We have to be thrilled for Gilad Shalit and his family that he will be released from a Hamas jail soon. However, in our joy, we have to ask (as Israelis have been asking for five years) at what cost has this deal been made?
This is not the first time Jews have been confronted with the unjust imprisonment of one of its own. Consequently, much has been written in the legal literature about it. Maimonides (12th century) wrote that the duty to ransom captives (pidyon sh’vu-im) supersedes the duty to give charity (tz’dakah) to the poor. Others have compared this mitzvah with the saving of human life (pikuach nefesh).
The rabbis placed limits, however, on how much an individual or community should pay when ransoming a captive. To avoid extracting an exorbitant ransom payment or repeated kidnappings, the majority of legal authorities ruled that a captive could only be redeemed at what his or her ‘market value’ was as a slave, thus avoiding outrageous demands. (Rabbi Josef Karo, Shulchan Arukh, Yoreh Deah 252:4). Though the idea of paying blackmail to gain the release of an unjustifiably imprisoned person is repugnant, tradition clearly favored doing so if it meant saving life.
The most famous Jewish hostage in history was the leader of world Jewry at the end of the 13th century, Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg (the MAHARAM), and his experience set the moral and legal standard for Jewish communities for centuries when confronting the issue of paying a ransom for captives.
The MAHARAM lived at a time of great political upheaval that resulted from the election of Rudolf I of Hapsburg to be the German Emperor. Once in power, Rudolf taxed the Jewish community and reduced them to the status of servi camerai (serfs of the treasury), a euphemism for enslavement.
News of Rabbi Meir’s arrest spread across Europe, Spain and North Africa, and in response the Jewish community raised a huge sum of 23,000 pounds of silver to buy his freedom. However, on Rabbi Meir’s instructions it was stipulated that the silver was to be regarded as a ransom only, and not as the tax the Emperor had imposed on the Jewish community. Rudolf refused to accept the silver on this basis, and Rabbi Meir remained in prison until the end of his life at the age of 78.
Israel once had an iron-clad policy regarding hostage-taking: ‘No discussion! No negotiation! No lending of legitimacy to criminals and murderers.’ When PM Netanyahu was Israel’s Ambassador to the UN (1984-88) he articulated this view in a book he wrote on terror and how to deal with it (Terror – How the West Can Win, 1986). After its publication he was asked how he would respond if a member of his own family was taken hostage. Recalling the death of his own brother Yonaton in the Entebbe Rescue Mission on July 4, 1976, Bibi said that all of us must be prepared to accept loss, even if it means losing a beloved member of our own family.
I can only imagine the intense pressure Bibi has been under to find a way to bring Gilad Shalit home. Gilad’s family has camped outside the Prime Minister’s residence for the past five years, and Gilad has essentially been adopted as every Israeli’s son. Further, the IDF holds as a sacred trust the principle that the people and State of Israel will never leave a soldier on the battlefield or in an enemy prison.
All this being said, the price Israel is paying for Gilad Shalit may prove to be against Israel’s own best interests. Hamas knows that Israel and Jews value life above death and that this is not the first time Israel has traded Palestinians for Israelis (sometimes Israel has traded hundreds of Palestinians for one or two bodies of dead Israelis).
In light of all this we have to ask at what cost has this deal for Gilad been made? Deals like this in the past have encouraged terrorists to fear Israel less, for they figure that even if they do get caught, they most likely will be freed eventually in a prisoner exchange deal. Many released terrorists have returned to their terrorist activities, murdering more Israelis.
Is Israel right to have made this deal? I would not want to be in Bibi’s position, but I fear the worst.