Q. Does Jewish ethical teaching have a view about prisoner exchanges?
A. Pidyon sh’vuyyim, ransoming captives, is a well known issue in Jewish ethics and until recent times, the charity boxes in synagogues included boxes for donations to facilitate it. The Mishnah (Sh’kalim 2:5) made rulings about what may and may not be done with pidyon sh’vuyyim money.
When the problem was how much to pay for a captive, the 13th century sage, Rabbi Me’ir of Rothenburg, refused to allow the community to ransom him because it might encourage captors to kidnap other rabbis and demand huge amounts for their release. The law is that if a captive’s life is at stake a high ransom may be paid, but in time of war an enemy must not be allowed an incentive to take hostages.
The issue is never simple. National security is not the only concern. National emotion is important: we want our own people returned. National morality is also important: we have to do the decent thing even if we live in a tough neighbourhood.