Life plus 1,000 years: Cleveland kidnapper Ariel Castro sentenced


An Ohio judge on Thursday sentenced Cleveland kidnapper Ariel Castro to life in prison for abducting, raping and holding captive three women for as long as 11 years, and murder for forcing one of the women to abort her pregnancy.

Cuyahoga County Judge Michael Russo imposed the prison sentence after an emotional court hearing at which one of Castro's victims, Michelle Knight, 32, said the former school bus driver put her through a life of hell.

“I served 11 years of hell. Now your hell is just beginning,” Knight said of Castro in a statement read to the court.

Castro pleaded guilty last week to hundreds of criminal charges to avoid the possibility of the death penalty.

Wearing leg shackles and dressed in an orange prison jumpsuit, Castro listened to her testimony without expression.

[Related: Cleveland kidnappings: We must be our brother’s keeper]

Amanda Berry, 27, Gina DeJesus, 23 and Knight, all went missing from the west side of Cleveland between 2002 and 2004. They were discovered on May 6 after neighbors heard Berry's cries for help from Castro's home.

Cleveland kidnapper Ariel Castro admitted at the hearing on Thursday that he was a sick man but said he is not the monster described by prosecutors.

Castro delivered a rambling statement to the court that he makes no excuses for his behavior, which he said was “wrong.”

Reporting by Kim Palmer; Writing by Greg McCune; Editing by Lisa Von Ahn and Gunna Dickson

Cleveland kidnappings: We must be our brother’s keeper


It is not our place to judge the neighbors of Ariel Castro. We don’t know enough about the particular circumstances of those who lived near this man who allegedly held three women hostage for a decade to be able to judge whether things could have been different had they been paying closer attention. But a story like the one that developed in Cleveland over the past 10 years compels every one of us to ask the following questions: “Could such a thing have happened on my block? Do I have a Jewish ethical obligation to familiarize myself with my neighbors and their lives so that I can know if something is awry? Or is this degree of precautionary vigilance beyond the reasonable limits of ethical responsibility? And what of the revered Jewish principles of granting people the benefit of the doubt, and of not being reflexively suspicious of others?”

As I thought about these questions, I realized that it would be disingenuous and inaccurate to assert that Jewish law demands that we proactively sniff out trouble. The numerous mitzvot that require us to remediate or at least diminish the travail of suffering of others are all reactive in nature. We must visit the sick of whom we are aware, but have no specific obligation to seek the sick out. The same holds true for the mitzvah to ransom captives, to feed the indigent, to comfort the bereaved. We mustn’t stand idly by the blood of another. But this mitzvah, too, presumes that we have already become aware of the difficult circumstances that another is facing. 

At the same time, though, in numerous different ways, the Jewish ethical tradition recognizes the stark reality that when we are purely responsive and not proactive, we will invariably drop many vulnerable individuals right between the proverbial cracks. Yes, it is necessary to be responsive to people in trouble, but necessary is not always the same as sufficient. 

Three young women were kidnapped and held hostage in Cleveland for a decade. From left: Amanda Berry, Georgina DeJesus and Michelle Knight.

The most dramatic expression of this recognition comes in the form of a story told in Avot of Rabbi Nathan, a compilation of wisdom and teachings from the period of the Talmud. The story is that of the young Eliezer ben Hyrcanus, who is born into a wealthy, land-owning family but whose heart is captured by the voice of study that is emanating from the beit midrash of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai, the great master of that generation. Eliezer’s father, who foresees Eliezer’s future in conducting the affairs of the estate, is displeased by his son’s interest in study. The text relates what happens next:

One day, Eliezer announced, “I am going to learn Torah from Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai.” Said his father to him, “You will eat not a morsel today until you plow an entire furrow.” Eliezer arose early, plowed the furrow, and set off. It is said that this occurred on a Friday and that he ate that night at the home of his father-in-law, but others say that he did not eat at all. Instead, he placed rocks in his mouth, and some say the excrement of cows. He took up residence in an inn, and came to study before Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai. At some point Rabbi Yochanan noticed that a bad odor was emerging from Eliezer’s mouth. “My son, have you eaten at all?” the sage asked. Eliezer was silent. Rabbi Yochanan summoned the innkeeper and asked him, “Did you feed Eliezer?” “I thought that perhaps he had eaten with you,” the innkeeper replied. “And I thought he had eaten with you!” replied the sage. “Between me and you, we lost Eliezer in the middle!”

