Hamas executes 6 suspected Israel collaborators

Masked gunmen publicly shot dead six suspected collaborators with Israel in a large Gaza City intersection Tuesday, witnesses said. An Associated Press reporter saw a large mob surrounding five of the bloodied corpses shortly after the killing.Hamas' military wing claimed responsibility.

Some in the crowd stomped and spit on the bodies. A sixth corpse was tied to a motorcycle and dragged through the streets as people screamed, “Spy! Spy!”

The Hamas military wing, Izzedine al-Qassam, claimed responsibility in a large handwritten note attached to a nearby electricity pole. Hamas said the six were killed because they gave Israel information about fighters and rocket launching sites.

Read more at Haaretz.com.

Iran executed Jewish woman and her husband, State Dept. says [UPDATE]

A Jewish woman and her Armenian Christian husband were executed in Iran for undisclosed reasons, a top State Department official said.

Michael Posner, the assistant secretary of state for human rights, testified Wednesday at a U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Iran’s human rights.

Posner said human rights in the Islamic Republic had deteriorated in the first part of 2011. He listed as examples mass executions; the killing of protesters in Tehran and among ethnic Arabs; harsh prison sentences for Baha’i leaders; tough prison conditions for political detainees; and that “a Jewish woman and her Armenian-Christian husband were reportedly executed based on undisclosed charges.”

He did not name the couple.

However, an Iranian human rights group, the Human Rights Activists News Agency, has reported that Adiva Soleyman and Varjan Petrosian were hung on March 14 at Evin Prison, a facility for political prisoners in northwest Iran. It identified Soleyman as Jewish and Petrosian as Armenian.

The agency quoted a Revolutionary Court as confirming the executions, along with those of three other people who were unidentified.

HRANA said relatives of the dead who tried to recover the bodies for ritual burial were threatened with arrest.

Yemeni Jews protest execution delay

Yemeni Jews demanded an end to the delay in the execution of a Yemeni man sentenced to death for killing a Jewish man.

About 20 Yemeni Jews protested Monday outside the Justice Ministry in the capital city, Sanaa.

An appeals court in June 2009 sentenced Abdel Aziz Yahia al-Abdi, 39, to death by firing squad for the murder of Masha Yaish Nahari, a father of nine from Raydah. Abdi killed Nahari in December 2008 after saying that Yemen Jews should convert or be killed.

The sentence must be confirmed by the Yemen Supreme Court. The appeals court had overturned a lower court ruling that had ordered Abdi to pay blood money to the family; the Abdi family is appealing.

About 400 Jews remain in Yemen.

Nahari’s children moved to Israel after the murder. His parents, wife and siblings remain in Yemen.

Iran gets away with murder

Radovan Karadzic’s arrest last month in a Belgrade hideout was more than just a finishing point to 12 years of a fugitive’s life. Renowned as the face of “ethnic cleansing” in the Balkans, Karadzic was especially sought for having ordered the execution of more than 7,000 Muslim men and boys in the town of Srebrenica.

His arrest can only increase international awareness of what is known as crimes against humanity. The feeling that criminals cannot go around unpunished is a sacred feeling anywhere in the world. Even when those criminals at large are no longer a threat to public security, they should be sought and brought to justice. They might no longer be a public threat, but they certainly remain a threat and a challenge to human dignity.

Nazi criminals who were justly pursued and brought to justice years after the horrible crimes they committed against the Jewish people more than deserved that. So long as such criminals are at large, the human conscience is oppressed, ignored, humiliated. There should be no impunity for such gross human rights violations, regardless of when and where they were committed. Unfortunately Karadzic’s record is not an isolated one.

Last week, Amnesty International issued a public statement on the 20th anniversary of the 1988 “prison massacre” in Iran. Twenty years after the Iranian regime began a wave of largely secret, summary and mass executions in September 1988, Amnesty International renewed its call for those responsible for the “prison massacre” to be held accountable. The call was launched a long time ago by the Iranian opposition and various circles of the Iranian diaspora.

In the summer of 1988, Iran put thousands of political prisoners to death after a desperate cease-fire agreement was reached to end the 1980-1988 war with Iraq. During those killing months, a three-judge panel retried thousands of inmates already serving sentences. The hearings lasted a few minutes for each prisoner. Those inmates who stood by their opposition to the regime were ordered immediately hanged. Amnesty International puts the number of the executed between 4,500 and 5,000, including women. In a letter to Imam Khomeini, then Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri, then the latter’s heir apparent, quoted the number to be either 2,800 or 3,800. Opposition counts go as high as 30,000, of which a list of 3,208 names has so far been produced. Montazeri stressed that the victims, members of the Moudjahedin-e-Khalq (MEK) organization, were not “individuals,” but “represented a sort of thought.” In other words, those massacred were all prisoners of conscience.

But that is not the worst part. The worst is that those responsible for the carnage were never blamed, and not the least sign of regret was ever expressed by anyone in the regime. On the contrary, many of the perpetrators of that massacre are still very much in circulation.

Jaafar Nayyeri, chairman of the three-judge panel, is currently deputy chief justice of the Iranian Supreme Court. A second influential judge, Ebrahim Raissi, is the head of the State Inspectorate Office. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, head of the executive at the time, is currently the supreme ruler.

The fact that Serbian criminals were out of business at the moment of arrest, and that those of Iran are still in power, does not give the latter any legitimacy to continue. On the contrary, because they think they are safe from punishment, the case is more urgent. Political power, often kept with utmost repression, should no longer be criteria for safe haven.

Last July 25, in a single day, 29 prisoners were executed in Iran. The act provoked much international condemnations. However, the ruling clerics paid no heed and in the following days executed 10 more people. Last year, around 400 people were “officially” executed in Iran, often in public. It might still not be a massacre, but certainly the mentality of the perpetrators remains the same.

The international community has rightly brought Karadzic to justice, and the International Criminal Court has done well to indict Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir for alleged crimes against humanity in Darfur. The same should be done in regard to Iran.

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.

Sacco, Vanzetti and the Not-So-Great United States

Every generation or so, America goes through emotional convulsions, when fear of foreign and domestic enemies erodes the nation’s sense of tolerance and its respect for civil liberties.

The 1950s witch hunts of the McCarthy era were preceded by the Red scare of the 1920s, when millions of people and their government became convinced that wild-eyed Communists, anarchists and assorted aliens were about to overthrow the American way of life.

