Editor's note: Earlier this year Rabbi Hammerman discussed the ethical implications of exchanging terrorists to save the life of an Israeli soldier. In light of the dramatic news of such a deal emerging from Israel he is revisiting that issue this week.
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- Civilized people everywhere are celebrating today at the agreement that will lead to the release of a living, healthy, Gilad Shalit, “to his home and his nation,” as Prime Minister Netanyahu said on Tuesday. The release will give a tremendous morale boost to Israelis, who have been confronted with a barrage of diplomatic challenges of late. Netanyahu also quoted the Talmudic dictum “All Israel is responsible, one for the other,” Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh Lazeh.” Initial reports indicate that a thousand prisoners are to be set free, some of them notorious. This leads to the inevitable, hard-hearted, ethical question: is this deal it worth it?
For Jews, this is a classic search for the lesser of the evils, a choice we’re quite experienced at making. The Talmud considers “Pidyon Shevuyim,” the rescue of captives, 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 and sense of responsibility for her own. No case has better illustrated Judaism’s view that every human life is of infinite value. And no case has better showcased Israel’s vulnerability to Hamas terrorism. 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 have invoked his name.
His family 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 spoke out forcefully that the two year absence of any first-hand information on Shalit’s condition went beyond the pale. That message seeped through, especially among the Europeans who are now deliberating Palestinian aspirations for statehood (significantly, Gilad Shalit also has French citizenship). Hamas knew it was time to cut a deal. Noam Shalit succeeded in turning his son’s captivity into a moral albatross for the Gazan rulers. Gilad became a latter-day Natan Sharansky, exposing the corrupt moral underpinnings of Hamas.
Still Gilad’s father felt 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.
For some time, I felt that a thousand terrorists was too high a price to pay. Even if the released terrorists may not be able to attack Israelis with impunity (only a small percentage will be let back into Gaza), every Israeli – and every Jew – would face an intensified campaign of kidnapping once it is revealed just how much Israel paid.
But I now feel that the cost of such kidnappings proved to be far greater to Hamas than they expected and I don’t see this leading to a spate of new kidnapping attempts. Don’t let the celebrations in Gaza fool you. Hamas would not have made this deal unless they felt they had to. Through its continuous exposure to Shalit’s angelic face, the world became better acquainted with the evil Israel that confronts daily, as well as the infinite value that Jews have always placed on every human life. And the morale boost for Israelis and Jews everywhere will be priceless, as we all prepare to welcome Gilad back into the safety of our Sukkahs on this joyous festival week.