Gilad Shalit released from the military


Former captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit has been released from the Israel Defense Forces.

Shalit was officially released, at the rank of sergeant-major, on Wednesday, six months after he was freed from Hamas captivity in Gaza.

Shalit signed his release forms at his home in Mitzpe Hila in northern Israel, in lieu of going to an IDF induction center, as part of an expedited administrative procedure, according to reports.

Shalit was held in Gaza for five years after being captured by Hamas in a cross-border raid in June 2006. He was released in October 2011 as part of a swap deal between Israel and Hamas in which nearly 500 Palestinian prisoners being held in Israeli jails were released at the time of his freeing, and another 550 in December.

Following his release from Hamas captivity Shalit was classified as a disabled veteran; he received medical and psychological treatment from the military, and will continue to do so through the Ministry of Defense’s Disabled Rehabilitation Division, the Jerusalem Post reported.

American hikers released from Iran


Two American hikers who were imprisoned in Iran two years ago after they strayed across the border were released on bail.

Shane Bauer and Josh Fattal were released from a Tehran prison Wednesday into the custody of officials from Oman, who took them straight to the airport, according to reports.

The two men, both 29, were each released on $500,000 bail. They have been held in prison on charges of being spies since they, and a third hiker, were arrested on July 31, 2009 after crossing over to Iran from Iraq during a hike. Sarah Shourd was released a year ago for the same bail on medical grounds.

All three have denied the spy charges. The men were sentenced to eight years in prison; the conviction and sentence are being appealed.

Shourd and Bauer are engaged to be married. All three are graduates of the University of California, Berkeley, and were studying and traveling in the Middle East before they were arrested.

It is suspected that they have been granted bail now in order to soften up the international community as Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is in New York to attend the United Nations General Assembly. The Iranian judiciary delayed the release for a week in an apparent power struggle with Ahmadinejad.

WikiLeaks reveals secrets, backroom dealmaking—and cluelessness


A careful reading of the WikiLeaks trove of State Department cables—which is laying bare some 250,000 secret dispatches detailing private conversations, assessments and dealmaking of U.S. diplomats—reveals a notable if perhaps surprising pattern: how often they get things wrong.

Again and again the cables show diplomats, lawmakers and heads of state predicting outcomes that never come true.

A year ago, top Israeli defense officials in a meeting with their U.S. counterparts set 2010 as the absolute, must-be-met deadline to squeeze Iran on its nuclear program. Now Israeli officials say date is 2012. In a 2005 assessment, the same Israeli cadre told U.S. interlocutors that the point of no return would be Iran’s ability to enrich uranium without assistance. Iran has had that capacity for years.

In January 2008, Egypt’s intelligence chief said Hamas was isolated and would not stand in the way of a peace agreement. Hamas’ continuing control of Gaza, even after the war that broke out 11 months after the Egyptian assessment, still undercuts Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

In 2007, U.S. diplomats called Tzipi Livni an up-and-comer. Though now the leader of the Israeli opposition as head of the Kadima Party, Livni twice failed in bids to become Israel’s prime minister. The same State Dept. cable from 2007 said the Israeli military and government don’t get along—“never the twain shall meet!” But they do get along, mostly, and meet often; the lack of cooperation in 2007 was the result of the short-lived term of Amir Peretz as Israeli defense minister.

The disparities between predictions and reality reflect the on-the-fly nature of the discussions detailed in the newly revealed cables.

Ed Abington, a former U.S. consul in Jerusalem who has consulted for the Palestinian Authority, said the authors of such cables work under pressure to come up with “added value” in analysis, and fill in the vacuum with chatter that might not have any basis in reality.

“You’re looking for what you can add that makes it relevant to policy makers in Washington and elsewhere—analysis, insight,” Abington told JTA. “A lot of the reporting, in hindsight, is irrelevant.”

David Makovsky, a senior analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said facts on the ground also change rapidly—a factor that helps explain how dire Israeli predictions about Iran’s imminent weapons program have dissipated, at least for now. Part of that may be attributable to western efforts to sabotage Iran’s nuclear program. Makovsky cited to the recent success of the Stuxnet computer worm, which apparently disrupted Iranian centrifuges necessary to enrich uranium to bomb-making capacity.

Much of the material in the leaked cables offers frank U.S. assessments of everything from the temperament of foreign leaders to the shipment of arms between foes of the United States. In late 2009, U.S. officials told their Russian counterparts that they believed North Korea had shipped Iran missiles capable of hitting capitals in western Europe. The Russians were skeptical, but agreed that there was evidence of increased cooperation between the two rogue nations and that it posed new dangers.