Symbolic of the decade was the trial of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, whose long imprisonment and ultimate execution became a cause célébre. The case triggered worldwide protests and cemented in many minds a picture of the United States as ruled by heartless capitalists bent on oppressing the working man.

Exactly 80 years after the Italian immigrants were sentenced to death in Boston on April 9, 1927, a documentary on the trial that shook the world is opening in American theaters.

In the frontlines of the fight to save the two anarchists were American Jews, who could readily identify with the two workers from a foreign land and their radical ideas.

Felix Frankfurter, then a young Harvard law professor and later Supreme Court justice, argued passionately for the men’s innocence. Over the years, Jewish writers and artists kept the memory of Sacco and Vanzetti alive, among them Ben Shahn, who produced a series of 23 paintings of the men and their trial in the early 1930s.

The ordeal of Sacco, “a good shoemaker,” and Vanzetti, “a poor fish peddler,” in the latter’s words, began after the 1920 murder and robbery of two factory employees who were carrying a large payroll.

It was not a good time to be an anarchist, especially after the movement’s radical wing had carried out a series of high-profile assassinations in Europe and of President William McKinley in the United States.

A few weeks after the crime, Sacco and Vanzetti were arrested and found guilty after a two-week jury trial. Over a seven-year period, the two men were held in prison and their appeals rejected, even after a third man confessed to the murder.

A blue-ribbon panel of three men, including the presidents of Harvard and M.I.T., upheld the original verdict and the two immigrants were executed Aug. 23, 1927.

The film, “Sacco and Vanzetti,” skillfully uses archival footage, artwork, music, poetry and film clips to trace the legal and political aspects of the case, and the emotions it aroused. Actors John Turturro and Tony Shalhoub read excerpts from the moving letters the two men wrote during their seven-year imprisonment, including one of Vanzetti’s last letters to his son.

“If it had not been for this thing, I might have lived out my life talking at street corners to scorning men,” he wrote. “I might have died unmarked, unknown, a failure. Now we are not a failure. This is our career and our triumph. Never in our full life could we hope to do such work for tolerance, for justice, for man’s understanding of man, as now we do by accident.”

Filmmaker Paul Miller, who spent four years and a great deal of borrowed money to create the documentary, points to his own Jewish background as a catalyst in his effort.

“My own grandfather came to Boston as an immigrant, and like many Jewish and Italian newcomers, was brutalized by the cops,” Miller said during a phone interview. “My father was born in the Boston Jewish ghetto, and my mother couldn’t go to college because of the quota system.”

Miller, 45, was born in Canoga Park but now lives in New York.

“To many people, the Sacco-Vanzetti trial was a life-changing experience, which opened their eyes to many uncomfortable truths about the United States,” he said.

Even after 80 years, the trial and its verdict are still being debated and analyzed. One study concludes that Sacco, at least, was guilty of the crime.

Miller leaves no doubt of his own sympathies and his film’s relevance to our days.

“As in the Red scare of Sacco and Vanzetti’s time, present-day Americans have allowed fear and jingoism to erode our civil liberties, scapegoat immigrants and compromise our judicial system,” he said.

“Sacco and Vanzetti” opens April 6 at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills and Playhouse 7 in Pasadena. “Sacco and Vanzetti” opens April 6 at Laemmle’s Music Hall in Beverly Hills and Playhouse 7 in Pasadena. For more information on the film, visit www.firstrunfeatures.com or www.willowpondfilms.com.

Nation & World Briefs

Jews React to Williams’ Execution

Rabbi Steven Jacobs was home late Monday night watching TV coverage of the execution of Crips gang co-founder Stanley Tookie Williams, and he was glad he wasn’t at the loud candlelight vigil outside San Quentin State Prison.

“The sideshows on both sides. It was such a circus,” said Jacobs, leader of the Reform Temple Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills and a prominent death-penalty opponent.

Williams was executed by lethal injection on Dec. 13 for murdering four people in 1979. Having renounced gang life years ago while imprisoned, his plea for clemency drew international attention but ultimately was rejected Monday by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Local Jewish community support for Williams was evident in the course of his clemency campaign. But except for the left-of-center Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA), major Jewish groups did not make the ex-gang chieftain’s controversial case a top issue.

“I don’t think most Jewish communal organizations, other than the Progessive Jewish Alliance, see capital punishment as a major Jewish communal priority,” said PJA Executive Director Daniel Sokatch, who kept vigil Monday night with about 100 other death penalty opponents at St. Paul the Apostle Roman Catholic Church in Westwood.

“What disturbs me has been those who have campaigned to abolish capital punishment even for crimes against humanity and genocide, torture and mass terrorism,” death penalty supporter Larry Greenfield, California director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, told The Journal. “I’m disturbed by the abolitionist’s argument.” Greenfield also appeared on CNN in the minutes before Williams’ execution began, at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday.

One abolitionist watching Greenfield was Jacobs. By 1 a.m. Tuesday, about 30 minutes after Williams was pronounced dead, the rabbis’ Boston-accented voice was heavy over a phone line as he said to a Journal reporter, “It’s just sickening. It’s just the manufacturing of death in this country that’s so sickening. It’s not about mercy. It’s not about justice. It’s about politics.” — David Finnigan, Contributing Writer

Way Cleared for Payments to Austrian Holocaust Survivors

A U.S. court decision has paved the way for final compensation payments to Holocaust survivors from Austria.

Last week’s decision by a U.S. District Court in New York to dismiss class-action lawsuits against Austrian businesses was greeted with relief by survivor organizations and the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany, parties to a settlement negotiated with the Austrian government.

The resulting legal closure means payments are imminent, said Gideon Taylor, Claims Conference executive vice president. Neither the Austrian government nor businesses would agree to payments without insurance against future lawsuits.

“This fund has been tied up in legal knots in courts in the U.S., and this had deprived many Austrian Holocaust survivors and their heirs of the symbolic payments,” Taylor told JTA in a telephone interview.

But “like most restitution payments, this is not an issue of money,” he emphasized. “The amounts are small, but the property losses were large. This is about symbolism. People are frustrated that what was supposed to be a symbolic gesture turned into a legal argument.”

In some cases, heirs will be the beneficiaries, said Hannah Lessing, director of the Austrian National Fund, which will distribute some of the payments. Of 30,000 who filed for compensation, only 15,000 are still living. The fund tries to reach the oldest claimants first, she said.

“Nothing will ever be fair,” said Lessing, whose father fled Nazi Austria for Palestine. “Whatever we do will always be a little piece of a puzzle.”

