Negotiations for prisoner of war influenced by biblical teachings

www.bethyam.orgOctober 29, 2011 

What would be the political consequences for an American president who would negotiate the same kind of deal with terrorists that Israel recently completed with Hamas resulting in the return of Sgt. Gilad Schalit in exchange for 1,027 terrorists?

Just the thought of trading all the terrorists, for example, incarcerated at Guantanamo Bay for an American prisoner of war would ignite a political war. Yet, Israel recently faced that scenario.

Of course, there were mixed reactions among the Israeli public. The families of many Israeli families who suffered the loss of their children, mothers and family members to the bombs of these terrorists had to watch them go free in return for one of their own held in captivity for more than five years. The nation was stretched to the limit of their moral sensibilities to watch the guilty go free with the fear that these criminals will return to their terrorist mission to destroy the Jewish state.

Despite all of these legitimate concerns, Israel sighed a collective breath of relief as they watched their son Sgt. Schalit come home to his parents and his community. How can we understand a nation like Israel that takes that kind of action against terrorists? What kind of ethos underlies a people who can reverse themselves and their policies against terrorists?

The truth is that there have been quite a few episodes in recent Israeli history where former prime ministers have negotiated deals with the Palestinian organizations, the Lebanese organization Hezbollah and nations like Egypt after the wars in '67 and '73 to release hundreds of Palestinian terrorists for captive Israeli soldiers.

But that is not the real point. What is it in the nature of a people and its faith that enables them to engage in this kind of gut-wrenching negotiation?

The ability to successfully make this deal comes from the historic experience of the Jewish people that goes beyond simple political policy issues. It stems from the religious law and historic values of Judaism. Going back to the Talmud, the sages argued about the extent a community was obligated to extend its resources to acquire the return of a hostage.

In the 11th century Rabbi Moses Maimonides argued it was a commandment for Jews to garner community resources to negotiate the return of hostages. Not to do so, he stated, would be tantamount to murder. The rabbis invoked biblical verses to support this position such as "You shall not harden your heart," "You shall not stand by the blood of your neighbor" and "Love your neighbor as yourself."

Yet there are alternative rabbinical opinions in Jewish sacred literature throughout history that hold the position that one should not ransom captives for more than their value if it would create a burden on the entire community. Even then the codes of Jewish law expressed the concern that ransoming captives at exorbitant prices could cripple the financial resources of a community as well as give incentive to anti-semites to take more captives.

The point is that Judaism has offered guidance to Jewish communities in responding to the historic dilemma of falling prey to hostile communities, religious authorities and rulers who took Jewish hostages.

Today this historic context impacts the modern state of Israel in making these difficult choices. It is not a matter of a local community contending with an isolated case. Now we are speaking about national security policies for Israel.

But at the heart of the matter Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu never could have implemented the decision to return more than a thousand Palestinian terrorists without that history in the background of Jewish values and ethics. Was the decision a sign of weakness or strength?

Most Israelis I spoke with here in the Lowcountry recognized that the agreement was the right thing to do even though they felt in their bones that this deal would only inspire another hostage-taking incident of an Israeli soldier. They feared that the release of Palestinian terrorists would ignite future suicide bombings.

Israelis are philosophical about these matters. At the same time that they show a justifiable sense of skepticism, Israelis still crave peace. Israelis have learned how to live in a volatile neighborhood. Sadly, since hostage-taking still occurs, maybe one must concede that history has not changed so much after all.

But the values and ethics underlying the Jewish dictum "he who saved one life is as if they saved an entire world," is the greatest moral imperative that gave Gilad Schalit a future. And for that kind of value, I hope the world and the United Nations, in particular, would remember the trade for Schalit for a long time to come.

Rabbi Brad L. Bloom is the rabbi at Congregation Beth Yam on Hilton Head Island. He can be reached at 843-689-2178. Read his blog at and follow him on Twitter, @rabbibloom.

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