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Jewish Journal

Lebanon prisoner swap deal—morale issue forces a hard choice

By Rabbi David Ellenson

July 30, 2008 | 11:20 pm

The existential reality of an Israeli context, where governmental decisions often have a life and death valence, has been brought home to millions of people these past few weeks, as the Israeli Cabinet made the agonizing decision to authorize the release of the murderer Samir Kuntar, four other live Lebanese prisoners and the bodies of dozens of Arab infiltrators and terrorists to Hezbollah in exchange for the bodies of abducted Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev.

The weight of responsibility placed upon the government and Cabinet in this instance -- as in so many others -- was surely awesome. While many have conceded that the decision of the Israeli government to allow this exchange was immeasurably painful, albeit necessary, others have been extremely critical of the governmental judgment to go ahead with this terribly imbalanced swap.

This decision involved no easy choice. However, as so many of us struggle with our thoughts and feelings as we reflect upon the action that Israel took in this episode, it is instructive to remember that this is not the first time Israel has unfortunately confronted this issue.

In 1985, the Jewish state faced the same heartbreaking and excruciating question. Israel had to decide whether to return 1,150 Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners for the release of three Israeli soldiers. While the exchange never took place and the fate of the three Israeli POWs is still unknown, two prominent Israeli rabbis -- Rabbi Shlomo Goren and Rabbi Haim David Halevi -- addressed the issue directly at that time. Their words then have resonance and meaning today, as they provide important perspectives for reflecting upon the policy position the Israeli government adopted on this painful matter involving life and death.

Goren served as chief Ashkenazic rabbi of Israel and was formerly chief rabbi of the IDF, while Halevi was the chief Sephardic rabbi of Tel Aviv-Jaffa.

Goren, in an article written on May 31, 1985, was straightforward in his response to this question. He stated that Jewish law absolutely forbade the Israeli government from redeeming "our captive soldiers in exchange for 1,150 terrorists" and based his ruling on a talmudic passage in Gittin 45a that stated, "Captives should not be redeemed for more than their value." Goren emphasized his great distress at the personal plight of these captives -- they were surely in "mortal danger."

However, he still insisted that the state should not redeem them as such redemption in exchange for the release of known terrorists bent on the destruction of Israel and its Jewish population would surely imperil all Israeli citizenry and only fuel Arab attempts to capture more Jews in the future. The price exacted from Israel through the release of these terrorists was simply too steep for the state to afford.

Halevi responded to Goren soon after the article appeared. He was sympathetic to the position his Ashkenazic colleague had advanced in his piece. However, Halevi disagreed about the relevance of applying the Gittin passage to the contemporary situation.

In his view, the conditions that existed in a modern Jewish state were completely different from those that confronted the Jewish community in premodern times. The Jewish people were now sovereign in their land, and the "political-national" aims that motivated the terrorists "to wreak havoc among the Jewish people" would continue, regardless of whether their prisoners were released in exchange for Israeli soldiers. Indeed, these terrorists would persist in their cruel efforts until a solution to the entire Israeli-Palestinian conflict was achieved.

The "impossible choice" before the government was whether to "strengthen the power of the terrorists through the release of their comrades or to strengthen the morale of IDF soldiers should there be future wars." Faced with these two options, Halevi felt that priority had to be assigned the latter one -- the Israeli government should do all in its power to uphold the morale of the IDF soldiers.

If a soldier knew that the government would spare no effort or expense to liberate a captured soldier, then the soldier might well fight more fearlessly in battle. On the other hand, if the soldier knew that his release from captivity did not possess the highest governmental priority and that the government would not act upon that priority, then the soldier might well retreat at a crucial wartime moment so as to avoid risking capture as a prisoner of war. In a moral universe where alternatives were limited, Halevi felt this choice was the wisest one the government could make.

In responding in this way to the existential reality of life and death choices faced by the State of Israel then, Halevi enunciated a position that provides the rationale for the decision the government of the State of Israel has made on the issue of prisoner exchange.

It is surely a policy fraught with danger. At the same time, it appears to be one that continues to legitimately guide Israel as the Jewish state continues to support its citizen-soldiers as they all too often confront an enemy bent on its destruction.


Rabbi David Ellenson is president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.<BR>
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