Since the founding of the State of Israel, on several occasions terrorists have kidnapped civilians or soldiers and threatened to kill them if we don’t free large numbers of Arab terrorists in Israeli jails. In cases like these, are we to accept the demands of the kidnappers and free their imprisoned comrades in order to save Jewish life, or should we refuse?

In a case where a hostage’s life is in immediate danger, the poskim (Jewish law arbiters) were divided on whether or not to give in to their demands. Some say it is proper to redeem him, even at a price greater than his worth because his life is threatened, while others say it is forbidden, out of general concern for the well-being of the public.

These opinions are applicable when the kidnappers are normal criminals seeking monetary gain. But in a case of ongoing war between Israel and terrorist enemies, it is forbidden to give in to any coercion on their part, for it is clear that if we were to concede, our enemies would view this as a sign of weakness, raising their morale and increasing their incentive to strike at us further. And we have learned that every time terrorists have succeeded in getting their way, this has motivated others to join them in their war against Israel. Additionally, if we give in, terrorists will not worry about getting caught, trusting that if they are apprehended and put in Israeli prisons, they will be soon freed in the next prisoner exchange. Also, it is a proven fact that a percentage of the freed terrorists return to carrying out attacks against Jews. Therefore, in spite of the pain involved, we are not to give in to coercion and pay an excessive price for the hostage, above and beyond the customary payment demanded in kidnappings, in other words, a one-man-for-one-man exchange.

The rule is that during a war we do not give in to any demand from the enemy, and if they take even one Jew hostage, we set off to war to free him. It is written in the Torah:

“And when the Kenaanite, the king of Arad, who dwelt in the Negev, heard that Israel came by the way of Atarim, then he fought against Israel and took some of them prisoners” (Bamidbar 21:1).

Rashi, citing Chazal, explains that only one handmaid was captured from Israel. The Jews did not enter into negotiations to rescue her – rather, they went to war. This is also what King David did when Amalek invaded Zeklag and took the women captive – he went to war to rescue the captives without bothering to negotiate first (Shmuel 1, 30.) Even if the enemy came to steal only straw and hay, we set off to wage war against them, because if we give in to them on a minor thing, they will continue to fight against us with even greater resolve (Eruvin 45A).

All of this concerns terrorists and enemies who are perpetually at war against us. However, if the war has ended, it is permissible to exchange all the enemy prisoners in our hands for the Jews whom they have taken captive, even if the prisoners we set free substantially outnumber the Jews who are released. This is because exchanges of this sort are customary when cease fires are formulated and all prisoners are set free. This is not considered paying more than the captives are worth on a prisoner-for-prisoner basis, and therefore we are not concerned lest the return of prisoners will encourage the enemy to continue their war against us. If the enemy does return to its former belligerency, it is most likely for other reasons (see Tachumin Vol.4, pg.108).

Is it is Mitzvah to Save a Terrorist in Danger?

Years ago, a terrorist attempted to kill a Jewish boy in the center of Jerusalem. By the grace of God, the boy was only slightly wounded. People at the scene chased angrily after the terrorist, wanting to teach him a lesson. Suddenly, a woman, who worked for a Haredi newspaper, arrived and shielded the terrorist with her body, thus saving him from blows and possible death. Did this woman act in accordance with the halakhah by saving the terrorist?

There are two sides to this question: in regards to the laws of “rodef,” and concerning the commandment “Not to stand idly by on the blood of your fellow.” It is clear that as long as the terrorist is armed and dangerous, even if there is the slightest doubt of danger, the din (law) of rodef (pursuer) applies to him, or her. In this case, it is a mitzvah for anyone to rescue the person in danger by striking at, and neutralizing, the rodef. If it is possible to do this by wounding him, this is the preferable response. But if there is a chance that wounding him won’t bring an end to the danger, or that in the effort to only wound him time will be wasted and he will have the opportunity to harm others, the rodef should be killed in order to save the people whom he, or she, is endangering (Shulchan Aruch, Hoshen Mishpat 425:1).

If there is no longer a danger from the terrorist, then we still must clarify the question if it is necessary to intervene in order to save the terrorist from the angry crowd? The Talmud states that the most evil haters of Israel are to be “lowered and not raised” (Avodah Zara 26B). This means that if it is possible, they should be killed. Regarding lesser evil-doers (without here defining the different grades), the Talmud states, “They are not lowered, but neither are they raised.” In other words, we are not to kill them in any active manner, but we are also not commanded to save them. For example, if a terrorist fell into a pit where he is likely to die, we don’t help him to climb out. This is the ruling of the Rambam (Hilchot Rotzaoch 5:10) and the Shulchan Aruch (Hoshen Mishpat 425:5).

In the example we mentioned at the beginning of this section, there is no doubt that a terrorist who intends to slaughter Jews in the middle of the city is to be considered a wicked person of the highest order, with the Talmud’s classification, “lowered and not raised.” If possible, he should be killed. At the minimum, he should not be helped or saved. While “dina d’malchuta dina” maintains that it is forbidden according to the law of the State to kill a terrorist who no longer poses a threat, according to the law of the State as well, a person is not obligated to help a terrorist or to save him. Therefore, according to the halakhah, there was no need for the woman to defend the terrorist, since the halakhah states, “not raised,” meaning we don’t rescue such an evildoer.

In summary, an individual in a position of governmental authority, such as a policeman or a soldier, must act according to his orders. Even on Shabbat, we must attend to the enemy’s wounded, according to international agreements, so as not to arouse the world’s animosity against us (See the Chatam Sofer, Yoreh Deah 131; Igrot Moshe 4:79; and “Milamdei Milchamah” 43). However, a citizen who is not serving in any official position where he must save the terrorist, need not help him, as our Sages have taught: “Whoever is merciful toward the cruel will in the end be cruel to the merciful” (Midrash Shmuel 18). Therefore in the case of the woman journalist, seeing as it was quite possible the terrorist was still a threat to the public, it was forbidden for her to place herself, and others, in danger by shielding him when he was still capable of causing further harm.