Jackson Seeks Retraction of Anti-Israel Remarks by Iran

The Rev. Jesse Jackson called on Iran’s president to retract anti-Israel and anti-Semitic comments. The comments by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad “are a threat to the fragile fabric of the world community,” Jackson said in a statement.

In comments made last week, Ahmadinejad said: “If the Europeans are honest, they should give some of their provinces in Europe, like in Germany, Austria or other countries, to the Zionists, and the Zionists can establish their state in Europe. You offer part of Europe, and we will support it.”

He earlier called for Israel’s destruction.

Hillary Clinton Endorses Israel’s Security Barrier

Sen. Hillary Clinton (D.-N.Y.) backed Israel’s right to construct its West Bank security barrier. Clinton, speaking after receiving an honorary degree from Yeshiva University last Sunday, said that a recent visit to Gilo, a town on the outskirts of Jerusalem, gave her “an even greater appreciation for the importance and rationale” of the fence, which has helped reduce Palestinian terrorist attacks. At the height of the intifada, Gilo was the target of frequent shootings from the neighboring Palestinian town of Beit Jalla.

Israel has the “right to build a security barrier to try to keep out those who would do harm to Israel,” Clinton said.

Israeli ‘Rabbicops’ Ploy Being Investigated

Hundreds of Israeli policemen are believed to be obtaining rabbinical ordination to boost their salaries. Citing Justice Ministry sources, the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz reported in an expose that as many as 600 policemen have taken courses for the Orthodox clergy so that they could receive $430 monthly stipends.

According to the newspaper, some of the “rabbicops” are openly secular, and the sages administering the ordination courses have been known to allow their students to abbreviate the studies for the sake of convenience. Police spokesmen declined comment, citing a probe already under way.


Should Tookie Die?

Just about one month from now, at 12:01 a.m. on Dec. 13, the State of California will execute Stanley Tookie Williams. He will die by lethal injection in the death chamber of San Quentin State Prison, home to the nation's largest death row. At every execution, small crowds gather outside the prison, some to protest, some to applaud. This time, thousands of people across the country — far more than is usual for an American execution — will be paying attention. Williams' story has reignited a conversation about capital punishment, galvanizing people — many of whom have never been outspoken opponents of the death penalty — to spare his life. Their ranks include a growing numbers of Jews. Indeed, the Williams case ought to force on Jews a hard look at what, exactly, our tradition says about the death penalty.

For the past 24 years, Williams, 51, has lived on death row in San Quentin. He started down the path that put him there early on. In 1971, at the age of 17, Williams, who grew up in South Central Los Angeles, co-founded the Crips. It quickly became Los Angeles', and then the nation's, most notorious street gang. In 1979, authorities charged Williams with the brutal murders, during two separate robberies, of four people who had no gang connections whatsoever: Albert Lewis Owens, a Whittier convenience store clerk in one incident; and, in the other, Tsai-Shai Yang, Yen-I Yang and Yee Chen Lin — a husband and wife and their adult daughter, owners of a Los Angeles motel. All were gunned down, execution style, in cold blood.

Williams claimed that he did not commit the crimes, but two years later, a jury convicted him and a judge sentenced him to die. While it is not uncommon for capital defendants to claim innocence, serious questions about the testimony and evidence that convicted him were raised — and rejected — on appeal. Among them, Williams alleges that his trial was unfairly moved from Los Angeles to Torrance, where all African Americans in the jury pool were dismissed, and the case was heard by an all-white jury.

But even if Williams is, as he claims, innocent of the crimes for which he was convicted, let's be clear: He was, at the time of his arrest, a dangerous criminal who had done more than his share of reprehensible things. By all accounts, he had been involved in or connected to the kinds of terrible crimes for which he was tried.

But Williams' story doesn't stop there. And what followed is not merely the familiar tale of a convicted killer trying to avoid execution through legal maneuvers. In prison, Williams began to rehabilitate himself. He publicly left the Crips, a position that involved risk to his family and to himself, even behind bars. He then apologized for creating the gang and perpetrating “black-on-black genocide” stating, “I pray that one day my apology will be accepted. I also pray that your suffering, caused by gang violence, will soon come to an end as more gang members wake up and stop hurting themselves and others. I vow to spend the rest of my life working toward solutions.”

This was no ordinary jailhouse conversion. Williams devoted himself to fighting gangs. He spoke out. He wrote nine children's books to steer children away from gang-banging, which he describes as “banging on your own people.” One of these books, “Life in Prison” (Seastar, 2001), received an award from the American Library Association and is used in schools, libraries, juvenile correctional facilities and prisons throughout the country. Williams also recorded anti-gang public service announcements, and began meeting with young people from at-risk communities to tell them to stay away from gangs, and to describe for them the horrors of prison. He also started the Internet Project for Street Peace, which encourages gangs to stop fighting each other. He created a “Protocol for Peace,” a model agreement to end gang feuds, and last year, the Crips and the Bloods in Newark, N.J., signed it, ushering in a truce that has remained in effect.

This work led a three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals to state, in 2002, that Williams' anti-gang initiatives made him a strong candidate for clemency from the governor. This sentiment was supported by a deputy mayor of Newark, who, in a letter supporting clemency, cited a dramatic reduction in gang-related crime in his city following the signing of what is referred to as “Tookie's Protocol for Peace.”

His was too good a story for Hollywood to miss. In last year's made-for-TV movie, Jamie Foxx played Williams in “Redemption: The Stan Tookie Williams Story.” Williams serves as an inspiration for a generation of vulnerable young people in our inner-cities, kids who are listening when he tells them not to throw away their lives like he did.

But the story of Williams also speaks to us as Jews. Our tradition teaches that within every person, even the worst criminal, there exists a nekudah tovah, a point of pure goodness. The Jewish obligation is to work to uncover that point of goodness, in ourselves and in others, so that it can transform us through the process of teshuvah, the radical idea that we can change, that we can always be better than we are. The concept of teshuvah holds the promise that even the most wicked cannot be defined solely by their worst acts. The divine spark always contains within it the potential for change. This is, of course, the promise of the High Holidays, and just last month, many of us sat in shul on Yom Kippur, affirming our own capacity for transformation and listening to the Book of Jonah, which teaches that no matter how terrible our acts, we are capable of changing for the better, just like the inhabitants of Nineveh.

