Q – Is the release of Gilad Shalit worth an exchange of a thousand Hamas prisoners, including some who have blood on their hands and could well kill more innocent Israelis (and others)?
A- For Jews, this is a classic search for the lesser of the evils, a choice we’re quite experienced at making. This ethical quandary is a classic example of the age-old concept of “Pidyon Shvuyim,” the rescue of captives. The Talmud considers it to be among the highest of priorities (Bava Batra 8b) and later legal authorities concur.
Medieval Jewish communities often were called upon to pony up big bucks to redeem kidnapped kin. In contemporary Israel, it has become standard practice to swap busloads of prisoners for one captive soldier, or even for his remains.
There are limits. In a detailed responsum on the subject that predates Shalit’s capture, Rabbi David Golinkin concludes, “We do not pay excessive ransom… In other words, the public takes precedence over the individual, even if this endangers the individual. Exchanging hundreds or thousands of terrorists for one Israeli encourages kidnapping of Israelis, and frees hundreds or thousands of terrorists who will pick up their weapons and attack Israel. In other words, it endangers the public and should not be done.”
But it’s more complicated with regard to Shalit. The destinies of individual and group have merged, as Gilad has become everybody’s child – and a poster child for Israel’s vulnerability (and a neat counterpoint to the media’s portrayals of suffering Gazans). The “Free Gilad” movement has united all factions of Israeli society, even as they differ on what to do about it. World leaders have rallied behind Shalit and American politicians routinely invoke his name.
Strangely, time may be on Shalit’s side – that is, if he is in reasonably good health. His family has succeeded in keeping Gilad’s fate on the front burner, just as Jews succeeded at doing for Soviet Jewish Prisoners of Conscience a generation ago. That human rights campaign arguably helped to bring down the Soviet empire, leading to human rights based policies like the Jackson – Vanick Amendment that weakened the Soviet gulag.
Here, Shalit has become living proof of Hamas’s ruthlessness. The International Red Cross has spoken out forcefully that the two year absence of any first-hand information on Shalit’s condition goes beyond the pale. That message is seeping through, especially among the Europeans who will have much to say about Palestinian aspirations for statehood this coming September (significantly, Gilad Shalit also has French citizenship). While Hamas will still hold out for the best deal, Noam Shalit has succeeded in turning his son’s captivity into a moral albatross for the Gazan rulers. Gilad has become a latter-day Natan Sharansky, exposing the corrupt moral underpinnings of Hamas.
Still Gilad’s father feels that Prime Minister Netanyahu should pay the asking price, “not out of weakness but out of strength.” In his mind, Israel is secure enough to keep the released terrorists from harming its citizens, as evidenced by the success of the Security Barrier and the dramatic reduction in the number of terror victims over the past few years.
It’s an argument worth considering, but I agree with Prime Minister Netanyahu. Even if the released terrorists may not be able to attack Israelis with impunity, every Israeli – and every Jew – will face an intensified campaign of kidnapping once it is revealed just how much it pays. A thousand terrorists is too many to exchange. But five hundred may not be.
Meanwhile, if I were Netanyahu, I’d pay for the Shalit tent to be temporarily relocated to Dag Hammarskjold Plaza, just outside the U.N., for the month of September. That way the world we become better acquainted with the evil Israel confronts daily, as well as the infinite value that Jews have always placed on every human life.