...There is no mitzvah greater than the redemption of captives... However, we do not redeem captives beyond their fair price... so that our enemies will not be motivated to pursue and capture hostages; and we do not try to rescue them... so that our enemies will not be cruel to them and guard them harshly. -Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Laws of Gifts to the Poor 8:10, 8:12
I am writing this on an Egged bus crawling along on a usually fast route, as traffic patterns around the center of the country have been disrupted lately by the march dedicated to the release of Gilad Shalit. This poor kid and the public discussion of what can and should be done about his fate have been a kind of national obsession off and on through the past four years, and have come back to center stage in the past week. Captured by Hamas near the Gaza border (two other soldiers who were with him at his post were killed), he has been held hostage in Gaza with no Red Cross or any other access. Negotiations have dragged on, with periodic reports of breakthroughs followed by accusations by each side that the other was upping the ante or negotiating in bad faith. The Shalits, a quiet, middle class family from a small community in the Western Galilee, have been at the center of an often noisy campaign that seems mainly to be aimed at the Israeli government, urging that greater efforts be made to "bring Gilad home now!" There have been demonstrations and yellow ribbons, a children's book based on Gilad's childhood writings, concerts, vigils outside the prime minister's residence, weekly special prayers in synagogues of every denomination, and constant emotional front page coverage of all of this in all the media.
It is hard to argue with or criticize the Shalits and their supporters: how would I feel if, God forbid, it was my kid? It would seem that parents should do everything in their power to save their child, so that some day, when they ask themselves if they did all they could, they will be able to answer with a clear conscience. And there are those who say that it is Israel's commitment to its soldiers to put their welfare above all other considerations - otherwise why should they take risks for the homeland? After all, the Jewish commitment to redemption of prisoners is deeply rooted in our history and literature. Others say that Israel holds thousands of Palestinian prisoners, many without proper trial, for all kinds of political offenses - so a lopsided trade is only fair. And we certainly have precedent for such exchanges over the past few decades. There is always the argument of "it's the occupation, stupid," but that doesn't seem all that helpful in dealing with this specific situation.
There is another side, which even though it sometimes gets drowned out in the media circus surrounding the case, nevertheless is represented in the debate. It too includes several different arguments: a) One should not negotiate with terrorists, period; b) Hamas is not demanding large numbers of random prisoners, but the release of high profile terrorists with a blood-curdling record - and a history returning to terrorist actions whenever they are released from custody; c) paying a high price for a kidnap victim only encourages further kidnappings. In the 13th century, in Germany, Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg (a prominent leader) was captured by a local noble and held for ransom. His devoted community set about raising the funds to spring their beloved rabbi. But Rabbi Meir forbade them to ransom him, lest the local rulers be encouraged to expand this source of revenue with further kidnappings. After 14 years, he died in prison; ultimately, his community did ransom his body for burial.
It seems to me that the dilemma of the right response to a kidnapping situation is one of the most difficult moral challenges there is, whether to a family, a local authority, or a nation. One of the things I thank God for in my prayers is that I am not the prime minister, so I don't have to make this decision. But I also pray that God will give the prime minister the wisdom to do the right thing, whatever that is.