Lebanon prisoner swap deal — morale issue forces a hard choice


The existential reality of an Israeli context, where governmental decisions often have a life and death valence, has been brought home to millions of people these past fewweeks, as the Israeli Cabinet made the agonizing decision to authorize the release of the murderer Samir Kuntar, four other live Lebanese prisoners and the bodies of dozens of Arab infiltrators and terrorists to Hezbollah in exchange for the bodies of abducted Israel Defense Forces (IDF) soldiers Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev.

The weight of responsibility placed upon the government and Cabinet in this instance — as in so many others — was surely awesome. While many have conceded that the decision of the Israeli government to allow this exchange was immeasurably painful, albeit necessary, others have been extremely critical of the governmental judgment to go ahead with this terribly imbalanced swap.

This decision involved no easy choice. However, as so many of us struggle with our thoughts and feelings as we reflect upon the action that Israel took in this episode, it is instructive to remember that this is not the first time Israel has unfortunately confronted this issue.

In 1985, the Jewish state faced the same heartbreaking and excruciating question. Israel had to decide whether to return 1,150 Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners for the release of three Israeli soldiers. While the exchange never took place and the fate of the three Israeli POWs is still unknown, two prominent Israeli rabbis — Rabbi Shlomo Goren and Rabbi Haim David Halevi — addressed the issue directly at that time. Their words then have resonance and meaning today, as they provide important perspectives for reflecting upon the policy position the Israeli government adopted on this painful matter involving life and death.

Goren served as chief Ashkenazic rabbi of Israel and was formerly chief rabbi of the IDF, while Halevi was the chief Sephardic rabbi of Tel Aviv-Jaffa.

Goren, in an article written on May 31, 1985, was straightforward in his response to this question. He stated that Jewish law absolutely forbade the Israeli government from redeeming “our captive soldiers in exchange for 1,150 terrorists” and based his ruling on a talmudic passage in Gittin 45a that stated, “Captives should not be redeemed for more than their value.” Goren emphasized his great distress at the personal plight of these captives — they were surely in “mortal danger.”

However, he still insisted that the state should not redeem them as such redemption in exchange for the release of known terrorists bent on the destruction of Israel and its Jewish population would surely imperil all Israeli citizenry and only fuel Arab attempts to capture more Jews in the future. The price exacted from Israel through the release of these terrorists was simply too steep for the state to afford.

Halevi responded to Goren soon after the article appeared. He was sympathetic to the position his Ashkenazic colleague had advanced in his piece. However, Halevi disagreed about the relevance of applying the Gittin passage to the contemporary situation.

In his view, the conditions that existed in a modern Jewish state were completely different from those that confronted the Jewish community in premodern times. The Jewish people were now sovereign in their land, and the “political-national” aims that motivated the terrorists “to wreak havoc among the Jewish people” would continue, regardless of whether their prisoners were released in exchange for Israeli soldiers. Indeed, these terrorists would persist in their cruel efforts until a solution to the entire Israeli-Palestinian conflict was achieved.

The “impossible choice” before the government was whether to “strengthen the power of the terrorists through the release of their comrades or to strengthen the morale of IDF soldiers should there be future wars.” Faced with these two options, Halevi felt that priority had to be assigned the latter one — the Israeli government should do all in its power to uphold the morale of the IDF soldiers.

If a soldier knew that the government would spare no effort or expense to liberate a captured soldier, then the soldier might well fight more fearlessly in battle. On the other hand, if the soldier knew that his release from captivity did not possess the highest governmental priority and that the government would not act upon that priority, then the soldier might well retreat at a crucial wartime moment so as to avoid risking capture as a prisoner of war. In a moral universe where alternatives were limited, Halevi felt this choice was the wisest one the government could make.

In responding in this way to the existential reality of life and death choices faced by the State of Israel then, Halevi enunciated a position that provides the rationale for the decision the government of the State of Israel has made on the issue of prisoner exchange.