But what about the death penalty specifically? Many American Jews, if they think about capital punishment at all, don't consider it a Jewish issue. Yet within Judaism, there's significant consensus: All major denominations of Judaism have taken stands opposing the death penalty or supporting a moratorium on executions. Getting to this point, however, has required a long, nuanced and fascinating evolution.

Biblical law mandates capital punishment for no fewer than 36 offenses, from murder to the desecration of Shabbat to talking back to your parents. Of course, neither the letter nor the spirit of this law reflects current Jewish values. More broadly speaking, Jewish tradition offers three basic rationales for a death penalty: deterrence, retribution and the restoration of balance to a social fabric torn by a terrible crime-like murder. But how do these principles apply today?

First, there is simply no evidence that capital punishment serves as a deterrent. In fact, in each year over the past decade, states without the death penalty have had lower murder rates than states that have capital punishment. And we now live at a time and in a society where retribution can be achieved by means other than capital punishment. Long prison sentences — especially life without parole — unavailable in biblical and talmudic times, can now fulfill the retributive inclination of Jewish law. At the same time, it guarantees that the ultimate nightmare — the execution of an innocent — does not occur. Finally, long prison sentences also serve to remove the murderer from society, allowing for the restoration of the social fabric that would be at risk if dangerous criminals were returned to the streets. In the Williams case, those calling for clemency are arguing that he should be spared, not freed.

The very things that make so many of us uneasy about the death penalty today also concerned the rabbis 2,000 years ago. While they could not write the death penalty out of the Torah, they erected almost insurmountable procedural and evidentiary safeguards and obstacles that essentially ensured that a Sanhedrin, a Jewish court, would never hand down a death sentence. For example, the rabbis ruled that two witnesses were required to testify not only that they witnessed the murder for which a criminal was being condemned, but also that they had warned the perpetrator beforehand that, if he carried out the offense, he would be executed, and that he accepted this warning and nevertheless stated his willingness to carry out the act.

Jewish unease with the capital punishment also informed the decision of the State of Israel not to have a death penalty except in the case of convicted Nazi war criminals. To date, despite its ongoing battle with terrorism, only one person, Adolph Eichmann, has been tried and executed by the Jewish State.

In the United States, despite decades of trying, the justice system has proven unable to create a foolproof death penalty. In Jewish tradition, this alone would be reason enough to oppose capital punishment. But the rabbis make an even more profound claim. Mishna tells us that those appearing as witnesses in capital cases were instructed: One who destroys a single soul, it is as if he has destroyed an entire world. And one who sustains and saves a single soul, it is as if that person sustained a whole world (M Sanhedrin 4:5). In other words, even when confronted with a person who is accused of horrendous crimes, we are still obligated to recognize the value and inestimable worth of every human being. We are compelled to consider the potential contribution the condemned might make if spared. Who, at the time of his conviction in 1981, would have thought that Williams would be capable of work that, in 2001, led to him being nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize?

Judaism also abhors an inequitable dual system of justice, especially in capital cases. The Levitical demand for “one standard for the stranger and the citizen alike” is reinforced in the Talmud (B Sanhedrin 32a) to ensure procedural fairness in capital proceedings. The fact that the death penalty in the United States disproportionately impacts the poor and people of color serves to underscore its incompatibility with Jewish values. Whether or not Williams received a fair trial and sentencing, it is horribly clear that many people, who, like him, are poor and black, do not.

My Jewish values convince me that the capital punishment system in our state and in our country is beyond repair. I could cite the example of Illinois, where a Republican governor, a man who is a conservative Christian and once ardently supported the death penalty, ordered a halt to executions. He then commuted all death sentences to life sentences. Ethically, he had little alternative after students at Northwestern University discovered that more people on Illinois' death row were innocent of the crimes for which they'd been sentenced to death than the number of people Illinois had executed since the death penalty was reinstated in the 1970s.

More recently, the state of Georgia apologized for what it now acknowledges was the “grievous error” of executing Lena Baker, a black woman, in 1945. And a Missouri prosecutor just reopened an investigation to determine whether, as many now fear, the state mistakenly executed Larry Griffin in 1995. And the Supreme Court, as far back as 1987, acknowledged what we all know — that if you are poor or a person of color — you are far more likely to get the death penalty than you are if you are white or a person of means. And California's system of justice is as overburdened and flawed as that of many other states where such problems arise. So if we begin in December a Texas-style run of executions (in addition to Williams, two other death row inmates have received their execution dates) we, too, will risk killing innocent people. We, too, will create dual systems of capital justice: one for the poor and blacks and Latinos, and one for those privileged by having white skin or money.

But even death-penalty supporters are speaking up to save Williams. They, too, recognize that something is terribly wrong when a state can execute a man who is literally saving the lives of others every day that he lives.

Innocent or guilty, victim of a flawed trial or not, Williams is set to die in one month's time: a young criminal who evolved into something more, someone more than even the sum of some truly horrible crimes.

Was his transformation entirely sincere?

I believe it was. But in the end, the worth of his contribution does not depend on how much of him is truly redeemed versus how much his pursuit of good works is spurred on by his fear of death. He is now a force for good in the world, keeping others from making the same mistakes he made.

His appeals have been exhausted, and time is almost up. The only way Williams' life will be saved is if Gov. Schwarzenegger decides to spare him.

If we believe the things that we pray and the things that we say, if we are committed to the values that we claim to treasure, we do not have the luxury of complacency when confronted with what we are about to do to Tookie Williams. Because let's be clear: if the State of California executes this man, it will do so in our name. We will stand as his executioner in the death chamber next month.

Whether you are for or against the death penalty, there are two questions that we — as Jews, Californians and Americans — have to answer: Does the man deserve to die? And do we want to be the ones to kill him?

Daniel Sokatch is the executive director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance and part of a multifaith coalition seeking to stop the execution of Stanley Tookie Williams.

In the eyes of American and Torah laws, Williams should die for his heinous crimes.

In the case of the People v. Williams, the facts are quite clear. A jury convicted Stanley Tookie Williams of the execution-style murder of 23-year-old Albert Owens during a robbery of a 7-Eleven store in Whittier. The jury also convicted him of murdering the owners of a Los Angeles motel, Tsai-Shai Yang, 62, and Yen-I Yang, 65, and their 42-year-old daughter, Yee Chen Lin, in the course of a robbery two weeks later.

