Redeeming Hostages – Not at All Cost!, November 02, 2011

The recent spree of acquisitions of Israeli start-ups, by Intel, IBM, Microsoft, GE, Johnson & Johnson and Siemens, has triggered a powerful tailwind for thousands of young Israeli entrepreneurs, who aspire to establish new start-ups, which could be acquired by global giants.

The recent awarding of the Nobel Prize for chemistry to the Israeli scientist, Prof. Dan Schechtman, has induced much enthusiasm among thousands of young Israeli scientists, who wish to follow in his footsteps.

The recent swap of 1,100 Palestinian terrorists for one Israeli soldier, and the royal welcome for the terrorists by Abu Mazen, has adrenalized the veins of thousands of young Palestinians, who consider joining the ranks of PLO or Hamas terrorists.  

The swap deviates sharply from the morally-driven, security-based, reality-tested and common sense-guided Jewish approach to hostage redemption from the ancient era of the Patriarchs through the Second Temple period until modern times.

The Jewish preference of national – over private – security is a derivative of real-life Judaism: making daily “no-free lunch” choices between blessing and curse, good and evil, life and death.

Abraham the Patriarch did not pay ransom for his nephew, Lot. According to this week’s Torah portion, Lech Lechah in Hebrew, Abraham attacked King Chedarla’omer and rescued Lot.  

The 220 CE-redacted Oral Torah, the Mishnah in Hebrew, and the 5th century Talmud, which analyzes and contains the Mishnah, state that the enhancement of global well being prohibits paying excessive ransom for hostages, lest it entices further kidnapping and radicalizes kidnappers’ demands.

In the 12th century, Maimonides, one of the greatest Torah scholars and a luminary on Jewish laws and the ethics of warfare, maintained that redeeming hostages is the greatest precept and virtue, but not at all cost; it is not an absolute value!  A country which is involved in a war for its survival must consider the impact of hostage redemption upon future hostilities.

According to Maimonides’ teachings, a country which fights for its survival in the Middle East – which has been plagued by wars, volatility, treachery and intolerance toward non-Moslems for the last 1,400 years – must not subordinate its dire national interests to personal predicaments. While a rescue operation, such as Abraham’s, would risk the lives of soldiers (i.e. Jonathan Netanyahu in Entebbe), it would bolster Israel’s posture of deterrence.  On the other hand, the terrorists-hostage swap yields heavier pressure, erodes deterrence, encourages further kidnapping, intensifies terrorism, subverts the legal system and causes a setback to the overriding goal – for which soldiers are drafted – to prop up national security. Israel’s refraining from a hostage-driven military operation, such as the kidnapping of top leaders of Hamas, was registered by the Arabs as weakness.

Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg, the leading sage of that era, who was kidnapped in 1286 by Germany’s King Rudolph, issued a directive prohibiting his followers to pay the exorbitant ransom demanded by the King. He died in captivity seven years later.


Dr. Michael Wygoda, Head of the Department for Jewish Law at Israel’s Ministry of Justice, provided more examples in the Spring, 2010 issue of Justice Magazine, published by the International Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists.


The kidnapping of hostages and the systematic and intentional murder and intimidation of civilians is a means – and not the goal – of terrorists. Terrorists aim at eroding the confidence of free societies in the capability of their governments to secure safety and to defeat terrorism. The wholesale release of Palestinian terrorists in return for an Israeli soldier has emboldened terrorists, advancing their goal.

In order to secure public safety and defeat and deter terrorism, governments must reject pressure, immediate gratification and personal sensitivities, which led to this morally-wrong and strategically-reckless swap. Governments should embrace the Jewish values of morality, security, realism and common sense, which are consistent with long-term national security interests.