It is surely a policy fraught with danger. At the same time, it appears to be one that continues to legitimately guide Israel as the Jewish state continues to support its citizen-soldiers as they all too often confront an enemy bent on its destruction.

Rabbi David Ellenson is president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.<BR>

Get out of jail free


Candles in the wind


Video headlines from Israel 2008-07-18: Prisoner swap controversy continues


Video headlines from Israel 2008-07-18: Prisoner swap controversy continues

 

U.S. Jews mourn soldiers, pledge to fight for Shalit’s return


NEW YORK (JTA) — At the Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School here, Rabbi Dov Linzer decided Wednesday that it would be inappropriate to start the day like any other given the news that the two Israeli soldiers abducted by Hezbollah in July 2006 were returned to Israel deceased.

Instead, Linzer passed around several media reports about the return of Israeli reservists Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, effected in exchange for five Lebanese and the remains of some 200 Arab fighters.

The morning’s discussion eventually turned to the ethics of the exchange — a debate that has raged in Israel in recent weeks as the country has wrestled with the appropriateness of trading live terrorists for dead Israelis.

“Everybody really was struggling with it,” Linzer told JTA. “It wasn’t a black-and-white issue, even if people came out on one side or the other.”

The plight of Israel’s captive soldiers has galvanized the American Jewish community in ways that few Israel-related issues have in recent years. While the merits of the exchange were debated passionately at Chovevei and elsewhere Wednesday, Jewish groups that had worked for the soldiers’ release made no mention of the controversy surrounding their return.

Instead they expressed sympathy for the pain of the families, recognition of Israel’s difficult moral choices and a commitment to work toward the release of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier captured by Hamas in the summer of 2006 just a few days before Hezbollah’s attack.

“As we mourn Ehud and Eldad, let us redouble our efforts to seek the safe return of Gilad Shalit to his family,” Rabbi Steve Gutow, the executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, wrote in an e-mail message. “The blue bracelet with the names of all three soldiers will stay on my wrist until that blessed day comes. And let us keep all the other captive soldiers — Guy Hever, Zachary Baumel, Tzvi Feldman, Yehuda Katz, Ron Arad, Majdy Halabi — in our thoughts and prayers.”

Since their capture in cross-border raids two years ago, Shalit, Goldwasser and Regev have inspired broad action by American Jews. More than a dozen groups dedicated to securing their release were created on the popular social networking Web site Facebook, a rally for their release was held at the United Nations and a petition sent to the U.N. secretary-general garnered 150,000 signatures.

Concern for the three MIAs reached the highest echelons of the U.S. Congress, where House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) emerged as arguably the most vocal Washington lawmaker on the issue.



Last September, when I

No simple answer on return of Israeli POWs


In the summer of 2006, two Israeli soldiers — Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser — were abducted by Hezbollah. Israel reacted by launching a war against this Lebanon-based
terrorist organization. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert declared then that one of the main war aims was to return the two soldiers back home.

The war ended, and almost two years have passed, and the two soldiers are still in enemy hands. A third soldier, Gilad Shalit, was abducted by Hamas in Gaza about the same time. He is alive; his family has just received a brief letter from him.

Hamas is demanding that Israel free hundreds of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for his release. As for Regev and Goldwasser, we are not sure. The jeep they had been driving was hit so badly, almost burned down in the attack, and the scenes of the charred remains of the vehicle left little hope that the two soldiers had survived. Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary-general of Hezbollah, in the most cynical and vicious way, refused to give any hint about their fate.

On Sunday, the Israeli government decided to release Arab prisoners for the two soldiers, but the heated controversy is still going on.

Isn’t this a heavy price? Shouldn’t we condition that Arab prisoners be exchanged only for living POWs? And isn’t all this but an incentive for future blackmailing?

Let’s borrow a page from the history book.

