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Op-Ed: Shalit, Israel and rabbinic debate

Rabbi David Ellenson ()

Rabbi David Ellenson ()

NEW YORK (JTA) — Political sovereignty in the restored Jewish homeland often means making decisions with life-and-death implications. That reality was brought home last week with the agonizing decision to authorize the terribly imbalanced swap to gain the release of Gilad Shalit.

The criticisms and concerns lodged by many supporters of Israel within and beyond its borders against the Netanyahu government for exchanging more than 1,000 prisoners for a lone Israeli soldier are legitimate and understandable. Undoubtedly some of the released prisoners will attempt again to wreak murder and mayhem against inhabitants of the Jewish state.  

At the same time, the overwhelming majority of Jews and people of good will throughout the world have rejoiced over a decision that will allow Shalit to return to the safety and love of his family and nation. Agreeing to the lopsided deal involved great pain for an Israeli government charged with balancing numerous and competing concerns in providing for the safety and security of its soldiers and citizens. The decision involved no easy or obvious choice.

However, as so many reflect upon the action taken by Israel, it is instructive to remember that Israel unfortunately has confronted the same heartbreaking and excruciating question before. In 1985, the Jewish state 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 remains unknown, two prominent Israeli rabbis — Shlomo Goren and Haim David Halevi – addressed the issue directly at that time. Their words from that time have resonance and meaning today, as they provide important perspectives for reflecting upon the policy position adopted by the current Israeli government in agreeing to this exchange.

Rabbi Goren served as Chief Ashkenazic rabbi of Israel and was formerly chief rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces, while Rabbi Halevi was the chief Sephardic rabbi of Tel Aviv-Jaffa. Rabbi Goren, in an article written on May 31, 1985, 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.”

Rabbi 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 an exchange for the release of known terrorists bent on the destruction of Israel and its Jewish population surely would imperil all Israeli citizens 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.

Rabbi Halevi, responding to Rabbi Goren soon after the article appeared, said he was sympathetic to the position advanced by his Ashkenazic colleague but disagreed with the conclusion. In Rabbi Halevi’s view, the conditions that obtained in a modern Jewish state were vastly different from those that confronted the Jewish community in pre-modern times when the Talmudic passage was written. 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 efforts until a political solution to the entire Israeli-Palestinian conflict was achieved.

The “impossible choice” before the government, as Rabbi Halevi saw it, 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 the two options, Rabbi Halevi believed that priority had to be assigned the latter — the Israeli government should do all in its power to uphold the morale of the Israeli soldiers.

If a soldier and by extension his family and all residents of the Jewish state knew that the government would spare no effort or expense to liberate a captured soldier, and that such release possessed the highest governmental priority, then the resolve of the citizen-soldiers of the State of Israel to defend their nation would be fortified and absolute.

In a moral universe where alternatives were limited and where the military might of the State of Israel could protect its citizenry despite the preposterous numerical imbalance of the exchange, Rabbi Halevi felt this choice was still the wisest one that the government could make in an imperfect world.

In responding in this way, Rabbi Halevi enunciated a position that provides a rationale for understanding why the current Israeli government made the decision on the issue of prisoner exchange. As its critics contend, surely it is a policy fraught with danger for the state. At the same time, it appears to be a policy that continues to guide Israel legitimately as it continues to provide unlimited support to its citizen-soldiers as they all too often confront an enemy bent on the state’s destruction.

(Rabbi David Ellenson is the president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.)

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