According to the Talmud, the essence of Jewish peoplehood is our inherent sense of empathy: “There are three signs by which this people is known: They are merciful, they are bashful, they are charitable” (Yevamot 78). This unwillingness to see others suffer has always been expressed, inter alia, by the importance that we place on redeeming our brothers and sisters taken hostage. As Maimonides wrote in the twelfth century: “There is no mitzvah so great as redeeming captives” (Hilkhot Matanot Aniyim 8:10).
Jews throughout the centuries have gone to extraordinary lengths to free hostages, and in this spirit, the people of the modern state of Israel famously pride themselves on their unwillingness to leave any man or woman behind. Names and faces of hostages taken by our enemies have featured prominently and unceasingly on billboards and in synagogue prayers throughout the history of the state. And today, after the horrific attacks of October 7th, the fate of the more than 100 hostages still in the dungeons of Hamas tears constantly at our hearts.
The surrounding terrorist armies know this aspect of us, of course, and so they take the liberty of driving a very hard bargain whenever they succeed in taking Israelis hostage. Israel has notoriously been willing to pay heavy prices for the redemption of prisoners. The most extreme case was the 2011 Shalit deal, in which the state of Israel released more than 1,000 Palestinian terrorists (including Yahya Sinwar, who was to become the head of Hamas in Gaza) in exchange for a single abducted Israeli soldier. The Israeli public has always known that such agreements are unfair, but they are thought of as an unfortunate price to pay for the necessity of dealing with unjust foes. They have even been a point of pride in Israel, highlighting our humanity and emotional sensitivity. Today, however, a growing number of Israelis are coming to the conclusion that such deals are not only unfair but also deeply unwise.
It should go without saying that the only way to drive down the price of Israeli hostages is to be less willing to pay for them. A hostage’s worth to terrorists is valued only at the price the people being terrorized will agree to. This wisdom was laid out 2,000 years ago in the Mishna, the seminal code of Jewish law, which states: “One may not redeem hostages for unreasonable prices, because of tikkun olam” (Gittin 4:6).
The phrase tikkun olam, which literally means “repairing the world,” has become a watchword for many liberal Jews today. It denotes broadening the scope of a moral or legal assessment, beyond the scope of the case in question, to understand the strategic ramifications of our decisions for the future. Here, the Sages understood that Jews’ culturally ingrained mercy and lovingkindness impels us to pay any price to free our brethren who are suffering. But they also understood that to follow those instincts blindly can create even more terrible suffering in the future. Tikkun olam teaches us that, difficult though it might be, sometimes our reasoned judgment must overcome our instinctual love and mercy.
In the context of the current war, many claim that the State of Israel is fast approaching a point where it must choose between two options: removing Hamas from power and freeing the hostages. Hamas has asserted that it is not willing to free the prisoners for anything less than a complete ceasefire. Interim agreements might be made to free some hostages in exchange for time for the terrorists to regroup, but Hamas will always save some to ensure their main goal: survival. And so when it comes down to it, Israeli leaders worry that pursuing the war’s military objectives to the bitter end could result in the incidental deaths or executions of the captives. As long as this is the choice before us, the conscience of the Israeli body politic is being torn in two, which is exactly what Hamas wants.
It is likely a false choice. But to understand why, the first step is to assess, in the hypothetical context of such a terrible calculus, what would be the right option to choose. As painful as such a calculation is, the truth is that any ceasefire that leaves Hamas in control of Gaza preserves its wherewithal to plan and execute more attacks like that of October 7th. If Israel made such a deal, we would be in effect getting back the hostages taken from us on a day when more than a thousand were murdered, in exchange for God-knows-how-many hostages to be taken by Hamas in the future, along with the attendant mass-murder, rape, and torture, indefinitely.
Understood in this light, it becomes painfully clear that toppling Hamas is even more important than freeing the hostages. It is a terrible thing to have to write, and even more difficult to have to hear. We cannot dare to judge the families of the hostages for whom these words must feel like a knife wound. But note that many of them as well have come to the conclusion that as a community, we have an infinite responsibility not only to our present but also to our future. As wrenching as it is to admit, we must recognize the logical rightness of this ordering of priorities. Morality requires it.
But as dark as this reality seems, it emits a ray of hope. Imagine the following scenario: Yahya Sinwar, hiding in his hole deep underneath Khan Younis, begins to understand that Israel is not stopping its assault and is not coming to terms. As the explosions get louder, as more and more lines of communication fail, as his supplies of food and fuel run low, his threats will grow louder and more desperate. He will ramp up the pressure in unimaginable ways. But when he is convinced that Israel has made a final, irrevocable commitment to win the war at any cost, he will be cornered with few choices. He could kill the hostages and himself, going out in a blaze of glory like Hitler in his bunker. This is a real possibility. But there is another: He can trade them for the only thing he has now left to lose – his own hide.
Faced with certain defeat, Sinwar can negotiate a surrender in which he and his family and close associates are exiled to Qatar, where they will live out their long lives like royalty in the company of fellow true-believer resistance fighters Mashal (net worth $4bn), Haniyeh ($4bn), and Abu Marzouk ($3bn). This is a price that Israelis would and should be willing to pay to free their captive brothers and sisters.
To leave Hamas in control of Gaza and able to take more and more hostages would be catastrophic; to allow murderers to escape justice would be only unjust. The lives of 100 innocent people are not worth catastrophe, but they are worth this. And while we cannot know, it is likely that this deal is one that Sinwar would be willing to accept – but only if he knows that there is no other deal to be had. If he makes this decision, Israel will have accomplished both of its objectives: removing Hamas from power and freeing the hostages. This is the only way (if there is any way) to achieve both objectives.
Is this a terrible and frightening gamble? Absolutely. Sinwar might feel that the halo of martyrdom is worth more to him than the riches of Qatar. If he does however, it will only prove retroactively that we always would have been forced to choose between the destruction of Hamas and the freeing of the hostages. And since losing the war would be a disaster for Israel even greater than the terrible and heart-wrenching loss of all the hostages, we understand that the price we pay for not gambling is certainly far worse than whatever the outcome might be if we do.
With a heavy heart, but with moral confidence, Israel must issue a new doctrine for hostage negotiations. Hostages may be traded one-for-one, or, if the threat has become intolerable (as it is now), they will be had only in exchange for the heads of their captors. Such an insistence might seem harsh, even cruel, when viewed narrowly. But with an eye toward the future, it is the only morally and strategically serious path we can take. And it is therefore the essence of tikkun olam.