These innocent victims suffered an unwarranted execution at the hand of Tookie Williams. Now, at long last, it is Williams’ turn to pay for these crimes, after having lived more than 20 years following the deaths of people who committed no crime, who had no lawyer, who had no chance to file an appeal, who benefited from no legal technicalities, who never had an opportunity to seek clemency from a governor.

The American justice system has been patient and thorough, and its verdict is clear: It is legal, proper and high time that Williams should die.

The verdict under Judaism is just as plain: Capital punishment is a rare, but permissible, important and sometime necessary option for the delivery of justice. In this case in particular, the ethical and Jewish case for the death penalty is overwhelming.

But for those who doubt, it is necessary to look no further than the holiest writings of the Jewish faith.

Capital punishment is the second commandment in Genesis, after “Be fruitful and multiply.” Genesis (9:6) proclaims: “Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for in his image did God make humankind.”

So fundamental is capital punishment as the specific response to murder that it, alone among the laws of the Bible, is established in all five books of the Torah: Genesis (9:6), Exodus (21:12, 21:14), Leviticus (24:17), Numbers (35:31), Deuteronomy (19:19-20, 24:7).

For literal believers in biblical liturgy, nothing more need be said. But certainly Jewish tradition and practice has evolved over the centuries, leading to ongoing moral reinterpretation. It is true that Jewish authorities established strict standards of evidence, as they became especially concerned about the rights of defendants during Roman rule and after. But there’s a difference between a high (and laudable) standard of evidence and an outright prohibition. Jewish law and its Judeo-Christian successor, modern American law, have consistently upheld the legal and moral basis for the death penalty.

It remains fair and reasonable to hold that the value of innocent human life is best established by exacting a proportionate and ultimate sanction upon a murderer. Government has a duty to act where God cannot, so as to establish justice on earth, prevent further murder, and organize a system for prosecution, judgment, and punishment on behalf of victims and society.

Williams had his day in court — again and again and again.

Court after court has rejected his appeals. The 9th Circuit Court determined that Williams had competent counsel. Democrat and Republican governors have rejected calls for clemency. His supporters claim he deserved the Nobel Peace Prize for his prison writings, but this is ridiculous grandstanding, trying to attach an honor to a person who doesn’t deserve it. Nominating Williams for a Nobel Peace Prize did nothing but cynically cheapen the award itself.

Williams was convicted for specific crimes — and that’s what he will die for — but it’s worth considering for a moment the wider evil he’s brought into the world. Williams co-founded the brutal Crips gang, and in that role, it’s difficult to calculate how many crimes and other murders to which he was an accessory. And once he was imprisoned, he left behind a nefarious legacy, an ongoing wave of mass murder that resulted directly from his original criminal leadership. This information was never mentioned in court and was, in fact, kept from the jury. But it remains part of the real Tookie Williams story.

The Crips super-gang he founded exists throughout the United States and even internationally. Williams’ evil efforts have arguably resulted in more devastation — more murder, torture, rape and crippling of Americans, specifically young black children — than the acts of anyone else now alive.

Williams says, conveniently enough, that he’s changed his mind about gangs, although he’s never taken responsibility for the carnage he caused. At best, he may have tried to return a few evils into the Pandora’s Box that he personally opened and helped unleash upon the world. But that’s a far cry from true repentance and actual justice.

The life that Williams has led in prison and his public writings have generated for him the respect of misguided leftists who are all to eager to be kind to the cruel.

No one denies that murderers can go on to apologize, write books and even arguably make a contribution. Perhaps God will weigh the million intangibles, giving them their proper weight on the scales of evil and good done by any individual in a lifetime. But it is our proper and better role to content ourselves with the mission of justice.

I know honorable people who oppose the death penalty on principle. But the arguments are more persuasive on the other side — especially if we consider the rights of victims to take priority over the rights of those who murder. That’s an easy call for me to make, and it’s a crime that victims have to wait so long for justice.

I defend the death penalty — and the need for a more swift and sure death-penalty process, on other grounds, too. Under the current system the result is abusively long legal appeals and expensive lifetime imprisonment for convicted killers. All the while, victims’ families are often tortured by legal gamesmanship as well as by the suffering of not knowing if or when an execution will finally be allowed to go forward.

There are broader considerations as well. In an age of intense religio-political terrorism, the failure to deter and punish mass murder with capital punishment would deliver a devastating blow to the moral and actual defense of innocent life, not to mention the defense of our nation.

Some death-penalty opponents cite DNA evidence as a reason to end capital punishment. To the contrary, death-penalty proponents abhor just as much the theoretical possibility of an innocent person being executed. DNA evidence puts science on the side of justice — and firmly on the side of capital punishment.

The death penalty is widely approved in our society as our collective means of punishment and moral retribution. It is applied in extremely few cases. As applied to mass murderers like Williams, deep care for innocent life and for deterring future crimes requires the ultimate punishment. American law says so; common decency argues as much, and Jewish law says so, too.

Cry for Williams if you like out of mercy. But we are all more deeply stained by the tears of his victims and their loved ones. This just execution will dry some of their tears — and offer some closure and peace. n

Larry Greenfield is an attorney, victims-rights advocate, and the California director of the Republican Jewish Coalition.


Was Berg Targeted for Being a Jew?

The world may never know for sure if Nicholas Berg’s religion played a role in his grisly execution at the hand of terrorists in Iraq.

But many, including his family, are speculating that it was a factor in the terrorists’ decision to kill the American Jewish civilian who had gone to the war-torn country in search of business.

A video that surfaced on the Internet on Tuesday showed the decapitation by masked Iraqis of Berg, 26, of West Chester, Pa.

The scene echoed the 2002 murder in Pakistan of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl, who was forced to admit his Jewishness on tape just before his captors cut off his head.

The killing raises questions about whether a Jewish person — civilian or military — is in any graver danger than anyone else in such a volatile region.

Shoshana Bryen, director of special projects for the Washington-based Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, said it makes sense that Jews would be targeted in Iraq.

"There are people in these countries who are looking to kill people who are members of certain groups," Bryen said. "The two at the top of the list are Americans and Jews."

Though Berg’s religion wasn’t mentioned on the video, posted on a Web site linked to Al Qaeda, Berg cites his family members, similar to the way Pearl did.

Berg is seen saying, "My name is Nick Berg, my father’s name is Michael, my mother’s name is Susan … I have a brother and sister, David and Sarah."

His father, Michael, inundated by reporters Tuesday as his family was still grieving, said his son’s religion may have made him a target.

"There’s a better chance than not that they knew he was Jewish," his father was quoted saying. "If there was any doubt that they were going to kill him, that probably clinched it, I’m guessing."

