If you follow the news from Israel closely via Israeli news media and not just US media, you will know that Hamas proposed an “all for all” swap whereby all the hostages held by Hamas would be released in return for the release of all Palestinian prisoners being held in Israeli jails. Families of the hostages have been pressing the government to accept this offer but Defense Minister Yoav Gallant has told the families that this is a “phony offer” designed to divide the Israeli public and weaken the war effort against Hamas.
Does Jewish tradition have anything to say about this offer? I did not address the specifics this past Shabbat -- which was before the alleged offer had been made -- but I did address some of the concepts which are in play here. There is no easy answer and the decision ultimately has to be made by the political and military leadership, not rabbis. But if you are curious as to what Jewish teaching is on the question of ransoming captives, please take a look at my Drasha from this past Shabbat.
I have written and spoken quite a bit since Oct. 7 on the concept of “proportionality” in warfare. It is one of the most misunderstood concepts in international law and many people assume that it means equal numbers of people killed on both sides. It does not. While it is of course illegal to intentionally target civilians, the rules of warfare understand that civilians will be killed or injured in attacks aimed at legitimate military targets. (This is especially so when Hamas intentionally uses hospitals, schools, and residential neighborhoods for military purposes, which is also a violation of international law.)
Nevertheless I was very upset yesterday afternoon when I received a “breaking news” update (I honestly don’t recall whether it was from the New York Times or the Washington Post) announcing that “hundreds of civilians” had been killed in an Israeli strike on a refugee camp in Gaza. While civilian deaths are inevitable, Israel also has a responsibility to attempt to minimize harm to civilians as much as possible and it seemed in this case they had not done so.
It later turned out that the initial reports were not accurate and even Hamas was reporting about 50 civilians killed. Of course every death of a non-combatant is tragic but again, Hamas had located important military headquarters in tunnels underneath the refugee camp. US media is often too credulous in reporting claims from the “Gaza Health Ministry” as if this was a reliable independent source and not under the control of Hamas. The duty to verify claims before printing them does not disappear simply by virtue of attributing the claim to the person or group who made it. A friend of mine who is a retired journalist and Pulitzer Prize winner often says that if one side claims it is raining and the other side claims it is not, it isn’t the job of the journalist to simply report both claims. It is to look out the damn window and see for yourself.
Tomorrow night, Nov. 2, my Adult Education class right after minyan will look at the laws of warfare according to halacha and Jewish teaching. I also want to note that in the current situation there is always a possibility that events may overtake us and necessitate schedule changes.
As a reminder, I am having drop-in hours on Thursday afternoon from 2 to 4 at the shul. You do not need to make an appointment -- that would negate the whole point of drop-in hours -- but I’d urge you to check and make sure I am there regardless as sometimes there are unavoidable pastoral or other emergencies which might take me away from the building.
As always, if I can do anything for you or you need to talk, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org or 301-977-0768 rather than through the synagogue office. I am happy to meet you at the synagogue by appointment. I have been spending more time in the synagogue recently but if you want to speak with me it’s best to make an appointment rather than assuming I will be there when you stop by.
Rabbi Charles L. Arian