On April 19, 1945, literally days before the end of World War II, Norbert Masur, a German-born representative of the Swedish section of the World Jewish Congress, flew from Stockholm to Berlin for a secret meeting with Heinrich Himmler, the head of Nazi Germany’s notorious SS.
The trip had been arranged with the full the knowledge and approval of the Swedish Foreign Ministry.
On the plane, Masur later wrote, “I had time to think about the mission. For me as a Jew, it was a deeply moving thought, that, in a few hours, I would be face to face with the man who was primarily responsible for the destruction of several million Jewish people. But my agitation was dampened by the thought that I finally would have the important opportunity to be of help to many of my tormented fellow Jews.”
More than two days later, in the early hours of April 21, Masur met with Himmler for two and a half hours at an estate near the German capital and negotiated the release of more than 1,000 Jews from the concentration camp at Ravensbrück. A Jew had risked his life to sit with one of the greatest mass murderers of all times in order to save other Jews, other fellow human beings, from death.
On Dec. 29, 1983, Rev. Jesse Jackson flew to Damascus and successfully appealed to Syrian President Hafez al-Assad to release U.S. Navy Lieutenant Robert O. Goodman Jr. who had been shot down earlier that month while on a bombing mission against Syrian anti-aircraft installations. Five hours after their return to American soil on Jan. 3, 1984, Goodman and Jackson were greeted warmly at the White House by President Reagan. Jackson ’s mission, President Reagan said, “was a personal mission of mercy, and he has earned our gratitude and our admiration.”
During the 1930s and throughout World War II, Jews in the United States, Palestine, Canada, England and elsewhere paid substantial sums to enable relatives, friends and, often, total strangers to escape from Nazi Europe. Hebrew Union College, the seminary of Reform Judaism, rescued rabbis and scholars such as Abraham Joshua Heschel from certain death.
In 1940 and 1941, Varian Fry and the Emergency Rescue Committee, with the help of Hiram Bingham IV, the U.S. vice consul in Marseilles, smuggled more than 2,000 anti-Fascist writers, artists and other intellectuals out of Vichy France to safety.
President Clinton’s recent mission to North Korea must be viewed in the context of these and similar historical events. With the full support of President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the former president traveled to Pyongyang to free two young American women who had been imprisoned for over five months and who were looking at the prospect of 12 years in a North Korean labor camp.
President Obama appropriately thanked Clinton publicly “for the extraordinary humanitarian effort that resulted in the release of the two journalists.”
Not everyone agrees. In a Washington Post op-ed article John Bolton, the neo-conservative whom the Senate refused to confirm as George W. Bush’s ambassador to the United Nations, dismissed Clinton’s mission as a “knee-jerk impulse for negotiations above all.”
“Despite decades of bipartisan U.S. rhetoric about not negotiating with terrorists for the release of hostages,” Bolton wrote, “it seems that the Obama administration not only chose to negotiate, but to send a former president to do so.”
Bolton is wrong. His apparent readiness to abandon Laura Ling and Euna Lee in a North Korean gulag is both callous and morally appalling. It also runs counter to a fundamental theological principle that explains the government of Israel ’s January 2004 exchange of 435 Palestinian prisoners for the bodies of three Israeli soldiers and an Israeli businessman who had been abducted in 2000 by the terrorist organization Hezbollah. That principle is called in Hebrew pidyon shvuyim, the redemption of captives.
According to the great 12th Century Jewish theologian and philosopher Maimonides, “there is no greater mitzvah (commandment) than the redeeming of captives,” and the failure to do so violates several basic biblical commandments, including “do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman” (Deuteronomy 15:7), and “love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).
There are two often mutually exclusive concepts of our religious and moral responsibilities. The darker ideology, as epitomized by Bolton and other harsh right-wing fundamentalists, envisions an often-angry vengeful God who tolerates neither human weakness nor any deviation from an unbending dogma. The other seeks to repair the world, to ease suffering, and, in the image of Moses’ brother Aaron, to pursue peace.
Jewish law does place certain limitations on pidyon shvuim, so that the payment of excessive ransoms would not become an inducement for taking captives who could then be ransomed. Nonetheless, Jewish tradition throughout the centuries has been for communities to ransom captives in order to prevent their death or continued suffering.
Clinton’s willingness to sit down with Kim Jong-il in order to redeem Laura Ling and Euna Lee from captivity was an act of courage and grace that reflects the true values of our country.
Clinton has reminded us that human life is sacred, and that the protection and rescue of the innocent must be one of our national priorities. He deserves unambiguous gratitude not just from the two journalists and their families but from us all.
(Menachem Rosensaft is a New York City attorney and an adjunct professor of law at Cornell Law School. He also is vice president of the American Gathering of Jewish Holocaust Survivors and Their Descendants.)