Exchanging Hostages for Terrorists?

Ask the Rov: Is it permissible to free hostages by releasing terrorists?

By Rabbi Chaim Hillel Raskin – Rov of Anash in Petach Tikvah

Halacha highlights the importance of redeeming captives but, at the same time, prohibits paying “above their value” (see issue 750). How does this translate when discussing prisoner exchanges?

Some acharonim hold that the limit in these cases follows what other countries offer for such “transactions” based on historical precedents. Based on this, it would be permitted to perform a prisoner swap after the conclusion of a war when the accepted custom is to do so, even if the number of prisoners doesn’t match. Other poskim, however, contend that the fair price tag remains one-for-one, and anything beyond that is against halacha.1

Soldiers, some poskim claim, have a different status for this halacha, and their ransom isn’t capped. Since the country sent them to war, they have complete responsibility for them, unlike a regular hostage scenario where the community doesn’t have full responsibility for the captives.2 Furthermore, just as one may redeem himself for any price, the same should apply if one commits in contract with someone else, as a country does with its soldiers.3

However, releasing terrorists or even carrying out such negotiations is problematic. It is proven historically that many of the freed terrorists return to terror. Moreover, it is perceived as a weakness, and it encourages terrorists to commit terror attacks, thinking that they will ultimately be freed.4

In 5739 (1979), the Rebbe strongly protested a prisoner swap when over 70 Arab prisoners – including over 30 convicted terrorists – were exchanged for one Israeli soldier, when not long before, America and Russia had swapped five for two! Though a Jewish life has infinite worth, the Rebbe explained, they could have obtained the same soldier for many fewer Arabs. Furthermore, this crossed the red line of negotiating with terrorists who openly said they would continue their terrorism. The Rebbe called it a weakness and a diplomatic move to win favor in the eyes of the Americans and Arabs.5 Moreover, said the Rebbe, putting terrorists in prison to begin with, rather than executing them, was a big mistake, since it invited pressure to release them at some point.6

In conclusion, releasing prisoners in exchange for hostages introduces new angles that aren’t dealt with in the Gemara’s discussion on ransoming captives. These decisions must be weighed by experts on security and terrorism to determine which option will cause fewer Jews to be harmed and that is the correct route to take.7

See Sources (open PDF)

From The Weekly Farbrengen by Merkaz Anash

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