His father also told reporters that his son routinely wore a tzitzit, or traditional fringed undergarment, although he didn’t wear it in public.

Joseph Kashnow, an Army Cavalry scout from Baltimore who has returned from Baghdad, felt strains of anti-Semitism before coming home after a severe injury.

Kashnow, an Orthodox Jew who wore a kippah but usually hid it under his helmet, said that while most of the time his religion wasn’t an issue, he did encounter problems.

As an American Jewish soldier in Baghdad, Kashnow said he learned better than to pursue one particular conversation with a local man.

"He said, ‘Saddam wasn’t so bad, at least he wasn’t Jewish,’" recalled Kashnow, 25. "Not a person I wanted to continue having a chat with."

"It’s certainly possible there are people [in Iraq] who would feel it was a ‘two-mints-in-one’ to get an American and a Jew," Kashnow said.

But not everyone agrees.

Rabbi Mitchell Ackerson, an Orthodox rabbi and senior Jewish chaplain for Operation Iraqi Freedom, just returned to his native Maryland from Iraq after nearly one year there. Despite the killing of a Jewish civilian, he said he believed American soldiers remained the prime target for Iraqis insurgents.

While in Iraq, Ackerson never told Jewish soldiers to hide their identities, but neither did he counsel them to "flaunt" their Judaism.

"I’m not sure what happened with Berg, but my gut inclination is he was not killed because he was Jewish. Instead, it was, ‘We captured an American, we’re going to prove we’re the tough guys and we’re going to kill him.’"

Ackerson said that if Berg’s murder was religiously motivated, his captors or the Al Qaeda-linked group that claimed responsibility "would’ve highlighted it," just as they did with Pearl.

Kashnow’s right leg was nearly blown off by a homemade land mine last September. He has spent months undergoing operations and therapy — yet he says he’s as sure as ever that the war is just.

"Berg was fighting to rebuild the country and make it safe for freedom," he said. "It’s still a tragedy."

Kashnow is not alone.

"Should people think twice or should we continue this?" said Judy Ledger, whose son and daughter — and their spouses — all served with the U.S. military in Iraq. "You do have to realize there’s a danger, but the danger is no more if you’re in the military than if there is a hate crime" in the United States.

But Ledger said in an earlier interview that as a mother, her children’s Jewishness always was in the back of her mind.

Ledger recalled how when her son, Matt, first went to the Iraq war theater before the conflict began, she urged him to remove the word "Jewish" from his military dog tags. But he refused, saying, "I don’t want a priest praying over me if I get killed."

Some Jewish organizational officials echoed Kashnow’s view that Berg’s murder, combined with Tuesday’s videotaped killing of six Israeli soldiers by Palestinians in the Gaza Strip — should deepen the commitment of Jews and other Americans to the war on terrorism.

"This is an evil force that has no moral compunction at all," said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

Referring to the video showing an Iraqi holding Berg’s severed head aloft and shouting, "Allahu akbar," or "God is great" — and footage of Palestinian terrorists proudly displaying an Israeli soldier’s head and other body parts — Hoenlein said the two cases point to the same enemy.

"Their barbarism could not be more clear after today. On both fronts it’s the same menace," he said.

On the video, Berg’s captors said the killing was to avenge the abuse of Iraqi prisoners by American soldiers.

The parents of Daniel Pearl, who immigrated to Los Angeles in the 1960s from Israel, prepared a statement for the media after news of Berg’s killing circulated Tuesday.

"We have heard from the news about the videotape showing the tragic death of Nicholas Berg in Iraq. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends at this extremely difficult time," the statement said.

"Our heart goes out to them. Kidnapping, torture, humiliation and murder must have no place in this world," the statement went on. "We call on people of principle around the world to help stop the madness and take a stand for humanity."

Ironically, Berg’s father, Michael, and his small business, Prometheus Methods Tower Service Inc., were listed as endorsers of a coalition called Act Now to Stop War and End Racism. The coalition opposed the Iraq war, though Nicholas Berg reportedly supported it.

Berg was in Iraq as a freelance contractor working to repair communications antennae, The Associated Press reported. His family members said they had known of their son’s death since the weekend but did not know of the video until it surfaced this week.

The family last heard from Berg on April 9, as he was preparing to return to the United States via Jordan. U.S. officials recovered Berg’s remains May 8.

The Bush administration and others voiced outrage at Berg’s killing and vowed to pursue his killers. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, said Berg’s killers "will not prevail."

Berg’s friends and neighbors were devastated to learn of his fate. Reached by phone, Berg’s parents declined to comment on their son’s death.

The circumstances of his capture are unknown.

He had planned to return home at the end of March, but his parents told reporters he didn’t come home as scheduled and that the FBI had told them their son was in jail in Iraq.

In West Chester, meanwhile, his family and friends were mourning the loss of someone universally praised as a caring soul.

"Nick was probably one of the most amazing men I’ve ever met," said Aaron Spool, a friend of Berg’s since they were in the seventh grade. "He just touched everyone’s life. West Chester is going to be a much emptier place without him. He was good man, a good Jew. It’s tough. It’s very hard."

In the last years of his life, Berg became increasingly religious. Spool said Berg began attending the Conservative Kesher Israel Congregation in West Chester two years ago and studied the Torah and Books of the Prophets. He even traveled to Israel to study Arabic and Hebrew for the first time just before going to Iraq.

Still, "he wasn’t foolish … he wouldn’t have bandied about the fact he was Jewish" in Iraq, Spool added.

A funeral service was reportedly set for Friday at Kesher Israel, which said members "mourn with the family."

Glenn Brown, a friend of the Spool family who occasionally would have Shabbat meals with Berg in West Chester, recalled the young man as being "a sincere individual."

He said, "It is a huge tragedy and loss. He seemed hard-working and industrious."

JTA Washington bureau chief Ron Kampeas, JTA staff writer Matthew E. Berger in Washington and the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent contributed to this report.

Jewish Law Cited in Death Penalty Case

A man who will argue before the U.S. Supreme Court next year that his planned execution in Florida’s electric chair constitutes “cruel and unusual punishment” can point to a 2,000-year-old Jewish law when he pleads his case.

A friend-of-the court brief filed last week in the Supreme Court by the National Jewish Commission on Law and Public Affairs, which advocates the position of the Orthodox community, and the American Section of the International Association of Jewish Lawyers and Jurists, backs Anthony Bryan’s position.

