how much is any life worth?

redeeming prisoners

The val­ue of פדיון שבויים‎ (Pidy­on Shvuy­im, the redemp­tion of pris­on­ers) is very impor­tant in Jew­ish life. Mai­monides states that it takes prece­dence over sup­port­ing the poor or cloth­ing them… because the prob­lems of the cap­tive include those of the poor: being hun­gry, thirsty, unclothed, and they are in dan­ger of their lives.

an entire world?

Tal­mud Bavli San­hedrin 4:8 (37a) states:

Who­ev­er saves a life, it is con­sid­ered as if he saved an entire world.

How­ev­er, not all pris­on­ers should be redeemed at any cost, in part to pre­vent those seek­ing finan­cial gain by cap­tur­ing any of the Jew­ish peo­ple (on the pre­sump­tion that they’ll be paid a ran­som). And while there remain cir­cum­stances in which this restric­tion does not apply, the most out­stand­ing is when the pris­on­er is a Torah schol­ar, it is instruc­tive that the most famous case of some­one refus­ing to be redeemed was that of R. Meir of Rothen­berg who died in prison after sev­en years in cap­tiv­i­ty.
Should a sol­dier, tak­en as a pris­on­er of war be ran­somed?

stateless or stated

At a time when the Jew­ish peo­ple was weak and state­less, one could eas­i­ly argue that we had no way to pre­vent maraud­ers from cap­tur­ing us. And, there­fore, it was impor­tant to ran­som cap­tives. But, is it pos­si­ble that the sit­u­a­tion has changed in a world where sig­nif­i­cant num­bers of Jews are pro­tect­ed by the appa­rati of the State of Israel?
On August 29, 1969 TWA flight 840 was hijacked from its Rome to Athens to Tel Aviv route and redi­rect­ed to Dam­as­cus. In Syr­ia all pas­sen­gers were released except for two Israelis: Shlo­mo Samueloff a pro­fes­sor at Hebrew Uni­ver­si­ty and Salah Muallem a trav­el agent. Var­i­ous attempts were made to call atten­tion to the pris­on­ers’ plight. An eye­wit­ness account of the hijack­ing, writ­ten by For­eign Ser­vice offi­cer Thomas D. Boy­att who was a pas­sen­ger on the flight was pub­lished in the Decem­ber 1969 issue of For­eign Ser­vice Jour­nal. The fol­low­ing adver­tise­ment for a peti­tion appeared on page 6 of The Tech the MIT stu­dent news­pa­per on Fri­day, Decem­ber 5, 1969.

call for petition to release the damascus 2

call for peti­tion to release the dam­as­cus 2


Israeli offi­cials had orig­i­nal­ly said they would nev­er accept a deal to trade the pris­on­ers. Nonethe­less the Wikipedia arti­cle on the release men­tions 71 Syr­i­an and Egypt­ian sol­diers as the “ran­som price”, a New York Times arti­cle from the peri­od states that the “unbe­liev­ably com­plex” exchange arranged for two Syr­i­an MIG-17 pilots, “five sol­diers and six civil­ians”. One won­ders what the “six civil­ians” were doing in Israel that they could be con­sid­ered part of a ran­som? Were these six civil­ians pris­on­ers?!

ron and nachshon who?

In Octo­ber of 1986, Lieu­tenant Colonel Ron Arad was shot down over Lebanon. Many pre­sume that he is dead, though in Octo­ber 2007, twen­ty-one years after his cap­ture, Israel received a let­ter writ­ten by Arad to his fam­i­ly short­ly after his cap­ture. Israel con­tin­ues to func­tion on the assump­tion that he is alive.

ron arad

ron arad


Eight years lat­er, in Octo­ber of 1994 Nachshon Wachs­man was cap­tured (prob­a­bly in uni­form) when return­ing home from a train­ing exer­cise. Nachshon was kept pris­on­er some­where in the Ter­ri­to­ries for six days. He died dur­ing an abort­ed res­cue attempt in which the team com­man­der was also killed.
The fol­low­ing year, Ben­jamin Netanyahu dis­ap­proved of a pris­on­er swap writ­ing to then Prime Min­is­ter Yitzhak Shamir:

The deal may have saved a few Israeli lives, but it’s clear to me that the price we’ll even­tu­al­ly pay is that the deal will sen­tence many oth­ers to death. A nation must act first and fore­most in the inter­est of the major­i­ty, and I see no way of jus­ti­fy­ing the deal as hav­ing served the major­i­ty in any way.

What is the respon­si­bil­i­ty of the nation to those who are cap­tured in its defense? Are these to be con­sid­ered Shvuy­im for whom we must arrange Pidy­on?

how would I feel if gilad was part of my family?