By the time anyone realized Eliezer was in trouble, it was late, almost too late. What was missing and what was needed was the initiative to inquire, to ask questions, to uncover the circumstances by which this young man had appeared in the beit midrash, and to be in position to help before the trouble began. Simply responding to need is necessary, but not always sufficient. 

The value of being vigilant and proactive is also expressed by one of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai’s students who, when asked by his master, “What is the most important quality a person can have?” responded by saying, “That of being a good neighbor” (Pirkei Avot 2:13). He did not say “a good friend,” rather specifically a “good neighbor,” because it is the neighbor who is the set of eyes and ears able to detect even small changes in the daily routines of those immediately around him, and who can inquire and intervene at the first hint that something is amiss. And this very same value is almost certainly imbedded in the mitzvah to “love the other as yourself.” As is clear from its context, this mitzvah is intended to transcend the long list of response-type mitzvot that precedes it. It is the mitzvah to see and to feel broadly and expansively, including taking the time to wonder what that scream was that came from the house down the block. 

And, yes, at the same time, we are to give others the benefit of the doubt and to avoid being reflexively suspicious. But halachah strenuously sweeps these — and all Torah laws — aside whenever there is even the possibility that human life is at stake. 

I am the first to admit that I am not the neighbor I should be. And I can offer all the same excuses that so many of us can make. But in light of what has been revealed in Cleveland, it’s clear that our religious tradition would identify this particular moment as one when we are required to ask, “Could this have happened on my block”?

Suspected kidnapper Ariel Castro


Rav Yosef Kanefsky is senior rabbi at B’nai David-Judea (bnaidavid.com), a Modern Orthodox congregation in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood.

Shalit reveals how he survived in first public interview since freedom


One year after his release, Israeli Channel 10 News aired parts of an interview with former Hamas captive Gilad Shalit on Oct. 11, during which Shalit revealed details of how he survived his ordeal and spent his days in captivity.

“During the day, I played all kinds of games with them, like chess and dominos. I also played all kinds of odd games with myself, mainly games related to sports. I would form a ball out of socks or shirts and try to aim for the garbage bin. I would invent all kinds of activities and also write things at times. For example, I would play the geographical game known as ‘country-city,’” Shalit said.

Shalit said he didn’t maintain a consistent diary. “I wrote all kinds of random notes and followed sports events. I would draw a map of Israel, Mitzpe Hila [where he and his family reside] and all the homes there, just to remember the place and imagine it. I did that in the early days of captivity, so that I wouldn’t forget. Some [captors] didn’t like the fact that I was writing things down. They thought I was gathering information.”

Regarding the moment of his release, Shalit only remembers feeling tense. “During the ride (to Egypt), I felt very anxious. I didn’t know if something would happen, if they would try to hurt me, or something would go wrong at the last moment. When I got out of the vehicle and realized I was in Egypt, I felt relief. I saw dozens of people, hundreds of them, after being in contact with only a few people for all those years. There were so many people there. It was a strange feeling, a sense of shock. I also began to feel relieved.”

Read a translation of the full interview on the Israelife blog.

Day one of freedom for Gilad Shalit


Gilad Shalit, whose skinny frame is the talk of Israel, took a morning stroll with his mother outside the family home in a leafy village in northern Israel, accompanied by police who formed a protective guard around him.

Israel media reported that Shalit, dressed in a t-shirt, sunglasses and a baseball cap with an IDF insignia on it, took a short walk Wednesday morning.

“You have to start with something,” his father, Noam, told reporters. “Gilad feels well. He needs time for himself.”

Shalit was also seen at his home by military doctors on Wednesday. He will be seen by doctors in the coming days in order to get a complete picture of his condition.

Following tests Tuesday, Shalit was found to have shrapnel wounds from his initial capture and to be suffering from malnutrition.

Free the hostage, but at what price?


The fifth anniversary of Gilad Shalit’s cruel imprisonment by Hamas, without the Red Cross being allowed to visit him, sparked growing public pressure in Israel on the government to agree to a painful prisoner swap. As I watched the protest, my mind wandered back almost four decades.

It was July 1973, and the Israeli Air Force (IAF) Academy was ready for its traditional end-of-semester party. I contributed my part to the party’s program by impersonating an Italian air attaché and conducting a tour of the base, where I had been serving for five years, without anyone recognizing me. Later, the pictures were shown at the party and generated a lot of laughter. I was surprised, therefore, when after the party I was summoned to the IAF commander, the fearsome Gen. Benny Peled, who showed great interest in the fact that for a full day I walked around the academy without my identity being exposed.

He told me why he was interested. A month before, Syria had agreed to return three pilots who had been kept as POWs for three years. Why? Because in June 1972, in a brilliant operation, the Israel Defense Force’s (IDF) elite commando unit, Sayeret Matkal, had abducted senior Syrian officers who were reconnoitering the Syrian-Lebanese border. After a year of hard negotiations, the POW swap was concluded. But Peled wasn’t fully satisfied. He entertained the idea of sending to Damascus people who would impersonate Syrian prison officers, get the wardens who maltreated our pilots and settle the account with them.

I dared wonder if this was necessary, once we’d gotten our boys back. He gave me a stern look. “If we’re here to stay,” he reprimanded me, “then everybody around us should know that they can’t mess with Israel and get away with it.”

I wish we still had that kind of approach. Furthermore, I wish we had adopted in the first place the stance of the United States: No deals with extortionists. Period. When, in 1993, the American pilot Michael Durant was captured by Gen. Mohamed Farrah Aidid’s men in Mogadishu, Somalia (the “Black Hawk Down” incident), former U.S. Ambassador Robert Oakley warned Aidid that the city would be destroyed, including “men, women, children, camels, cats, dogs, goats, donkeys, everything. … That would really be tragic for all of us, but that’s what will happen.”

Durant was released right away.

Israel is not a superpower like America, and, furthermore, bringing our boys home has always been almost a sacred value. Israeli soldiers are willing to do everything for their country, even risking their lives, because they know that if they become prisoners of war, Israel will go out of its way to bring them back home. I flew with the Israeli Air Force for 37 years, and I always felt confident about that. Many times I was assigned to secondary missions that had only one purpose — to rescue fellow pilots who flew the primary mission, if and when they got into trouble. If they did fall into enemy hands, however, every government in Israel has agreed to a prisoner swap.

Netanyahu’s government is no exception, and through the good services of a German mediator, it came as close as possible to striking a deal with Hamas. However, the government refuses to yield to Hamas’ demand to release some of the worst terrorists, those responsible for killing hundreds of innocent Israelis. This is not a question of punishing them; the precedent of the ill-fated Jibril deal in 1985, when 1,150 prisoners were released, showed that many of the killers, once freed, resumed their killings.

This is not a question of principle, then, but of price. Maybe borrowing a page from Jewish history will help us here. In Judaism, redeeming the captive is very important: “You shall not stand idly by the blood of your brother” (Leviticus 19:16). However, not at all costs. One of the old Jewish sages has already cautioned against it. Rabbi Meir ben Baruch, better known as the Maharam of Rotenburg, was one of the leading rabbis of Germany in the 13th century, when King Rudolph started persecuting the Jews.

The king arrested the Maharam, hoping to get a huge ransom for him, and indeed, the Jews started to collect money for that purpose. Yet the Maharam, from his cell, issued a directive strictly prohibiting such a move, by citing the Jewish religious law: “It is forbidden to redeem captives for more than their worth.” He pointed out that setting a precedent in his case would endanger all Torah sages, who would become instruments of kidnapping and extortion.

This is a terrible dilemma, with no clear-cut answers. It was Geula Cohen, who was a fighter in the pre-state, anti-British underground Lehi (the Stern Gang), who summed it up. “If my son Tzachi [Member of Knesset Tzachi Hanegbi] were taken POW,” she said in one of the controversies over prisoner exchanges, “I would have fought like a lioness that the government should pay any price for his release.’’

Then, with the same breath, she added: “And at the same time, I would have expected the government to firmly reject my demands.”

Uri Dromi is a columnist based in Jerusalem. From 1992 to 1996, he served as the spokesman of the Rabin and Peres governments.

Israel accepts terms of German deal for Shalit


Efforts are intensifying for the release of Israeli hostage Gilad Shalit on the fifth anniversary of his capture by the terrorist organization Hamas.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that Israel had accepted a German-mediated deal for Shalit’s release, and was awaiting Hamas’ response.

“This proposal was harsh; it was not simple for the State of Israel,” Netanyahu said Sunday according to a statement released after the weekly Cabinet meeting.  “However, we agreed to accept it in the belief that it was balanced between our desire to secure Gilad’s release and to prevent possible harm to the lives and security of the Israeli people.  As of now, we have yet to receive Hamas’s official answer to the German mediator’s proposal.”

Mass rallies were planned this weekend in Israel, including a protest Saturday outside Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu’s residence in Caesaria, the Shalit campaign’s weekly protest in Jerusalem on Sunday and a 24-hour event at Herzliya Studios, Israel’s largest TV facility, where dozens of celebrities and politicians will each spend an hour in “solitary confinement” in solidarity with the captured soldier.

A rally was also planned for the Italian capital of Rome, where the mayor was to help release 1,826 yellow balloons, corresponding to the number of days Shalit has been in captivity.

On Friday, The Obama administration called for Gilad Shalit’s immediate release. “Nearly five years have now passed since Hamas terrorists crossed into Israel and abducted Gilad Shalit,” it said.  “During this time, Hamas has held him hostage without access by the International Committee of the Red Cross, in violation of the standards of basic decency and international humanitarian demands.  As the anniversary of his capture approaches, the United States condemns in the strongest possible terms his continued detention, and joins other governments and international organizations around the world in calling on Hamas to release him immediately.”

France’s foreign minister, Alain Juppe, said France “has not forgotten Gilad Schalit” and noted that he is the French hostage held the longest in captivity.

“On the eve of the sad anniversary of the fifth year of Gilad Schalit’s captivity, I want to reiterate that the situation of our compatriot, held in defiance of the most basic principles of international humanitarian law, is unacceptable,” Juppe said in the statement, which was posted on the website of the French Embassy in Israel.

Shalit is a citizen of both France and Israel, and according to the website meetgilad.com is an honorary citizen of Paris, Rome, New Orleans and Miami. He has also just been named an honorary citizen of Baltimore.

Twelve Israeli, Palestinian and international human rights organizations issued a joint statement Friday calling on Hamas to end its “illegal” and “inhumane” treatment of Shalit, including Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the International Federation for Human Rights and the Palestinian Center for Human Rights. Some of those groups had never before spoken out on his behalf, according to a report by the International Middle East Media Center, which called the joint statement “unprecedented.”

Amnesty International said in a press release that it is circulating a petition among its worldwide membership, calling upon Hamas to ease the suffering of Shalit and his family, and will present the petition to Hamas’s prime minister in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh.

The International Committee of the Red Cross has issued a statement saying the lack of information about Shalit was “unacceptable,” and demanded that Hamas issue proof immediately that he is still alive.

Shalit, 24, was captured on June 25, 2006, taken across the border from Israel into Gaza, and has been held since then by Hamas.

Hamas rejects Red Cross demand to prove Shalit is alive


The International Red Cross on Thursday urged Hamas to provide proof abducted Israel Defense Forces soldier Gilad Shalit is still alive, a request which the Islamist group quickly dismissed.

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri told Reuters in Gaza “The Red Cross should not get involved in Israeli security games aimed at reaching Shalit. It should take a stand that results in ending the suffering of Palestinian prisoners.”

Senior ICRC officials say their message was transmitted privately to the militant Islamist group in the Strip several weeks ago.

Read more at Haaretz.com.

Jewish Agency events mark Shalit birthday


Events marking the 23rd birthday of abducted Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit will be held around the United States on Friday.

The Jewish Agency for Israel is organizing about a dozen ceremonies to honor the soldier, who was taken captive in a cross-border raid at the Gaza-Israel border more than three years ago. He is believed to be alive and in captivity in Gaza. Shalit’s birthday is Aug. 28.

In Columbus, Ohio organizers will grant Shalit honorary citizenship. In San Francisco, a documentary on Shalit will be screened at the Jewish film festival. In Miami, children will release 1,000 balloons symbolizing the hope that he will be released soon.

“Participants at the events will be asked to sign post cards to the Red Cross asking that Shalit receive the full rights of an abducted soldier under international law and that the Red Cross work for the soldier’s release,” the Jewish Agency said in a news release on Monday.

In Israel, activists on behalf of Shalit marked his upcoming birthday by demonstrating Tuesday in front of two prisons in which Palestinians are incarcerated, disrupting family visits. Demonstrators have called on the Israeli government to withhold visitors to Hamas prisoners until Hamas allows the Red Cross to meet with Shalit.

Same old United Nations, Sarkozy [hearts] Israel, Gilad Shalit turns 21 in captivity


Groups Assail U.N. Conference

A U.N. conference under way in Geneva is as bad as expected, watchdog groups say. In reports from Switzerland, two major U.N. watchdog groups said the conference – the first in a series of preparatory meetings for the follow-up to 2001’s notorious anti-Semitic Durban conference against racism – was following the path of its predecessor.

Anne Bayefsky, editor of the Eye on the U.N. Web site, called the meeting’s opening session “a slap in the face to every state and nongovernmental organization that really cares about equality and nondiscrimination.”

Egypt, speaking Monday on behalf of the African group, singled out Israel for its “continued occupation of Palestine and violations arising there from.” Pakistan, speaking for the Organization of the Islamic Conference, urged the conference to “move the spotlight on the continued plight of Palestinian people” and accused critics of waging a “smear campaign” against the gathering.

The conference is intended to combat racism and discrimination. Even before the conference began, critics warned that the process could lead to a repeat of the 2001 Durban conference, where an event ostensibly aimed at fighting discrimination became a platform for the dissemination of anti-Semitic propaganda and the singling out of Israel.

Sarkozy Reaffirms Pro-Israel Stance

French President Nicolas Sarkozy reaffirmed his affection for Israel and hostility toward Hamas.

“I have the reputation of being a friend of Israel, and it’s true. I will never compromise on Israel’s security,” he said Monday in his first foreign policy speech since taking office in May.

While he said France would continue to cultivate rich ties with the moderate Arab world, Sarkozy drew a line at engaging Hamas or allowing Iran to procure nuclear weaponry. He described the Gaza Strip as “Hamastan” – a term seldom heard outside Israeli political circles – and said the Islamist Palestinian group must be curbed, lest it take over the West Bank as well.

Sarkozy, who was speaking to French diplomats, further urged Iran to abandon its nuclear program or for effective international sanctions to be imposed on Tehran. Otherwise, he hinted, there could be military intervention.

“This tactic is the only one that allows us to escape from a catastrophic alternative: an Iranian bomb or the bombing of Iran,” he said.

Captive Israeli Soldier Turns 21

Israelis marked the 21st birthday of captive soldier Gilad Shalit. Supporters of Shalit held a rally in Tel Aviv on Tuesday, the conscript sergeant’s second birthday in Palestinian captivity. Newspapers and other media carried fresh coverage of his family’s ordeal.

Shalit was abducted in a June 25, 2006, cross-border raid by Hamas-led gunmen in the Gaza Strip. Two of his comrades were killed in the incident.

His father, Noam, said Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was not doing enough to recover his son from Hamas, which wants a prisoner exchange. Olmert has signaled a willingness to bargain for Shalit’s return but has ruled out the lopsided swap demands by Hamas.

Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal said Monday that a deal was almost clinched to trade Shalit for 350 Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails, but that it fell through over the types of prisoners the Olmert government would release. Israel has said it will only release prisoners not involved in killings.

YouTube Under Fire in Germany Over Hate Videos

The Central Council of Jews in Germany has joined the call to punish YouTube for failing to remove hate material from its Web site. YouTube, the online video sharing portal, has been accused of spreading neo-Nazi material.

According to a report in the ARD television magazine, anti-Jewish propaganda from the Third Reich and music by the banned neo-Nazi group, Landser, can be viewed unhindered on YouTube. Such material is illegal in Germany. The report said some of the material had been online for several months.

The federal Ministry of the Interior has recommended filing charges. German officials reportedly have warned YouTube more than 100 times to remove the material but without a response. The vice president of the German Jewish Council, Salomon Korn, has asked that Chancellor Angela Merkel and the Justice Ministry intervene to stop the online publication of offending video clips.

YouTube, which is owned by Google, is based in California and thus beyond Germany’s legal reach. But German officials could come down harder on Web companies with operations in Germany.

Israeli Holocaust Assets Listed Online

Israeli assets believed to have been left behind by Holocaust victims can now be claimed by their heirs over the Internet. The Company for Location and Restitution of Holocaust Victims Assets, which was set up in 2006 following disclosures that Israeli banks hold many accounts and properties that have gone unclaimed since World War II, has set up a Web site with the names of some 7,000 original owners believed to have perished at the hands of the Nazis.

Heirs of those who appear on the list can apply for restitution at www.hashava.org.il. The site is in Hebrew with English translation. The site does not deal with living persons or properties and accounts outside of Israel.

Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegrapic Agency.