Israel’s Ransom Dilemma

Why are we consciously succumbing to a deal which, on one hand, will save some lives now, but will surely doom many more innocent Israeli lives in the future?
December 5, 2023
Thousands of people and the families of kidnapped Israelis hold up their mobile phones with the torch light to sing the national anthem during a rally a day after the temporary truce ended outside The Museum of Modern Art known as the ‘The Hostages and Missing Square’ on December 2, 2023 in Tel Aviv, Israel. (Photo by Alexi J. Rosenfeld/Getty Images)

While still trying to digest the horrible ramifications of the October 7 Bloody Saturday, we were thrown into another emotional roller coaster of the gradual, daily release of some of our abductees. All Israeli hearts are now beating in unison, when people watch with mixed feelings the dramatic sights: There is, of course, the joy of seeing hostages reuniting with their families after almost 50 days in captivity; and then there is sadness over those who are still in the claws of Hamas, and those whose fate is unknown.

At the same time, there is also an unspoken worry about the price Israel is going to pay for this prisoner swap. I’m not talking about the current exchange of our women and children for some female and juvenile Palestinian prisoners, who served time for “minor” offences, like attempted terrorist acts. We all know that once we get to the issue of releasing our soldiers who are in Hamas hands, we will have to release in return the terrorists who have committed the worst acts of terror. Worse still, we will be doing it knowing perfectly well that once released, they will return to their Jihadist quest to kill Jews.

Quite sadly for us, we know it from bitter experience. In 1985, in what was titled the “Jibril Deal,” the National Unity Government, with Yitzhak Rabin as Defense Minister, released 1025 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for three Israeli POWs. One of the Palestinian terrorists released then was Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, who set out immediately to found Hamas. And in 2011, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who had authored a book lecturing how democracies could and should defeat terrorism (“Jailed terrorist should not be released“),   went on to release more than 1000 Palestinian prisoners for one Israeli POW, Gilad Shalit. One of the prisoners released, Yahya Sinwar, is the architect of the current devastating Hamas attack on Israel.

Why are we consciously succumbing to a deal which, on one hand, will save some lives now, but will surely doom many more innocent Israeli lives in the future? Because we are taught by HaRambam (Maimonides) that “(t)here is no greater mitzvah than the redemption of captives [Pidyou Shvuyin].

Our sages, however, already saw the difficulties of this mitzvah. The mishna in Gittin (4:6) rules that “captives may not be ransomed for more than their value.” This is because of tikkun olam (the welfare of the world), namely, the need to care for the entire people of Israel and not only for the individuals in trouble. The fear was that paying high ransom for the captives might cause great strain for the community and would encourage more kidnapping.

A case in point is that of Rabbi Meir ben Baruch, popularly known as “MaHaRaM” (Moreinu Harav Reb Meir) of Rothenburg, a renowned Talmudist, who, on his way to Eretz Yisrael in 1286, was kidnapped and imprisoned in a fortress in Germany. King Rudolph demanded 23,000 Marks for his release, and the Jews of Germany were willing to pay it for their revered rabbi, except that the MaHaRam forbade it, explaining that such precedent would prompt the kidnapping of more prominent rabbis in Germany.

Working under Yitzhak Rabin, I know that he wasn’t so versed in Jewish tradition, so I doubt it if he had ever heard about the MaHaRam of Rothenburg. However, exactly 700 years later, he followed the example of the medieval rabbi. In October 1986, the F-4 fighter aircraft of Captain Ron Arad was hit over Lebanon and he bailed out and was taken POW by the Shiite Amal organization. Amal demanded 3 million Dollars for his release. Rabin, obviously repenting for the Jibril deal which he had agreed to some time before, refused. Then Arad was kidnapped again by another group, and was lost forever.

Back to the MaHaRam. After his death in prison in 1293, his body was not released for another 14 years, until a rich Jew from Frankfort, Alexander Suskind Wimpfen, paid a heavy ransom for it. In return, he asked that after his own death his body should be laid to rest by the side of the MaHaRam. His wish was fulfilled when he died a year later, and in the ancient Jewish cemetery of Worms one can see the two tombstones erected over their joint grave.

But doesn’t such an ending to the story defy the initial wish of the MaHaRam, that ransom should not be paid? Not necessarily, in my opinion. If a rich Jew paid from his own private pocket for Pidyon Shvuyim, then this is not a burden on the Jewish community at large. By analogy, Israel is today’s Alexander Suskind Wimpfen: It could – and should – have paid 3 million Dollars for the release of Ron Arad; and it can and is now “paying” for the release of our brothers and sisters held by Hamas. Not being helpless, though, like medieval Jewry, the Jewish State can make sure that the kidnappers pay heavily for their crime.

Uri Dromi, founding President of the Jerusalem Press Club, was the Israeli Government Spokesman (1992-96).   

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