace and stability around the world today.”

“The great medieval Jewish scholar Maimonides teaches us that ‘There is no greater mitzva than redeeming the captive…’ Today, we are acutely aware of our obligation to help redeem the captives,” he said.

The American Jewish World Service also began an online module for US citizens to write to their state senators.

Rabbis Gerald Skolnik and Julie Schonfeld, president and executive vice president of the Rabbinical Assembly, released a letter to Luis CdeBaca, the US State Department’s ambassador- at-large to combat the trafficking of persons, urging him to “exercise all appropriate influence” for the sake of the girls.

“There’s no Entebbe-like rescue to be done here, which is an awful shame,” Skolnik said. “I would hope that cooperation of a variety of international governments would help, in some way, to put pressure on this group [Boko Haram]. But international pressure is not what keeps them awake at night. They’re operating outside of norms of Western decency.”

Schonfeld, who was previously involved with the White House Advisory Council on Faith-based and Neighborhood partnerships, told The Jerusalem Post that this was a special call to the Jewish community, specifically.

“We tell ourselves every year at Passover that we are to see ourselves not only as slaves brought forward from freedom, but also as people who lived without safety for centuries,” Schonfeld said, citing the line in the Haggadah, “In every generation there are those who wish to destroy us.”

“The Jewish literature on rescuing captives is painfully specific,” Schonfeld said. “It measures the funds that a community holds for other matters against the need to spend that money in rescuing captives. It was a very practical and frequent issue.”

Skolnik also emphasized that rescuing captives was one of the highest Jewish imperatives.

“It takes precedence over other commandments,” he said, adding that this commandment was invoked during the struggle to extricate Soviet Jewry. “This was our recurring relationship with the outside world throughout the centuries.”

“These are most excruciating issues that we ever faced historically,” Schonfeld said.

“Jewish literature doesn’t come by it by accident. We lived with exactly the same kind of anguish that the mothers of these girls are living with, for centuries.”

“Large sectors of the Jewish community tend to have a very parochial view of what a Jewish issue is,” Skolnik said.

“If 200 or 300 Jewish girls were kidnapped, you’d hear a lot of screaming. If 200 or 300 Nigerian girls are kidnapped, it’s not immediately clear that the entire Jewish community would view this as a Jewish issue. That’s always an issue: how parochial do we choose to be?” Reuters contributed to this report.

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