I am for­tu­nate. No one I know per­son­al­ly has been cap­tured and tak­en pris­on­er, nor have they been injured or killed in com­bat. I do not live in Israel where the aware­ness of Gilad Shalit’s cap­tiv­i­ty is con­stant­ly main­tained. In addi­tion, I am not a gov­ern­men­tal leader on whom rests the respon­si­bil­i­ty for the pro­tec­tion of any country’s cit­i­zens, nei­ther the civil­ians nor the sol­diers whose task it is to don a uni­form and take up arms in defense of the civil­ian pop­u­la­tion. I hope that I, even though I might be pas­sion­ate­ly con­cerned, would be able to dis­pas­sion­ate­ly eval­u­ate the larg­er sit­u­a­tion were I faced with such a chal­lenge.

gilad shalit

gilad shalit

  • Why is the case of Gilad Shalit on everyone’s mind, but that of Ron Arad most­ly unknown (at least among Amer­i­can Jews)? Per­haps because the case of Gilad Shalit is still so fresh we hope that we can save him… before the trail becomes cold.
  • A failed 2006 attempt to res­cue Gilad Shalit has caused even more deaths than the failed attempt to save Nachshon Wachs­man. What makes his life worth that of near­ly a thou­sand oth­ers?
  • Is it true that sav­ing his life would be as though we had saved an entire world? Per­haps not, but there might be oth­er val­ues involved. My broth­er Jay reminds me that Israeli youth who enlist in com­bat units need to know that the state will do all it can to to free them if cap­tured.
  • Is not the con­cern expressed by Netanyahu, in 1995, when he did not have to respond to the vot­ers in the same way he does now as Prime Min­is­ter, valid?
  • Cer­tain­ly not all those slat­ed to be trad­ed for Gilad Shalit will turn around and com­mit more acts of ter­ror and war against Israel. Have they been cap­tured for the pur­pose of such an exchange? Most are prob­a­bly kids who’ve tossed stones, yet cer­tain­ly Israel has cap­tured oth­ers for this pur­pose.
  • What does Israel gain by, and what is the cost of, keep­ing these thou­sand pris­on­ers?
  • Is mak­ing this exchange, per­haps, a sim­ple expres­sion of human com­pas­sion that might be under­stood, appre­ci­at­ed and rec­i­p­ro­cat­ed?

These are wrench­ing ques­tions.
Gilad Shalit is men­tioned (on the “sickMi-she­ber­akh list) every week in near­ly every Shab­bat ser­vice we attend… while Ron Arad seems to be unknown. I’ve had links to Arad in my Hag­gadah since it first went online and peo­ple still don’t know who he is. That orig­i­nal page regard­ing Ron Arad is now only avail­able as a Web archive. How­ev­er, a new orga­ni­za­tion deal­ing with those miss­ing in action is avail­able. (And, in the same con­text, even Ariel Sharon, while he remains comatose, is not men­tioned [though I add him from the con­gre­ga­tion]!)
Most of the online com­ments to sto­ries regard­ing the pris­on­er exchange for Gilad Shalit express the con­cern that Israel is func­tion­ing accord­ing to the con­cern that Netanyahu raised in 1995 (quot­ed above). And yet, since at least since Shlo­mo Samueloff and Salah Muallem were released there does not seem to have been any upsurge in Israelis cap­tured for ran­som. There­fore I must dis­count this rea­son.
Nonethe­less, it irks me. And yet, I should not take this out on Gilad Shalit.
I am (or have tried to make myself) hard/harsh on this. Even though I don’t want to be.
I ask myself painful­ly:

Is it only my geo­graph­i­cal, famil­ial and emo­tion­al dis­tance from the imme­di­a­cy of the sit­u­a­tion that makes me feel that this exchange should prob­a­bly go through, even though it is not appro­pri­ate?


The sub­ject of Pidy­on Shvuy­im is time­ly for a cou­ple of rea­sons. Recent weeks have seen an increase in the buzz sug­gest­ing that the cur­rent Israeli gov­ern­ment, head­ed now by Netanyahu is about to exchange 980 pris­on­ers in Israeli cap­tiv­i­ty in exchange for Gilad Shalit, the young Israeli cor­po­ral who was cap­tured while on duty at his army post on 25 June 2006. I wrote about this sub­ject at the time of his cap­ture (to col­leagues) and again (pub­licly) in June of 2008. In 2008 two oth­er sol­diers Ehud Gold­wass­er and Eldad Regev were still pre­sumed to be alive, pris­on­ers of war held cap­tive in Lebanon.
When Deb­bie and I were in New Orleans to help clean up after hur­ri­cane Kat­ri­na I saw some­one wear­ing a but­ton call­ing for the release of Gilad as well as Ehud and Eldad. I have not been able to acquire that but­ton.

Forty years ago on the date of this post­ing, which match­es the date of the call for the peti­tion sign­ing in The Tech, and unbe­knownst to the stu­dents who pre­pared the ad at that time, Shlo­mo Samueloff and Salah Muallem, “The Dam­as­cus 2” were released.
[I am indebt­ed to Dr. James Drey­fus for help­ing me track down the iden­ti­ty of The Dam­as­cus 2 in mid-Decem­ber of 2008.]

free damascus 2

free dam­as­cus 2

Date: 1969
Size: 3.175
Pin Form: straight
Print Method: cel­lu­loid
Text Free Dam­as­cus 2

your lapel buttons

Many peo­ple have lapel but­tons. They may be attached to a favorite hat or jack­et you no longer wear, or poked into a cork-board on your wall. If you have any lay­ing around that you do not feel emo­tion­al­ly attached to, please let me know. I pre­serve these for the Jew­ish peo­ple. At some point they will all go to an appro­pri­ate muse­um. You can see all the but­tons shared to date.

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