Political sovereignty in the restored Jewish homeland often means making decisions with life-and-death implications. That reality has been brought home 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. Undoubtedly some of the released prisoners will attempt again to murder 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 allowed Shalit to return this week to the safety and love of his family and nation. Agreeing to the lopsided deal involved great pain for a 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 many reflect upon the recent action taken, it's instructive to recall that Israel has confronted this heartbreaking 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 POWs is unknown, two prominent Israeli rabbis — Shlomo Goren and Haim David Halevi — addressed the issue directly at that time.
Goren, chief Ashkenazi rabbi of Israel and a former chief rabbi of the Israel Defense Forces, wrote in an article that Jewish law forbade the Israeli government from redeeming "our captive soldiers in exchange for 1,150 terrorists," basing his ruling on a Talmudic passage in Gittin 45a: "Captives should not be redeemed for more than their value."
While empathizing with the captives who were in "mortal danger," he insisted that the state should not redeem them, as an exchange of known terrorists bent on destroying Israel and its Jewish population surely would imperil all 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 too steep for the state.
Halevi, then-chief Sephardi rabbi of Tel Aviv-Jaffa, was sympathetic to his colleague's position but disagreed. In Halevi's view, the conditions in a modern Jewish state were different from those that confronted the 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" would continue whether or not prisoners were released in exchange for soldiers. The terrorists, he said, would persist until a political solution to the entire Israeli-Palestinian conflict was achieved.
The "impossible choice" before the government, said Halevi, 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." Halevi believed the latter was the priority.
If a soldier knew the government would spare no effort or expense to liberate a captive, and that such release possessed the highest governmental priority, then the resolve of the citizen-soldiers of Israel to defend their nation would be fortified and absolute.
In a moral universe where alternatives were limited and where Israel's military might could protect its citizenry despite the ridiculous numerical imbalance of the exchange, Halevi felt this choice was still the wisest one that the government could make in an imperfect world.
This position provides a rationale for understanding why the current government made the decision it did. 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, supporting 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.