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.