The controversy surrounding the prisoner exchange of Taliban terrorists for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl is a story that the Jewish people knows well.
The questions being raised of whether the president agreed to too much, whether the deal puts more Americans in danger, and whether Sgt. Bergdahl deserved the release, are old questions to Jewish ears. The Jewish experience differs from the American experience here, because we as Jews have a long history of victimization at the hands of the powerful. From Roman times, when captured Jews became slaves, sold in an international slave market, to the Middle Ages, when Jews sailing the Mediterranean would face capture by pirates, Judaism always has seen it as a mitzvah to ransom captives, called in Hebrew “pidyon shevuyim.” Raising money to ransom a Jewish captive was seen as saving a life, whereas failing to so made someone a passive accessory to murder.
The religious imperative to ransom captives is codified in the legal codes of Jewish law and is supported by the documentary evidence of the Cairo Genizah, where an abundance of “fundraising circulars” were discovered raising money from the Jewish community to pay the ransom of Jewish captives. There are some such appeals signed by Maimonides himself. Jewish communities like Cairo (Fustat), which had means and were accessible to the sea, were natural markets for Mediterranean pirates seeking to “sell” their Jewish “cargo.” The important point here is that Jewish communities saw it as an obligation to free their captive co-religionist, irrespective of who she or he was and where he or she was from.
The Mishnah, the second-century code of Jewish law, places a restriction on the imperative to ransom captives. The ransom should be refused if the price is too high, the Mishnah rules (Gittin 4:6). The explanation for the restriction is “the betterment of the world” (what they called tikkun olam), and is explained as concern either that “buying high” will raise the price for captives and increase the financial burden on Jewish communities paying new ransoms, or that agreeing to high conditions will lead to an increase in the number of Jews being captured for ransom. The interplay of economics and ethics is fascinating, but underlying the law is a debate over the concern for the individual and the greater public good.
The subsequent history of Jewish law on this question entails an ongoing debate, which has intensified in recent decades in Israel. The controversial questions raised regarding Sgt. Bergdahl are miniscule compared to the scope of the debate that rages in Israel every time the Israeli government negotiates a prisoner exchange. In both America and Israel, our captives are captive soldiers, and the ransom we pay are prisoners we hold. Israel has freed hundreds to thousands of Arab prisoners in exchange for individual Israeli soldiers. While the prisoners freed in wartime were Arab soldiers, in more recent years they have been imprisoned terrorists, like those freed from Guantanamo Bay.
Israeli society has learned to live with the threat of terrorism, just as post-9/11 America has, and the release of murderers who might go on to kill again always has been a heavy pill for the public to swallow. Questions always are raised as to whether it is the proper thing to do for national security. One Israeli soldier, Elhanan Tannenbaum, who was set free in 2003, had been captured by terrorists in Abu Dhabi, where he was alleged to have been engaged in buying drugs and other criminal activity. As with Sgt. Bergdahl, the merit of his release was questioned. At other times, Israel traded living terrorists for the remains of Israeli soldiers. If there was a high bar for the price paid to ransom captives, the State of Israel has hit that bar repeatedly, leaving the Obama administration in the distance.
Each time this question resurfaces in Israel, rabbis return to the halachic debate over the meaning of the Mishnah that restricts paying too high a ransom. Some continue the interpretive tradition of ignoring the restriction, and others have argued that exorbitant ransoms should be resisted. We may remember the controversy over the arms-for-hostages element of the Reagan administration’s Iran-Contra affair. The question, then as now, was whether rewarding the captors only encourages more captivities.
From my perspective, the very existence of the line in the Mishnah restricting exorbitant ransoms proves that we, as Jews, always paid huge ransoms. That is, the Mishnah is reacting to an already accepted Jewish value. I am proud of the Jewish value on life. The public good is critical because it protects life. The public puts itself on the line to protect life. Sgt. Bergdahl suffered through the years of his captivity. No matter his personal merits, we have to recognize that he was captured not for who he is, but because of the American flag on his shoulder. He endured his captivity as our proxy, and our responsibilities to him, as to all those who wear and wore the uniform, should be as if they are family, whom we love no matter what.
In Israel, the care and concern for soldiers and veterans is much closer to everyone’s heart because all young people (as long as they are not Arab or ultra-Orthodox Jews) serve in the army and place themselves in the breach on behalf of the public. In the wake of the terrible VA health care scandal, our country needs to care more about soldiers and veterans.
We should be proud that the government of the United States considers the value of a single American life as primary. Never before has American policy matched so closely to a particular Jewish value. The Israeli prime ministers who have negotiated overly exorbitant prisoner swaps to bring Israeli soldiers home have included the right-leaning Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu. They understood their responsibilities as Jewish commanders-in-chief to include bringing home all those they sent out in harm’s way. And now, we should be proud, as Jews, of the American president.