Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Jewish Halachic Law in the NYT

Halacha (and Israel) in a NYT story on hostage-taking and prisoner-relase:-

...“We don’t negotiate with terrorists,” Sean McCormack, a State Department spokesman told reporters on Thursday. “We don’t advise others to do so as well.”

He was denouncing the swap Italy made last week with the Taliban: five Taliban prisoners held in Afghan jails for an Italian reporter kidnapped in southern Afghanistan. The trade, officials around the globe warned, was wrong all around: It rewarded terror and encouraged more abductions.

...The reason is that kidnapping, as old as war itself, entangles the personal and the political, with real harm possible for hostage and politician alike...“Kidnappings are more difficult for governments to deal with than murders,” said Brian Michael Jenkins, an expert on kidnappings and political violence at the RAND Corporation. “Because human life hangs in the balance, and because it appears that the government or the company or whoever is the target of the demands can do something. Of course, in the process the culpability shifts.”

...But Israel, the country most often forced to confront hostage situations, has also swapped prisoners regularly — and has declared a willingness to do so now to free Cpl. Gilad Shalit, captured in Gaza last summer.

It is worth noting that Jewish religious law recognizes the particular difficulties of hostage taking: It does not forbid paying ransom, but only one that exceeds the value of the transaction. And so in cases like that of Corporal Shalit, leading rabbis issue opinions about the worth of various possible exchanges.

But one of the most renowned cases in Jewish history showed how difficult such an evaluation really is: the 13th-century Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg was taken hostage by Rudolph I, the first German king of the Hapsburg dynasty. A huge sum reputedly was raised for his ransom, but Rabbi Meir refused to allow the transaction, saying it would only encourage other kidnappings of rabbis. He died in jail.

Similarly, some Israelis argue that one of the largest prisoner swaps — in 1985 in which three Israelis captured in Lebanon were traded for 1,150 people — emboldened Palestinians to revolt two years later in the first intifada [*]. Whatever the precedents, many experts say the actual deals are negotiated under enormous pressure and with minimal regard for what happens later. “There is no theoretical basis,” said Mark Heller, director of research at the Institute for National Security Studies in Israel. “It’s just a question of ad hoc decision-making by the government, which is a function of domestic pressure and public opposition. Even family pressure.”

“After every deal like this,” he added, “there is a kind of post facto analysis and everyone says it was a mistake and we shouldn’t do it again. And we do it again.”

This was one of Israel's biggest mistakes. Not only were those released the entire operational structure of the Intifada I, but it broke down every government's ability to withstand the pressures in the future and so we go down and down.

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