This past weekend, an American soldier, Sargeant Bowe Bergdahl, was released after five years in captivity. What on the surface seemed like a straight-forward cause for celebration has instead become a source of intense debate. Is there a moral imperative to “leave no soldier left behind,” even if it entails putting at risk the lives of other US armed forces? Did the agreement to release five Afghan members of the Taliban who had been imprisoned at Guantanamo Bay create the potential that these five Afghanis would endanger the lives of others in the future?
As I pondered these questions in recent days, I thought about how Israel has wrestled with these same challenging issues. Judaism has long held that it is a mitzvah to redeem captives (pidyon shvuyim); but the quandary of whether ransoming someone who has been imprisoned will encourage more kidnapping has always factored into the decision making process. Even if there is a decision to pay a ransom, or in the military context, to exchange prisoners, there is a question of proportionality. Is one prisoner exchanged for one other prisoner? This rarely has been the case since the founding of the State of Israel in 1948.
In October 2011, Israel negotiated the liberation of Gilad Shalit, an Israeli Defense soldier who had been kidnapped by Hamas. After six years in captivity, Shalit was released in exchange for over 1,000 Palestinian prisoners, some of whom were convicted of murdering Israelis. This agreement between Israel and Hamas generated intense debate.
An article soon appeared on a reputable Jewish website, analyzing from a Jewish perspective the pros and cons of freeing Gilad Shalit. I encourage you to read it, for it provides a Jewish framework for our consideration of the moral quandaries surrounding the release of Staff Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl: