Shalits trying to adjust to new normal


A week after Gilad Shalit returned to Israel after being held in captivity for more than five years in Gaza, things were getting back to normal at the Shalit family home—sort of.

The Israel Police said they would remove a barrier placed in front of the family’s house in Mitzpe Hila. The flowers, placards and other paraphernalia that littered the streets of the northern Israeli town following the celebration marking Shalit’s return have been cleaned up. Even the Shalit protest tent opposite the prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem was taken down and carted away.

But with the 10-day moratorium on Israeli media intrusion in the Shalits’ town set to expire, and with Israelis still eager for images of the newly released soldier, it’s unlikely that Gilad, 25, will be able to have a normal life anytime soon.

On Monday, Israeli President Shimon Peres paid a visit to the Shalit family home, the first visit by an Israeli official. Almost immediately, photos and video of Peres and Gilad Shalit sitting side by side on the family couch landed on Israeli news websites and TV programs.

“You have no idea how thrilled I am to meet you here in your home alive, healthy and whole,” Peres said. “I came to express to you how proud I am, and how proud the entire nation is, by your ability to withstand extremely difficult conditions in captivity.”

Shalit thanked the president.

A day earlier, Israeli opposition leader Tzipi Livni, head of the Kadima Party, slammed the prisoner swap that brought Shalit home Oct. 18 in exchange for the release of 1,027 Arab prisoners, saying it has weakened Israel and strengthened Hamas.

Her criticism during interviews with the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot and Reshet Bet Radio did not sit well with lawmakers in the coalition or the opposition. They swiftly assailed Livni for waiting until Shalit was freed to voice her opposition to the deal, saying it showed a lack of leadership. Livni reportedly did not go public earlier with her dissent at the request of Noam Shalit, the soldier’s father.

The Israeli Cabinet approved the deal by a 26-3 vote.

In the few days since his release, Shalit has been captured by news photographers lying in wait for his next move. He was pictured taking a short walk with his mother—and several security guards—on the first morning following his release and riding a bicycle near his home. He also has played Ping-Pong. On the Simchat Torah holiday, he met with old friends, his father told reporters.

The Shalits are starting to learn that they have to maneuver to avoid the paparazzi. On Saturday, Shalit and his father left home early and took a side road to evade photographers on their way to a beach outing reportedly at Gilad’s request. But a photographer from Haaretz was camping on the beach with his family and snapped a photo of the soldier swimming near the shore as his father watched over him.

“In the last few years I have taken many photographs of the Shalit family surrounded by countless cameras,” photographer Yaron Kaminsky told his newspaper. “It was nice to just run into them like that, at the beach, during Gilad’s first Saturday since being freed from captivity.”

Kaminsky said he told Noam Shalit that he had taken the photo and received his tacit approval to publish it.

Meanwhile, supporters and curiosity seekers continue to flock to Mitzpe Hila for a glimpse of Gilad or simply to have their photo taken in front of the Shalit family home. Many are leaving flowers, drawings and packages containing candy and other gifts for the family.

Noam has provided reporters with several updates since his son returned. On Oct. 20, he said he does not believe Hamas’ claims that Gilad was not tortured while in captivity.

“Gilad went through harsh things, at least in the first period. It is correct that after that, after that first period, the way he was treated improved,” the elder Shalit said.

During the same news conference in front of the family home, Noam Shalit also told reporters that Gilad had an appetite for food but that he was having trouble sleeping through the night. On the day of his release, Gilad appeared wan and pale.

Noam added that his son had few requests and that he was “going with the flow.”

Israel cabinet to vote on Hezbollah swap, Canada downplays reports of Hezbollah sleepers


Cabinet to Vote on Hezbollah Swap

Ehud Olmert will ask his Cabinet on Sunday to approve a prisoner swap with Hezbollah.

Karnit Goldwasser, whose husband, Ehud, and fellow Israeli soldier Eldad Regev were abducted by the Lebanese militia in a July 2006 border raid, said Tuesday following a meeting with the prime minister that a deal for their return was in place.

She said Olmert told her that his Cabinet would vote on the deal at its weekly session Sunday. Goldwasser, who offered no details on the deal, said she hopes it will be approved.

Security sources said Israel would release five jailed Lebanese terrorists and repatriate the bodies of some 10 slain infiltrators in exchange for the soldiers, whose condition is not known.

Israel Names Its First Female U.N. Envoy

A former associate law professor at Hebrew University in Jerusalem was named Israel’s first female U.N. ambassador.

Gabriella Shalev will replace Dan Gillerman, who is expected to wrap up his tenure in the coming weeks, Ynet reported.

Shalev, the rector at Ono Academic College, is considered one of the world’s foremost experts on contract law.

The appointment comes after a reported battle between Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who favored former New York Consul-General Alon Pinkas.

Canada Downplays Reports of Hezbollah Sleepers

Canadian Jewish officials are downplaying news reports that Hezbollah operatives are training near Toronto and plan to attack.

The American ABC News leaked details last week of an ongoing international intelligence investigation with allegations that up to 20 “sleeper cell” suspects from Hezbollah were activated, including a “weapons expert” spotted at a firing range south of Toronto.

Officials told ABC that suspected Hezbollah operatives have conducted surveillance recently on the Israeli Embassy in Ottawa and on several synagogues in Toronto.

Bernie Farber, the CEO of the Canadian Jewish Congress, said there has been “chatter” since the assassination of a Hezbollah leader in February, but that authorities said there is nothing to lead them to believe the reports are true.

“Our belief is that our federal authorities have things in hand,” Farber told the Toronto Star. “They’ve known about this alleged threat for a while, they’ve investigated it, and they’ve told me categorically that while the chatter is out there, and it has been for a while, there is nothing to lead them to believe that there’s anything imminent or that in fact the chatter is real.”

Farber added, though, that it is always better to be on the safe side, “so we will ensure that our community institutions are alerted.”

Atomic Energy Team Begins Syria Inspections

The United Nations nuclear watchdog began an investigation into an alleged Syrian reactor bombed by Israel.

A team from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) flew out to Damascus on Sunday for 72 hours of talks and inspections.

The experts are to visit al-Kibar, a remote site in northern Syria, which Israeli warplanes destroyed last September and the United States has described as a North Korean-designed reactor.

Syria has denied having a secret nuclear facility but, in a move widely perceived as aimed at covering up evidence, bulldozed over al-Kibar soon after the Israeli attack.

Damascus admitted the IAEA inspectors after months of prevarication. There have been calls abroad for several other suspect sites in Syria to be inspected, but the IAEA is for now only being granted access to al-Kibar.

Second Plot to Kill Ahmadinejad Alleged

A plot to assassinate Mahmoud Ahmadinejad earlier this month in Italy failed, an Iranian daily reported.

An adviser to the Iranian president told the Etemad-e Melli daily newspaper of a plot to assassinate Ahmadinejad during a three-day U.N. food crisis summit in Rome on June 3, according to Reuters.

The report published Tuesday comes just days after Ahmadinejad accused the United States of a plot to kill him during a March visit to Iraq. Iranian state radio said the president changed his schedule at the last minute to foil the plot.

Audit: Israel’s Holocaust Survivors Cheated

Holocaust survivors in Israel have received less than two-thirds of the German reparations allotted to them, an audit found.

A report issued Sunday by a commission of inquiry under retired Supreme Court Justice Dalia Dorner found that of the Holocaust reparations paid to Israel under a 1952 deal with Germany, only about 62 percent found their way to survivors living in the Jewish state.

On average, each survivor was underpaid by an aggregate $400,000 to $700,000, the Dorner Commission concluded. It urged the state to make compensation available to entitled recipients who are still alive.

The commission was established following revelations last year that many Holocaust survivors in Israel are destitute because of shortfalls in the welfare payouts they receive from the state.

Bronze Chanukiah Stolen in Rio

A bronze chanukiah sculpture was stolen from a major square in Rio de Janeiro.

The 6 1/2-foot-tall chanukiah, which weighs 440 pounds, adorned the beachfront square, Zozimo Barroso do Amaral, in the Brazilian city’s wealthiest neighborhood of Leblon.

Created by the artist Ruthnac, the Jewish symbol had been donated by the Beit Lubavitch Synagogue and a Jewish-owned construction company in 2002.

Police suspect the theft took place one night last week and are investigating.

Orthodox Imposter Gets Year in Jail

A man who impersonated an ultra-Orthodox Jew for years was given a prison sentence for using a stolen identity.

Ted Riley Floyd caused a stir earlier this year when it was discovered that he had lived as Nathaniel James Levi with his wife and children in the Orthodox enclave of Lakewood, N.J. While in Wichita, Kan., in March 2002, Floyd applied for a passport with the name and Social Security number of Levi, a deceased U.S. Navy veteran.

Floyd, 28, was sentenced Monday to a year and a day in prison followed by three years of probation, the Wichita Eagle reported. Floyd, a former resident of Kansas City, also is barred from using any name but his own or from legally changing his name without permission from his probation officer.

Friends of the family say Floyd’s wife will remain in Lakewood, where she has undergone an Orthodox conversion.

Briefs courtesy Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

Falling dollar hurts seniors in former Soviet Union


MOSCOW (JTA) — From its perch above a shelf packed with crystal dishes, a photograph of Alexey Zheleznyak’s late wife keeps watch over a spotless apartment.

The ripple effect of a sluggish American economy has forced Zheleznyak, 81, into what he calls the “woman’s business” of dusting and cooking.

“I spend almost all my time and all my energy on these things now,” he said.

Three years ago, Zheleznyak’s wife was bedridden and dying, but a home-care worker funded by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) dropped by twice a week to wash her, care for her bedsores, clean and cook.

After his wife died, the worker still came but less often, until global economic pressure forced the JDC to scale back operations for the “least needy” in the former Soviet Union. Six months ago, Zheleznyak began having to fend for himself.

Of all the JDC’s operations abroad, the former Soviet Union has been hit hardest, according to JDC officials, due to the sliding value of the dollar coupled with inflation in a resurgent Russian economy. Only Israel receives more American funds than the former Soviet Union from the JDC.

As a result, some 32,000 elderly Russians like Zheleznyak have been shaved from the JDC rolls of those who received aid since 2006, when the number peaked at 220,000, JDC officials said.

Organizations such as the JDC and the Jewish Agency for Israel, which are the overseas partners of the North American federation system, rely on donations or money from reparations that is distributed, budgeted and doled out in dollars. Most of that money is sent abroad, where it is spent in local currency under local market conditions.

As the U.S. presidential contenders, Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain, trade barbs on how best to fix the economy, the dollar continues a three-year slide against other currencies. In the former Soviet Union, the JDC’s purchasing power has decreased by 13 percent to 20 percent, depending on the country.

At the same time, Russia’s economy is soaring on the back of oil prices at $130 per barrel that provide a base for increased wealth, higher commodity prices and inflation.

Russia experienced nearly 12 percent inflation in 2007. Despite price controls on food that lasted through March’s presidential election, the International Monetary Fund is predicting that inflation may top 14 percent in 2008.

In sum, that means JDC’s $100 million budget for the former Soviet Union set in 2007 now buys only $80 million worth of home-care workers, hot meals and the staff to administer it all.

That has “forced us to rethink how we do business,” JDC Executive Vice President Steve Schwager said during a recent trip to Moscow. “Some things that we would normally do, we’ve had to cut out and find alternatives.”

On Monday, the JDC announced it will lay off more than 60 staff members worldwide in an effort to grapple with the budget shortfalls. In addition to cutbacks on social services to the elderly, JDC also has cut back dramatically on Jewish arts and education activities.

Despite efforts to insulate the elderly from budget cuts, those who receive help from the welfare centers in Russia and other countries have paid the price in solitude or painful walks to open markets where they can purchase cheaper groceries.

The most able are the first to be taken off the collective list maintained by the five welfare centers in the Moscow area.

“The first priority we have is to help people who can’t help themselves,” said Alexander Kirnos, director of the Yad Ezracenter.

The uniform public pension across Russia is about $143 a month, but each area calculates bonuses on those pensions based on the cost of living, said Zhenya Mazarova, JDC’s director of welfare programs for Moscow and central Russia.

While pensions increase each year, their purchasing power decreases when measured against inflation — some 26 percent over the past three years, based on government figures.

One pensioner, Olga Troytsa, 85, lives alone in a one-room apartment outside Moscow.

With no children, Troytsa occasionally receives visits from longtime family friends who bring her food packages and a half-hour of friendly company — services that used to come from a JDC employee.

Despite having had six operations and a metal support that she wears all but three hours a night, her Moscow pension disqualified her from a JDC food delivery program.

Troytsa says her pension is mostly gone by the end of the month and she misses the company, but there is only one way to make it through the day.

“I laugh at it,” she said. “To cry wouldn’t help.”

Concern Grows on Iran Abuses


 

Concern is growing among circles of Iranian nationals and expatriates that European countries are turning a blind eye to the regime’s human rights atrocities in exchange for trade benefits.

Late last year, the U.N. General Assembly approved a resolution criticizing Iran for human rights violations. It cited new restrictions on freedom of expression and the persecution of political and religious dissenters. The resolution, the 52nd such measure by the United Nations against Iran, was approved 71-54, with 55 abstentions. The world body said Iran was facing a “worsening situation” regarding freedom of opinion and expression.

Human Rights Watch reported that the Iranian judiciary was using threats of lengthy prison sentences and coerced televised statements in an attempt to cover up its arbitrary detention and torture of internet journalists and civil society activists.

However, despite the U.N. resolution and the Human Rights Watch report spotlighting the problems, many Iranians inside and outside the country, as well as human rights activists, are concerned by what they see as appeasement by three leading E.U. countries, France, Britain and Germany. Word has spread that in return last October for Iran’s promise to halt its uranium enrichment program, which could be used to develop nuclear weapons, there would be political concessions made. Reportedly included would be a milder position on human rights issues.

In one Iranian human rights case that drew international attention, Canadian photojournalist Zahra Kazemi died in custody in 2003. She was arrested while photographing families lined up outside Tehran’s notorious Evin prison waiting to visit prisoners. The journalist’s arbitrary arrest, torture and subsequent death were further compounded by refusal to release Kazemi’s body to her son and a sham trial, in which a scapegoat for the death was cleared.

Kazemi’s death was only one of many human rights violations of which Iran has been accused. Last month, Hajieh Esmailvand, an Iranian woman convicted of adultery, was facing death by stoning, according to Amnesty International. The Iranian Penal Code states that women will be buried up to their breasts for execution by stoning, and the stones should “not be large enough to kill the person by one or two strikes, nor should they be so small that they could not be defined as stones.”

The stoning death sentence was not an isolated incident. Zhila Izadyar, a 13-year-old schoolgirl, was sentenced to be stoned to death after being convicted of having an incestuous relationship with her 15-year-old brother, Bakhtiar. The boy was sentenced to 180 lashes, plus prison.

Hanging was ordered for a retarded 19-year-old woman on “morality-related” charges, after being forced into prostitution by her mother, and a religious judge ordered hanging for 16-year-old girl for “deeds incompatible with chastity.”

Boys have not escaped hanging sentences either. One 16-year-old who in self-defense allegedly killed someone attempting to sexually abuse him faces the noose — but not for two years. In this case, there is a law barring the execution of juveniles under 18. As a result, he will be imprisoned until he is legally old enough to be hanged. There are three other imprisoned minors awaiting the same fate when they turn 18.

During 2004, approximately 230 Iranian prisoners were executed or received death sentences. Recently, state-run television aired video of eight prisoners dangling from a gallows in southeastern Iran. Opponents of the regime have compiled the names and cases of 21,676 political prisoners executed by the government since 1981, and they claim this is less than one-fifth of the actual number.

Continuing concern over prisoner executions and other rights abuses rose even higher after an AFP news story on Oct. 21 that said Europeans promised to help on a range of “political and security issues” and would continue to regard the main Iranian resistance group “as a terrorist organization.” On Oct. 24, the state-run Jomhouri Eslami paper wrote: “European counterparts have stated explicitly that they are prepared to close Iran’s human rights file.”

The news confirmed Iranian expatriates’ previous worries that the E.U. had struck a deal with Iran in 2002, in which it would not go before U.N. Commission on Human Rights and General Assembly and accuse it of human rights abuses. Since that date no resolution on human rights in Iran has been sponsored by the E.U. before the commission — unlike the previous 20 years.

Last year’s passage of a U.N. General Assembly resolution accusing Iran of human rights violations is a good sign, but much more needs to be done. Rights violations in Iran are continuing, so international condemnation of them be should be maintained. Otherwise, Iran’s clerics might get the wrong message.

Nooredin Abedian taught in Iranian higher-education institutions before settling in France as a political refugee in 1981. He writes for a variety of publications on Iranian politics and issues concerning human rights.

 

Teens Build a Bridge Beyond the Past


“I was afraid there could be aggression toward us, because we are German. I’m really surprised about how friendly and open all the people are.” — Hannah Ketterer, teenage exchange student from Germany

“We didn’t see each other as the grandchildren of Nazis or as grandchildren of Holocaust Survivors. We saw each other as regular kids who wanted to learn more about each other’s religious lifestyles and cultures.” — Lindsey Michel, Temple Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills

On April 19, 12 German teenagers left Heidelberg, flew west for about 6,000 miles, disembarked at LAX, and entered the lives and homes of 12 Jewish American teenagers. None of the 24 teens knew quite what to expect.

During their two-week stay in homes of Kol Tikvah congregants, the German students visited local high schools, attended Shabbat services, took part in a Yom HaShoah program, tried a range of new foods and looked everywhere for Tom Cruise.

The German-Jewish exchange program at the Reform congregation is apparently the first of its kind on the West Coast. Originally created by Stefan Schluter, Germany’s deputy consul general in New York City, the idea for the exchange was born after 45 members of the American Board of Rabbis visited Berlin in 2001.

“They asked me to organize their annual meeting,” Schluter said, “which I did. One thing they were interested in was the growth and experiences of the Jewish community in Germany.”

While the rabbis were in Berlin, Schluter divided them into 10 groups of four to five rabbis each and they went to local schools to talk to German students.

“When we had their final meeting before flying back to the States,” Schluter recalled, “nearly all said that meeting the German students was the most impressive part of the program.”

Schluter then asked the rabbis if they would like to have such students visit their congregations, as part of a student exchange. The rabbis immediately agreed.

The exchange program was tried successfully in New York City in 2002 and 2003, and then Schluter asked Rabbi Steven B. Jacobs if he would like to have the exchange program at Kol Tikvah this year. Jacobs was thrilled.

Kol Tikvah’s religious school director, Karen Waldman, had the task of coordinating the program, which included selecting students and families and inviting them to host a German student. Waldman was shocked and saddened when one parent refused, saying she didn’t “want a Nazi in our home.”

The rest of the families accepted with great enthusiasm.

When Schluter came to Kol Tikvah in April to meet with Waldman and the 12 families, he offered insights into German life.

“Germany today has 80 million people,” Schluter said. “Of those, approximately 130,000 are Jewish, mostly Russian Jews who have come to Germany for a better life.”

According to Schluter, most of these Jews don’t speak German, and they lead a rather isolated existence.

In other words, most German children have never met a Jew.

Many young Germans, Schluter said, are troubled by their history, and how others in the world view them.

“Our history is so burdened, that the impressions they gain from the exchange program are life changing,” he said. “These kids know their history and they think other people think they are guilty. They need to experience that they aren’t being held responsible. We are responsible that nothing like the Holocaust ever happens again.”

On one of their first days in Los Angeles, Waldman took the students to a Yom HaShoah program. She was extremely uncomfortable.

“When the first rabbi spoke and was saying very negative things about the Germans and the Nazis, it was like a knife twisting in my heart,” she said. “I was feeling protective of the kids. I kept asking if they wanted to leave and they said no. They were engrossed in the whole thing and they wanted to hear it all.”

On April 23, the 24 students attended Shabbat dinner and services at Kol Tikvah. There was an excitement in the air, and much teenage gabbing. It was clear that they had formed strong bonds with each other in the four days they’d been together.

“The minute we met, we felt like friends!” said Katharina Pogoda, one of the German teens. “The Jewish people we’ve met are all so warm and friendly, like a big family. And I was surprised that they have school in their temple where the children are taught so nice.”

I asked the German students what they had learned at home about the Holocaust. “When we learned in school about the Holocaust, it was just facts,” said Hannah Ketterer. “We did not have discussions about what would have been on the Jews’ minds. We’re learning that here, and we’re learning about Judaism and getting to know Jewish people.”

Ludgera Graw, the German students’ chaperone, got to attend a gathering at Kol Tikvah one evening where Jacobs and the Rev. Alexei Smith, the ecumenical and inter-religious officer for the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, talked together about the movie, “The Passion of The Christ.” Graw said she found it very interesting and was impressed at the interfaith efforts being made.

Rabbi Jacobs said there was one rather tense moment.

“There were older survivors here that evening,” he said. “And one person was very bitter about the Germans. He talked about anti-Semitism in Germany and how he grew up there with people beating him up and he said he has no hope for the world. I then introduced Ludgera to the audience, and I said, ‘The hope is right here with these young German people who are visiting our Jewish families.”

Graw said she felt very sad hearing the survivor’s anger and pain.

“I wondered if I should go to him and speak to him,” she said, “but I wasn’t sure how he would react, since he wasn’t prepared to meet Germans.”

At the Shabbat dinner, Jacobs spoke to the exchange students.

“You have touched us in many, many ways by your humanity and by your openness,” he said. “This is a world that is often cruel. But you are the answer, in terms of the possibilities of what we can do in this world by knowing each other. This is more important than any headline in any newspaper or CNN. What will happen in these weeks and in Germany when our kids visit you will affect your whole lives. We are so, so honored that you are here. You make our lives more complete.”

On May 3, the 24 German and Jewish high school students struggled to say their goodbyes to each other.

“I am a changed person,” said Kol Tikvah’s Bradley Lennox. “I never imagined in a million years that two completely different cultures could come together and become family in a matter of two weeks.”

The Calabasas High senior looks forward to the Jewish students’ two-week visit with their new friends this summer in Heidelberg.

After the German teens went home, several of them e-mailed me.

“This exchange definitely changed my way of thinking,” Johannes Ziegelmuller wrote. “I am now confirmed in my point of view that young people are able to communicate and to be friends, although there have been terrible things in the past. Although there are borders, although there are different cultures and countries, there can be a borderless communication and dialogue. I think this exchange is a great and valuable project that helps to open peoples’ eyes, to create a world without hate, prejudices, discrimination and persecution.”

Amen.


Ellie Kahn is a freelance writer and oral historian in Van
Nuys. She can be reached at ekzmail@adelphia.net
.

Prisoners’ Release Faces Hurdle


Seldom can Israeli Cabinet ministers have faced a more acute moral and political dilemma than the current prisoner exchange deal with Hezbollah.

That proposal, which the 23-member Cabinet approved Sunday by a one-vote margin, forced ministers to weigh the conflicting interests of several Israeli families, put a price on the life of a kidnapped Israeli citizen and consider the long-term price that all Israelis may yet have to pay.

Now the government may have another decision to make: Hezbollah is demanding that those released include Samir Kuntar, the terrorist from the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, who murdered an Israeli family in a 1979 attack that shocked Israel.

Hezbollah’s leader, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, claimed Israel promised to release Kuntar and that without him, the deal is off. Israeli officials said they never promised to free Kuntar — and that despite their eagerness for a deal, Israel, too, has red lines that it won’t cross.

"Regarding Kuntar, who killed an Israeli family, from our standpoint this is a principle: We have not freed Palestinians or nationals of other countries with blood on their hands," Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said.

Regardless of whether Kuntar ends up scuttling the deal, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon expended a tremendous amount of political capital for a deal that involved complex moral considerations and provides insight into the Israeli leader’s core values.

Citing the principle that you don’t leave dead or wounded soldiers in the field, some ministers backed the deal, which includes kidnapped Israeli businessman Elhanan Tannenbaum and the bodies of three Israeli soldiers. Others, making the same argument, opposed the deal, because it doesn’t include captured air force navigator Ron Arad or even information on Arad’s fate.

Under the terms of the deal, Israel will release 400 Palestinians and 20 Lebanese prisoners and hand over the remains of dozens of Lebanese militiamen in return for Tannenbaum and the bodies of the three soldiers abducted by Hezbollah in October 2000.

Arad went missing in action when his plane was shot down over Lebanon in 1986. The deal calls on German mediators and the Iranian-backed Hezbollah to set up a joint committee to find out what happened to Arad after his Lebanese captors allegedly handed him over to Iran — but few in Israel expect Hezbollah to take that commitment seriously.

The Cabinet debate pitted two cardinal principles against each other: Part of the raison d’etre of a Jewish state is that it serve as a guardian of the Jewish people and, as such, does all it can to bring back captured Israelis alive. On the other hand, with the state engaged in a relentless struggle against terrorism, most Israelis strongly believe that they shouldn’t give in to terrorists because it will only encourage more attacks.

Ministers arguing against the deal emphasized its disproportionality, with Israel releasing more than 400 prisoners for just one living Israeli. They said that would encourage hostile organizations to kidnap more Israelis and make further demands. It also would give Hezbollah, a terrorist group, a great deal of regional prestige as the one Arab organization that repeatedly has proven its ability to make Israel bend.

Then there was the question of Arad, who has become a national icon. Tannenbaum, the one live Israeli in the deal, is said to be an inveterate gambler who was lured into captivity under dubious circumstances regarding a possibly shady business deal.

Moreover, ministers complained about the fact that Mustafa Dirani, the man who allegedly tortured Arad before handing him over to the Iranians, is one of the men to be freed. Israel captured Dirani from southern Lebanon in 1994 specifically to be used as a bargaining chip to win Arad’s release.

So why is Sharon intent on going through with a deal so obviously flawed?

For one, he is not holding out for Arad because he apparently believes the airman is dead. There has been no reliable information on Arad since 1988, and Sharon is convinced that, were he alive, his captors would long since have made demands of Israel in return for his release.

A government-appointed committee, under retired Justice Eliyahu Winograd, declared recently that there was no concrete evidence that Arad had died in captivity, but it stopped short of saying he was alive. Sharon decided not to harm the chances of saving Tannenbaum by holding out for the presumably dead Arad.

"You must vote for this deal to save a living Israeli," Sharon told the Cabinet. "To leave him there is to let him die."

Tannenbaum’s character, in Sharon’s view, is immaterial. If it turns out that Tannenbaum broke the law, Sharon believes that he should be punished upon his return to Israel, not by Hezbollah.

In Sharon’s determination to save a Jew in distress, one gets a glimpse of core values that go back to his formative years. One of Sharon’s lesser-known exploits was the extrication of his platoon, pinned down by heavy enemy fire, in the War of Independence.

Bleeding badly from a severe stomach wound, the 19-year-old Sharon doggedly led his men out of an almost impossible situation. His courage then and his determination now stem from the same guiding principle: That he must do all he can to save and protect Jews.

Sharon remains determined to press ahead, even though his readiness to free hundreds of prisoners has cost him dearly in terms of credibility with the Palestinians and the Americans. If he is so ready to give prisoners to Nasrallah, they ask, why was he reluctant to release jailed Palestinians when former Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas demanded a gesture to build support on the Palestinian street?

Sharon confidants rejected the comparison. The Nasrallah case, they said, is a question of saving an Israeli life. By contrast, the Abbas case was a question of political tactics, choosing not to make wholesale prisoner releases until Abbas began fulfilling his commitment to act against terrorists. In any case, Israel ended up releasing hundreds of Palestinian prisoners to appease Abbas — though the Palestinians dismissed the move as insufficient.

Still, in weighing the two guiding principles — saving Jews and not capitulating to terrorists — Sharon is prepared to go only so far. He draws the line at releasing terrorists with civilian blood on their hands. Those who take Jewish lives must be made to pay.

That’s why he is so insistent on not releasing Kuntar, even if it means leaving Tannenbaum in Hezbollah hands.

The question now is who will blink first on the Kuntar issue: Sharon or Nasrallah? Those who know Sharon say it won’t be the prime minister.

Ten Days in L.A.


A Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles reception welcomed 18 students participating in a cultural exchange sponsored by the Federation’s Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership. Fourteen students from Tel Aviv’s A.D. Gordon School and four students from their paired partner, Northridge’s Abraham Heschel Day School, gathered to reflect on their experience as the Israeli students — all ages 13 and 14 — wrapped up their 10-day visit to Los Angeles.

"This trip was very important to me, because I actually got to meet the kids I’ve been writing to for four years and see how they live in Israel," Gordon student Maya Levit said.

While in Los Angeles, the Israeli students experienced American culture, both exotic and mundane, including trips to the mall, Disneyland and Universal Studios. The students also took part in some charitable work: half the group participated in helping the homeless, while the other half volunteered at an AIDS Project Los Angeles food bank.

On the penultimate day of their visit, the Israeli teens conveyed their impressions of American culture and of their life in Israel, which is rarely divorced from the ongoing violence and political turmoil. The Israeli students unanimously feel that their country, in recent years, has become isolated and inoculated from worldwide support.

Merav Schechter even considered her stay a diplomatic mission.

"I wanted to get more support for Israel from Jews in L.A.," she said.

"We need support from Jews here, even if they don’t think Ariel Sharon is doing the right thing," Eliran Raz said, to which Gil Asher added, "Israel needs support in the media."

The Israeli students said they were struck by cultural differences with their American counterparts, who seemed more connected to Jewish tradition. Aviv Benn-Sa’ar said he admired the inclusion of religious ritual at their host Conservative day school.

"In Heschel, every Friday they go to beit midrash," Benn-Sa’ar said. "In Gordon, we don’t do it."

Heschel’s students were equally moved by their Israeli pen pals’ visit.

"It has impacted me a lot," said Ali Baron. "Now the situation in Israel is actually more real to me."

"It reinforced for me how every Jew in the world is connected," Daniel Kattan said.

Gisele Feldman learned that Los Angeles was not as religiously polarized as Israel is. "There, it’s Orthodox or nothing," Feldman said.

The Federation reception was organized by Galia Avidar, Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership’s assistant director of Israel and overseas relations. Also present were Judy Taff, director of Judaic studies and exchange coordinator at Heschel, who oversaw the L.A. visit with the help of Pam Teitelbaum, mother of Heschel participant Adam Teitelbaum. Lois Weinsaft, the Federation’s vice president of international planning, heads the Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership.

The Israeli teens were accompanied to Los Angeles by Gordon staff members Maya Mendel and Tal Atiya and Gordon parents Shoshanna Gatenio and Menachem Reiss. Special programs leaders Sara Brennglass and Hyim Brandes also took part.

The Tel Aviv students said that they would leave with good impressions of Los Angeles’ way of life.

"It was a really good experience for me," Tal Erdinast said. "It will change my life forever."

Heroes’ Return


Add Shalhevet 10th-grader Sara Smith to the list of Israeli sharpshooters.

She pulled the trigger of her M-16 semi-automatic rifle and scored a bull’s-eye in "boot camp," part of a three-week educational adventure in Israel.

"I never want to see a gun again," confessed Smith, who said she was a little bit scared at first.

Guns were not scarce during the three-week venture.

"Everyone has a gun, and that made me feel safe," said classmate Max Rabin.

Smith and Rabin were part of an 11-member group from Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles that had a student exchange with counterparts from Tel Aviv’s Zeitlin High School.

Security was tight. The group had one armed security escort, in addition to the soldiers and policemen who normally patrol the country. "I felt a little scared before I left, but in Israel I was not scared," said Rabin, despite a bomb scare one night near a Burger Ranch restaurant.

The group and their parents breathed a sigh of relief when they came back to Los Angeles March 21. They brought with them strong friendships from their Israeli counterparts, who visited here just before Chanukah as part of the Jewish Agency’s Partnership 2000, in conjunction with The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles’ Tel Aviv-Los Angeles Partnership.

"This was an emotional and spiritual experience even more than I anticipated," said Paul Nisenbaum, Shalhevet assistant principal. "They really are heroes, even if they don’t realize it now. They took the risk. People that extend themselves beyond their comfortable neighborhoods are doing something heroic. Judaism would not have survived without heroes."

The students stayed in each other’s homes, unlike last year, when the Shalhevet class stayed at yeshivot and ulpanot dorms. The constant contact with Israeli peers gave the students an education that no formal classroom could match. "We were living Israel," said 10th-grader Daniel Korda.

That is not to say everybody turned into a pioneering sabra. "Why go back? Kosher Burger King! What else could you want, " said Ben Pellin, half jokingly while pointing to a sign directing people to a synagogue inside an American-style shopping mall outside Jerusalem.

There is a big difference between seeing Israel with a tour guide and touring it with Israelis, who not only are peers but also are friends from their winter visit here, explained Tal Amitai, an Israeli fulfilling her national service at Shalhevet and an escort for the group.

Shalhevet and Zeitlin teamed up because of the similarities between the two schools. Zeitlin, which attracts 1,200 students, is one of the rare Israeli religious high schools where both girls and boys study, although in separate classes. Zeitlin’s graduates include Jacob Frankel, former Bank of Israel chief.

Zeitlin sent 18 students to Shalhevet and another eight to Hillel Academy in December. "We feel we did a mission," said Sharon Lerman of Zeitlin. "We want to build a link."

Rafi Goren, the Zeitlin teacher who came with the group to Los Angeles, added, "The program is based on a foundation in both places, and everyone has to learn the other’s culture."

The differences are glaring. Zeitlin students loved the B’nai Akiva Shabbaton in Los Angeles, where there were discussions on anti-Semitism in the United States. But equally memorable were trips to Disneyland, Magic Mountain and Universal Studios. The Shalhevet group gave high marks to the four-day army training camp, Yad Vashem and observing Shabbat in Jerusalem.

"There is no holiness in America," said Gil David of Zeitlin. His classmate Lerman added, "The people are good, but the source of their lives is empty. We have a mission to show them Israel."

Zeitlin students toured with their California friends, helping them understand Israel from a native’s viewpoint.

The Shalhevet group had a rare experience of praying as close as allowed to the site of the original Temple during a tour in the Old City. Officials usually do not let anyone pray there because of political sensitivities.

Shalhevet left a lasting impression on their armed escort, Shimon. Saturday night in Jerusalem, after a long walk and activities, the group entered a hostel, where they met a man who was confined to a wheelchair.

The man needed their help and despite their 5 a.m. wake-up call the next morning, several of the students helped him for an hour, getting him upstairs and attending to his needs. "He wanted help. It was a mitzvah," explained Adam Simon.

The 10th-graders are back, but the program is far from over. Both schools plan to raise money for Magen David Adom, study "Mishna" together and create a joint Web site.

The Shalhevet exchange program with Zeitlin is just one of several projects in Los Angeles. Pressman and Hillel Academy plan to send delegates in May, during Israel Independence Day.

Expanding Horizons


In early October, four 13-year-olds from Tel Aviv spent 10 days in Southern California. They checked out the major tourist spots, including Disneyland. More importantly, they joined with their “partners” at Heschel Day School to celebrate Shabbat and Simchat Torah. They participated with Heschel students in a community Mitzvah Day, and helped in the completion of a campus “museum,” through which Heschel seventh-graders displayed objects sacred to their families. The four Israeli visitors are students at the A. D. Gordon School, which is linked with Heschel as part of the Los Angeles-Tel Aviv Partnership’s Twin School project. Since 1997, the Israelis and their classmates have been communicating with their new friends at Heschel via e-mail and school websites. Classroom assignments, including a genealogical research project, have been shared between the two campuses. At Heschel’s museum, Gordon seventh-graders were represented by photographs of their own families’ treasures. Teacher Judy Taff, who coordinates the Twin School program for Heschel along with Hillary Zana, has noted that the museum taught the entire student body “how similar we are.” Orr Amsel, one of the visiting Israeli students, expounded on the importance of the deepening Los Angeles-Tel Aviv connection in language borrowed from his Disneyland visit: “I guess we are the future of tomorrow. It’s a small world.”

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