In citing only Jewish law and excluding any reference to previous Supreme Court decisions, the brief is believed to mark a first for America’s highest court.

The brief, written by the father-daughter team of Nathan and Alyza Lewin and reviewed by former Israeli Supreme Court Justice Menachem Elon, delves into the biblical and talmudic texts relating to execution in Jewish law.

The brief does not address the legality of the death penalty itself, but it does refer to the same Jewish text that an interfaith group has used to justify abolishing the penalty.

Alyza Lewin said her father, who has argued 27 cases before the Supreme Court, decided to write the brief because he thought the court — especially Jewish justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer and Justice Antonin Scalia, who has expressed interest in talmudic law in the past — would find it interesting as they consider the case.

The brief supports Bryan’s contention that execution in an electric chair violates the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, which forbids cruel and unusual punishment.

It concludes that the Sanhedrin, or High Court, during the time of the Second Temple in Jerusalem rarely imposed the death penalty. However, when a death sentence was imposed, the rabbis said the execution must be done in a painless and quick manner with as little disfigurement as possible.

That apparently has not been the case with Florida’s electric chair, which is known as “Ol’ Sparky.”

During two executions in the 1990s,smoke and flames erupted from the headpieces worn by two convicted killers, and the smell of burning flesh reportedly filled the execution chamber, according to a Web site maintained by Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism that details Supreme Court cases.

The last time the U.S. Supreme Court considered whether or not electrocution could be used as a method of punishment was in 1890.

In that case, the court ruled that the state of New York could use the electric chair instead of hanging death row inmates.

Reform and Conservative Jewish leaders have cited Jewish text — including the same passage the Lewins used — in their recently launched drive to abolish the death penalty.

Leaders of the National Jewish/Catholic Consultation, which is co-sponsored by the Reform and Conservative movements’ National Council of Synagogues and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops, said they “acknowledge the theoretical possibility of a justifiable death penalty, since the scriptures mandate it for certain offenses.”

However, they concluded that the “the arguments offered in defense of the death penalty are less than persuasive in the face of the overwhelming mandate in both Jewish and Catholic traditions to respect the sanctity of human life.”

The group’s statement on the death penalty cites a passage of commentary from chapter 1, verse 10 of Mishnah Makkot that shows the rabbis were clearly uncomfortable with the death penalty.

“A Sanhedrin that puts one person to death once in seven years is called destructive. Rabbi Eliezer ben Azariah says: Or even once in 70 years. Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiba say: Had we been the Sanhedrin, none would ever have been put to death.”

However, the next sentence in that passage, which is not cited in the consultation’s statement but is noted in the Lewins’ brief, quotes Rabbi Simon ben Gamliel as saying, “Such an attitude would increase bloodshed in Israel,” signaling that he thought the death penalty was a good deterrent.

Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, acknowledged the statement by Rabbi Gamliel, saying “Halachah is ambivalent about the death penalty.”

“The sages really wrested with the application of the death penalty,” Pelavin said, adding that they wanted it to be imposed fairly.

The Jewish and Catholic leaders in their joint statement opposing the death penalty argue that the death penalty is not imposed fairly in the United States, saying that “suspiciously high percentages of those on death row are poor or people of color.”

A Call for Justice and Freedom

A dramatic appearance by the Rev. Jesse Jackson in Los Angeles last week helped kick into high gear an international campaign to free 13 Iranian Jews who were arrested by Iranian authorities for alleged espionage, and who face possible execution.

In a news conference at Leo Baeck Temple last Friday, Jackson said that he is ready to fly to Tehran, if granted a visa by Iran, joined by members of the same ecumenical team that in May obtained the freedom of three American soldiers in Yugoslavia.

In related developments, political leaders in the United States, Israel, Germany and France sought to mobilize world opinion on behalf of the threatened prisoners. Efforts are also underway to enlist the support of Italy, Spain, Britain, Holland and other European Union countries, as well as the Vatican, Japan and Canada, and the United Nations.

In Washington, resolutions have been introduced in the House of Representatives and Senate that call on the Clinton administration and foreign governments to seek the release of the 13 prisoners and condemn Iran’s treatment of its religious minorities.

The high-profile public actions follow months of behind-the-scenes maneuvering, during which Jewish organizations sought to influence Tehran through quiet diplomacy.

The first arrests, of five, occurred in January, according to Sam Kermanian, secretary general of the Iranian American Jewish Federation in Los Angeles, who has been monitoring the situation from day one. In the second wave of arrests, Iranian security forces took another eight Jews into custody in late March, shortly before Passover.

The 13 range in age from 16 to 49 and were mainly residents of the southern city of Shiraz, while others were arrested in Tehran and Isfahan, said Kermanian.

During the first months of imprisonment, the Jews were not charged with any crimes, and some signals from Tehran indicated that they might be set free. Then early last week, in a confusing series of announcements and retractions, Iranian officials accused the 13 of spying for Israel and the United States, which “at certain instances provide for capital punishment,” the Islamic Republic News Agency reported.

The espionage charges are ridiculous on the face of it, said Kermanian. “No one would recruit spies among a group [of Jews], who have high visibility and are constantly watched by the authorities,” he said. In a country riddled with corruption, any nation hostile to Iran could have its pick of spies at $1,000 a month, he observed.

The 13 prisoners, including a 16-year-old boy arrested in his classroom, are mainly religious Jews, said Kermanian. They incurred the government’s displeasure for such “crimes” as teaching Hebrew, printing the weekly Torah portion, holding religious classes, or requesting permission to close their businesses on Saturdays.

Following the March arrests, an informal consortium of American Jewish organizations began a quiet effort to mobilize their most influential contacts. Members included the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress, the Anti-Defamation League, B’nai B’rith and the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, said Abraham Foxman, the ADL’s national director.

Last week, after Iran announced the spy charges, consortium members decided to go public. Foxman contacted Jackson, who agreed to meet with the ADL leader and relatives of some of the prisoners in Los Angeles on Thursday, June 10. Foxman stressed the seriousness of the situation by noting that at least 17 Iranian Jews, including community leaders, have been executed in Iran since 1979.

At his news conference the following day, Jackson described the meeting with the relatives as “a deeply moving experience…as I watched bitter tears roll down their faces in anguish and pain and fear for their loved ones.”

Jackson said that his first move would be to appeal to the religious authorities in Iran “to allow us to visit and gain the release of the 13 prisoners, and to appeal fervently that their lives be spared.”