Frederick II of Prussia, known as Frederick the Great, was one of the greatest military commanders of the pre-Napoleonic era. In 1757, during the Seven Years War, he wrote a secret memorandum to his minister of interior on the eve of a decisive battle: “In the contingency that I become a prisoner of war, I forbid to make even the slightest concession to the enemy, and order to ignore anything I should write from captivity. If such unhappy event occurs, I want to sacrifice myself for my country. My brother will take the reins of power, and he and all his ministers will pay with their heads if they pay any ransom for me.”

Recently, several Israel Defense Forces officers in the reserves did the same. Upon being called to active duty, they sent a letter to the minister of defense and the chief of staff of the Israeli army stating that if they fall in enemy hands, they don’t want the government to pay any price for their release. Furthermore, they demanded that in case they become POWs, the government shouldn’t listen to their pleas, because obviously, they would be the result of their captors’ pressure.

All this is about living POWs. But what about dead ones? How far should a government go in order to bring a dead soldier to burial?

When it comes to Israel, the answer is never simple. According to Jewish religious law and tradition, burying the dead is a very sacred commandment. Furthermore, until a dead POW is buried, he is considered missing in action, leaving families in endless, agonizing doubt. If he was married, according to Jewish law, his wife is considered aguna (‘ ‘anchored”in marriage) and can’t remarry.

This is why in the case of Capt. Ron Arad, a jet fighter navigator who became POW in 1986 in Lebanon and has since disappeared, Israel went to great lengths to gain any shred of information about him. At one point, it was suspected that he was killed and buried anonymously in the Jewish cemetery in Damascus.

Ideas were floated to send an elite unit there with a helicopter to find out. Yet when Batya Arad, the mother of the missing navigator, heard about it, she adamantly refused: “I don’t want any soldier to risk his life for a dead body.”

So the debate rages on, touching sore nerves, with no clear-cut answers. It was Geula Cohen, who was a fighter in the prestate, anti-British underground Lehi (Stern Gang), who summed up the dilemma.

“If my son, Tzahi [Knesset member Tzahi Hanegbi, chairman of the Foreign Relations and Security Committee] were taken POW,”she said in one of the controversies over prisoner exchanges, “I would have fought like a lioness that the government should pay any price for his release.”

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

Uri Dromi is a columnist based in Jerusalem.

Lawsuit re POW swap involves L.A. family; Student writes guide for U.K.


Lawsuit Filed to Block Israeli Prisoner Swap Involves L.A. Family’s Missing Son

A day after the Israeli government agreed to trade five Lebanese prisoners for the bodies of two Israeli soldiers whose kidnapping sparked the 2006 war with Hezbollah, a lawsuit was filed in Jerusalem by the families of 12 Iranian Jews who have been missing since they attempted to emigrate from Iran in the early 1990s.

Six of the families now live in Israel. But one, the Tehranis, moved to Los Angeles in 1994 and still await their eldest son’s arrival. The lawsuit argues that any deal with Hezbollah, which would reportedly include information from Israel about the fate of four Iranian diplomats who went missing in Lebanon in the early ’80s, must advance the effort to locate and free the missing Iranian Jews, ages 15 to 60 when they disappeared.

“For the families of the missing Persian Jews, the decision to release information on the whereabouts of the disappeared Iranian officials means that they simply will have no other leverage from any quarter to influence the Islamic regime to provide information about their loved ones,” said Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, the plaintiffs’ attorney. “Several of the wives are agunot [‘ chained’ women who cannot remarry], and many of the families are on the verge of economic collapse after 14 years.”

“The High Court promised the families two years ago that it would compel the [Israeli] government to undertake every possible step to secure information concerning the missing Jews from the Islamic regime, and now the Cabinet has recklessly voted to simply turn over the information without making any effort at a quid pro quo,” Darshan-Leitner continued. “Being the guardian of the world Jewish community is not merely something our officials should only pontificate about at Israeli bond dinners, its something they are obligated to fulfill at every juncture.”


