Pikuach Nefesh, the obligation to save a life in jeopardy, is as old as the Torah from which it comes. Valuing human life over all else is a basic tenet of Judaism. Its purpose, according to Maimonides, is to encourage compassion, loving-kindness and peace in the world.
Israel showed the world that this moral obligation is constant, as applicable in times of war as in times of peace, when it traded POW Gilad Shalit for 1,027 imprisoned terrorists in 2011. Israelis supported their government’s action by a 6 to 1 margin, according to a Jerusalem Post poll published the next day.
Contrast that to recent events at home. When the Taliban exchanged U.S. Army Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl for five prisoners held in the U.S. Guantanamo prison, a Pew Research Center and USA Today poll indicated that only 34% of those questioned thought it was the right thing to do. The cover of Time magazine ran a picture of Bergdahl with the oversized caption, “Was He Worth It?”
Israel and the United States both have their share of political infighting and finger pointing. Polarization of right and left, ultra-this and ultra-that, are equally prevalent. Yet the way each country responded to its government’s deal to bring home its citizen prisoners of war couldn’t be more different. Or more revealing.
Both soldiers faced criticism of their conduct after they were freed. Both governments came under fire for negotiating with terrorists. In the U.S., the conversation about whether the swap was “worth it” focuses on public examination and criticism of Bergdahl’s character. Allegations and political jockeying have been swift, eclipsing all else.
In Israel, although there was an undercurrent questioning whether Shalit could have avoided captivity, his homecoming was celebrated. Despite the lopsided nature of the exchange, the public did not attack Shalit or his family personally. In Israel, a Jewish life is unconditionally sacred. Gilad Shalit needed to be brought home. Period.
Politics aside, the plurality of U.S. citizens could learn a valuable lesson from Israel and reconsider their reaction to Bowe Bergdahl’s release. Jews everywhere should look in our collective Jewish mirror, remember that which binds us as a unique people, and celebrate what we see.
This editorial originally appeared in the Jewish Journal on June 19, 2014.