“I have seen some evidence that Iran is trying to rejoin the world. One expression would be to set the 13 Jews free,” Jackson said.

“We as Americans and Jews believe it is imperative that Iran heed Jesse Jackson’s plea,” said ADL Western Regional Director David Lehrer.

Flanking Jackson during the news conference were two men who had accompanied him on the earlier mission to Belgrade — Rabbi Steven B. Jacobs of Kol Tikvah in Woodland Hills and Dr. Nazir U. Khaja, national president of the American Muslim Council.

Khaja said that he has been in contact with Rabbi David Saperstein, a Reform leader, and after receiving a full briefing, he intended to take up the fate of the 13 prisoners with the Iranian government.

One of the relatives who met with Jackson was Nasrin Javaherian of San Jose, whose 49-year-old brother, Nasser Levihaim, is the oldest among the prisoners. Javaherian said that her brother’s family, with whom she talks daily by phone, was at first reluctant to even acknowledge that Levihaim had been arrested.

“I called them in Shiraz and asked to speak to Nasser, and his wife told me that he had gone to Tehran and would be back next week,” said Javaherian. Only after the news of the arrests became public, did the wife confirm that Levihaim was in prison.

Again, last week, when the spy charges were announced, Javaherian called her family five times in one night.

“I was so scared, I was crying all the time,” she said in a phone interview, trying hard to control her emotions.

She described her brother as the father of three sons, the youngest 18 months old, and manager of an electricity company in Shiraz. She speculated that the Iranian authorities might have gone after him because he frequently volunteered as a Sunday-school Hebrew teacher.

Levihaim’s wife has not been allowed to see her husband since his arrest in March, but she can bring kosher food to the prison once a week, a process that involves signing four different papers. “We have no idea whether he’s getting the food,” said Javaherian.

Taking the lead in urging congressional action has been Sherman Oaks Democrat Brad Sherman, whose House resolution has now also been introduced in the upper chamber by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y).

Sherman said in a phone interview that one purpose of the resolution was to warn Iran that it would have to pay a price for its persecution of Jews, which would set back any attempts by Tehran to improve its ties with the West.

Since neither the United States nor Israel has diplomatic ties with Iran, it is particularly important that France, Germany and Japan, all major Iranian trading partners, exert pressure on the regime, Sherman noted.

He said that he was watching closely in which court the 13 Jews would be tried. “It could be a regular civilian court, a military court, or a Revolutionary Council court…but, unfortunately, the options here range from bad to awful.”

Sherman has been inundated for months by letters and personal calls from Los Angeles’ Iranian Jewish community, which is 30,000 strong. Most of the pressure has come from part of the community affiliated with the International Judea Foundation — Siamak and the Eretz Cultural Center. These groups believe that the more establishment Iranian American Jewish Federation had been too cautious in its quiet diplomacy until last week.

Federation leader Kermanian acknowledged that there had been differences on tactics within the community, but that it was united in the goal of freeing the prisoners.

There remains some puzzlement among observers why Iran would arrest the Jews on trumped-up charges at a time when the government of President Mohammad Khatami has signaled a desire to improve relations with the West.

Kermanian and Sherman agreed that the seeming paradox lies in an internal power struggle between Iranian “moderates,” led by Khatami, and fundamentalist hard-liners.

“There are conservative groups in Iran which advocate strict Orthodox Islamic values and see any contact with the West as threatening these values, and they try to sabotage Khatami’s policies,” Kermanian said.

It is the hard-liners who control the security apparatus, which arrested the Jews, as well as the judiciary, he noted.

In Tehran, the official radio charged that the 13 Jews were part of a “Zionist espionage ring” and accused the United States and Israel of trying to “sensationalize the scandal” and of interfering with Iran’s internal affairs.

Get Involved

To get involved in helping the arrested Jews in Iran:

Contact the Committee for the Defense of Jewish Detainees in Iran, (310) 535-6610; or The Committee of Religious Minority Rights in Iran, at (818) 325-3848.

To register your concern on the situation, direct letters to His Excellency Kofi Anan, United Nations Secretariat, New York, NY 10017, or fax (212) 963-4879. Letters of support can be sent to the Iranian American Jewish Federation, 1317 N. Crescent Heights Blvd., West Hollywood, CA 90069.

In L.A., Cause for Alarm

By Michael Aushenker, Staff Writer

Among Los Angeles’ estimated 30,000-strong Persian Jewish community, the arrest of 13 Jews in Iran is topic number one. “Everybody, everybody, is worried,” says Frank Nikbakht, a local activist.

“People I know are quite shocked,” says Elham Gheytanchi, a UCLA sociology doctorate candidate active with the Center for Iranian-Jewish Oral History (CIJOH). “My first reaction was that espionage is really bad because it leaves no ground to defend them no matter what the real charge is.”

Homa Sarshar, CIJOH’s founder and president, is also wary of the Iranian government’s claim and motives.

“We have seen different tricks within the last year, and this is one of them,” she says. She believes that the espionage charges are an excuse to condemn the captured to execution.

A member of the Committee for Religious Minority Rights in Iran — a small organization supported by the Council of Iran Jewish Organizations in California — Nikbakht has been actively tracking the government-sponsored anti-Semitism that has intensified in Iran since 1998. In March, he detailed the extent of the tensions in an issue of Chashm Amdaaz, a local Iranian-Jewish publication. In his article, Nikbakht stated that the tactics employed not only approximate but incorporate 1930s Nazi propaganda.

Nikbakht has compiled virulent anti-Semitic writings and cartoons that have appeared regularly in the bimonthly Tehran journal, Sabh.

The Committee for Religious Minority Rights recently pushed for a resolution — which Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., has introduced in the House — condemning the arrests and demanding the Iranian-Jewish prisoners’ release. Nikbakht is pleased with the State Department’s response to the crisis so far and says that plans to address the situation are currently in the works. Sherman is scheduled to speak during Shabbat services at alocal Iranian synagogue.

Meanwhile, the Iranian-Jewish community is waiting to see the outcome of the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s efforts.

“It’s a tough call,” says Gheytanchi. “Jesse Jackson had success in Yugoslavia in having those three [American soldiers] released, but Iran is a different matter.”

Nevertheless, Nikbakht and Sarshar praise Jackson’s efforts.

“Any action in this way is positive action. It would be welcome from my side. I hope he would be successful,” says Sarshar, who adds, ominously, “I’m not very optimistic.”