Israel National TV talked to one of the missing Iranians’ family in Israel

Babak Tehrani was 16 and evading military service when his parents paid smugglers to transport him into Pakistan. Babak’s parents and two younger brothers planned to meet him in Vienna and then continue on to Los Angeles. They haven’t heard from him since they said goodbye in 1994, their only hope a 12-year-old report from a friend who said he saw Babak in a notorious Iranian prison.

The Iranian government has denied any knowledge of the missing men. During a 2006 visit to the United States, Mohammad Khatami, a relative moderate who was Iran’s president from 1997 to 2005, was sued by the families for ignoring their pleas, despite allegedly being aware of the missing Jews’ whereabouts. A decision is pending in Virginia District Court.

“There is not even a moment when we don’t think about the situation,” Siamak Tehrani, Babak’s younger brother, said after the 2006 lawsuit was filed. “We open our eyes in the morning, and we think about this until we go to bed at night.”

— Brad A. Greenberg, Senior Writer

L.A. Rabbinical Student Writes Guide to Aid Reform Movement in Great Britain

In a country where a high percentage of Jews are Orthodox — or, as the joke goes, the synagogue they don’t attend is Orthodox — other movements often struggle to attract more people.

That’s where the American Jewish Reform community — particularly Los Angeles’ — comes in.

Danny Burkeman, a fourth-year rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles, wrote “Leading a Community in Prayer,” an educational resource to accompany the new prayer book for Great Britain’s Reform movement. The siddur, “Forms of Prayer,” is the first egalitarian prayer book in England to use gender-neutral language, and it also includes traditional songs and prayers that had been left out of the 1977 Reform prayer book.

Burkeman, on the phone from London, where he is visiting for the summer, said he has learned much about spirituality from living in Los Angeles. “It’s such a wonderful and warm community,” he said. “The American Reform movement is such a confident movement; there’s such a variety of programs and projects that the Reform movement in England hasn’t been able to do.”

The new prayer book will bring the British Reform movement more in line with the U.S. Reform movement, Burkeman said. His guide discusses how to lead prayers and what it means to be a prayer leader, and provides prayer planning sheets. It can be useful to Reform Jews everywhere.

Once Burkeman, 29, is ordained as a rabbi, he plans to return to England for some years to share what he’s learned here in Los Angeles, such as the music and the synagogue atmosphere. (“There’s more Jews in Los Angeles than there is in the whole of England.”)

But the good news, he said, is that the new prayer book will help move Britain’s Reform Jews into the new millennium.

“It’s a dynamic Judaism that continues to grow,” he said. “A new siddur is necessary to speak to the next generation.”

— Amy Klein, Religion Editor

Local Soccer Coaches Make Cut for 18th Israeli Maccabiah Games

The 18th Israeli Maccabiah Games are still more than a year away, but the team selection process has already begun. Two local soccer coaches, Wendi Whitman and Michael Erush, have made the cut.

Whitman, head assistant coach at Cal State Long Beach, will be assisting Barry Kaplan in coaching the junior girls team. Whitman, a former Maccabi USA soccer player and goalkeeper for Stanford University, coached the junior girls team during the 17th Maccabiah Games in 2005 and last year’s Pan American Maccabi Games.

Erush, assistant coach at Loyola Marymount University, will serve as assistant coach on the Maccabiah men’s soccer team. He played defensive midfielder for Loyola from 2000 to 2003 and took silver during the 2005 Maccabiah Games.

— Molly Binenfeld, Contributing Writer

Sinai Temple, Sinai Akiba Celebrate Major Renovation Completion

Sinai Temple and Sinai Akiba Academy joined together to commission a major redesign of Sinai Akiba Middle School by architect Zoltan Pali. The $9.5 million improvement project included raised ceilings, wider hallways and new classrooms, along with updated equipment and technology, computer lab, renovated gym and an expanded library that is also open to the congregation.