Too high a price?
by Jonathan Rosenblum
London Jewish Tribune
January 30, 2004
"The decision has not been an easy one. The government rarely has to deal with such moral dilemmas. In my opinion, we made the right moral decision." So said Israel Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in announcing the prisoner exchange to take place with Hizbullah this week.
No doubt the moral dilemmas involved were heavy indeed, and they have been the subject of robust debate both within the cabinet and in the Israeli media. But in the midst of this vigorous national debate, one point has been overlooked: The moral dilemmas faced by the Prime Minister and the cabinet involving the redemption of captives, pidyon shvu’im, have been, unfortunately, recurrent ones throughout Jewish history, generating a vast halachic literature. Yet at no point does it appear to have occurred to the Prime Minister to consult with gedolei Yisrael as to the halachic implications of the exchange, the rough terms of which have been generally known for months. That lack of interest bespeaks the total estrangement of modern state of Israel from Torah.
The religious community too missed an opportunity to show in a concrete, real life situation how the wisdom of the Torah can be applied to the most heartrending contemporary ethical issues. Leading halachic authorities and the Chief Rabbis were right not to issue an advisory opinion that no one had sought and without having all the facts in front of them. Nevertheless our community could have done much more to present a halachic perspective, if not a psak halacha, on the issue. The failure of the halachic perspective to be heard or sought on an issue of such great moment to the Jews of Israel, and on which the halacha has so much to say, represents a national tragedy.
Perhaps the best known psak involving pidyon shvu’im is that of the Maharam M’Rottenberg in a case in which he himself was the prisoner. (This precedent was cited by a number of columnists in the daily papers.) The Maharam M’Rottenberg, the greatest halachic authority of his time, refused to allow the Jewish community to pay the immense ransom demanded by the Emperor Rudolph for his release from custody. He chose to remain in prison for seven years until his death because he feared that his ransom would encourage any cash-strapped feudal ruler to imprison the leading figures of the Jewish community and hold them for exorbitant ransom.
In short, the Maharam M’Ruttenberg’s concern was that the payment of very large sums would only lead to greater tragedies in the future. The same balancing of considerations is clearly present in the present exchange. Without possessing all the information available to Israeli government, it is impossible to say exactly how the concerns that led the Maharam M’Ruttenberg to refuse redemption would apply in the present case. But, at the very least, there are grounds to doubt that the Israeli government evaluated long-range dangers to its citizens in the same way that the Maharam M"Ruttenberg would have.
The encouragement of copycat kidnappings is the most direct threat posed by the prisoner exchange. Hizbullah leader Sheik Hassan Nasrallah has succeeded in extracting a very high price from Israel in exchange for one private businessman kidnapped while apparently engaged in shady business dealings abroad (in short, not exactly the Maharam M’Ruttenberg) and the bodies of three soldiers killed by Hizbullah in a kidnapping attempt within Israeli territory. In return Israel will release 400 Palestinian security prisoners to their homes and nationals of four other Arab states and a German Moslem involved in terrorist activities.
Such a price makes every Israeli, indeed every Jew anywhere in the world, a potentially target. Already in his press conference announcing the conclusion of the deal, Nasrallah threatened other kidnappings of Israelis, if Israel does not carry out the second stage of the deal and release Samir Kuntar, a Lebanese national who led a terrorist squad that landed in Nahariya by sea in 1979 and killed four Jews, including a father and two young children.
As an Ha’aretz editorial succinctly put it: Nasrallah succeded in showing that by "kidnapping four Israelis, one of whom remains alive, [he could force Israel to] agree to what it refused to do before the kidnappings."
Nor is the potential for encouraging future kidnappings the only negative consequence of the exchange. The deal provided Nasrallah with a huge propaganda victory just as he was coming under increasing pressure from a number of sources. Israel has long demanded that the Lebanese government assume control of Southern Lebanon, and Hizbullah’s presence there has come to be viewed as a nuisance by many Lebanese. By negotiating with Nasrallah, Israel conferred on him new legitimacy and undermined its own demands.
Nasrallah succeeded in extracting from Israel 400 Palestinian security prisoners that Israel refused to release, despite heavy American pressure to do so, in order to shore up the now defunct Abu Mazzen government.
That success can only burnish his image in the Palestinian street, where there are indications that Hizbullah is taking a more active role in training and supplying Palestinian terrorists. Nasrallah can creditably boast that he has once again brought Israel to its knees, just as he did in May 2000 when Israel beat a hasty retreat from Lebanon in the middle of the night.
The precipitous Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon has been cited repeatedly by the Palestinians over the past three years as proof of the vulnerability of Israel to terrorism. Another such Hizbullah success can only contribute to further Palestinian disdain for Israel’s determination.
Another concern is that the release of so many security prisoners increases the danger to Israelis. There are unfortunately too many examples of prisoners released by Israel in such exchanges returning immediately to their former terrorist activities. In the month following this past Rosh Hashanah, recently released security prisoners carried out two suicide bombings and at least one more terrorist attack. The desire to provide the three soldiers killed by Hizbullah with a proper burial cannot justify the creation of new casualties in need of burial.
That no price is too high to pay from the point of view of Elchanan Tannenbaum’s family and those of the killed Israeli servicemen is perfectly understandable. But it was incumbent on the government of Israel to confront clearly the same heart-wrenching dilemma that confronted the Maharam M’Ruttenberg: balancing the supreme importance of the mitzvah of pidyon shvuim against endangering Jews in Israel and around the world. On the available evidence, it does not appear to have done so.
Related Topics: Israeli Society, Peace Process
receive the latest by email: subscribe to the free jewish media resources mailing list