The cables also track increasing concern among the United States, Israel and western nations that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is leading Turkey along a path to Islamism—and beyond the point of no return of accommodation with the West. In Cairo, U.S. diplomats prep secretaries of state in both the Bush and Obama administrations for meetings with Egyptian leaders and tell them to defer to Egyptian self-regard as the indispensable Arab state, while acknowledging that this perception is long past its due date.

Tracking the cables that straddle the Israeli and U.S. administrations also demonstrates that on some matters policies have changed little, if at all. Stuart Levey, the Treasury undersecretary charged with enforcing Iran sanctions, in December of 2008 reassures Israeli Mossad chief Meir Dagan that Obama is as determined as Bush was to isolate Iran through sanctions. Within a few weeks, Obama would confirm it by reappointing Levey to the job, ensuring consistency.

The leaks also show Iranian and Syrian duplicity. A 2008 memo, apparently from an Iranian source, details how Iran used the cover of the Iranian Red Crescent to smuggle officers into Lebanon in 2006 to assist in Hezbollah’s war against Israel. Syria apparently provided sophisticated weapons to Hezbollah within weeks of pledging to U.S. officials that it would not do so.

Some of those named in the leaks worried that their publication could inhibit frank dialogue. Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), was outraged that her private exchange with Netanyahu on Iran and Palestinian issues in a 2009 meeting was now public knowledge. “If Congress has no ability to have candid conversations with foreign leaders, we won’t have some of the critical information we need to make the judgments we need to make about countries like Iran,” she told The Daily Beast.

Learning to Breathe


 

For the last several years I have had a relationship with a man in prison, and I have seen how his soul has become anguished and diminished by sitting in that cell.

I met William after he was released from prison the first time, and I helped him get back on his feet. Now I write him words of comfort from the Psalms, from the Torah and from meditations that I have found to enhance an ailing spirit.

However, I have never been in prison and can barely imagine what it must be like. The Ba’al Shem Tov teaches that the soul can be compared to a piece of coal. If even the smallest spark remains, it can be fanned into a large flame; but if the spark is extinguished, the coal’s life is over. In attempting to keep William hopeful, I have learned a great deal about the human will and the effect of enslavement on the soul. In that, William’s story relates to this week’s parsha.

After 400 years of slavery in Egypt, Moses is sent to redeem the people. “And Moses spoke thus to the children of Israel and they couldn’t hear Moses because of an impoverished spirit and difficult work” (Exodus 6:9). I have long been fascinated by this existential verse in the midst of the redemption drama. Rarely do we as readers get an insight into the inner life of an individual character in the Bible, let alone into the psyche of the nation as a whole. Rashi teaches that kotzer ruach, the “impoverished spirit,” refers to “anyone who is troubled; they have short wind and breathing, and are not able to take a deep breath.” Rashi creates this drash by relating the word for short (kotzer) and troubled/despair (maitzar). In addition, maitzar is the same root as the Hebrew word for Egypt, Mitzrayim. When we are enslaved, our breath, our neshimah, is shallow and our soul, our neshamah, is unable to expand to its full potential.

Judaism offers us an exodus from our mental slavery, but many of us are too stuck in our ways to hear the call. We are begging for ways to make our lives more meaningful, richer in spirit, holier in essence. Yet, when I suggest Shabbat, prayer, tikkun olam, a life of mitzvot, the most common answer I hear is, “Sounds great rabbi, but I can’t. It is too different or too difficult. I don’t want to make changes that will make my life unfamiliar.”

This is our contemporary slavery — our Egypt is familiarity and complacency, and they are hard shackles to break. However, if we do not break them, our souls perish from lack of air and shortness of breath.

William’s incarceration is perhaps easier to understand than the spiritual enslavement I believe keeps the souls of many supposedly free people locked away. So many of us are living, without really knowing it, in our own Egypt. And the scariest part is that we do it voluntarily. Unlike my friend, William, whose imprisonment is an easily recognizable consequence of his actions, many of us have unwittingly allowed our souls to be shortened and our breath squelched in our pursuit of “happiness.” We are all slaves to something — time, work, bad habits, money, greed, insecurity, whatever. But our souls cannot survive without being nourished; and when they are not, it becomes almost impossible for us to realize that freedom, spiritual freedom, is attainable. The Israelites couldn’t hear Moses because their souls were buried and their breath, the source of life, had been shortened; likewise, we cannot hear the cry of our spirits because we are too busy and too afraid to truly listen to our own hearts.

In his comment on this verse, the Sfat Emet spells it out for us: hearing requires being empty of everything. How difficult this was for the enslaved Israelites, and how difficult for us; our inability to empty ourselves, to forget this world’s vanities, prevents our hearts from being empty and free to hear God’s word. This is why we mention the Exodus in the blessing after the Shema — we must remind ourselves daily to strive for freedom in order to hear, and to strive to hear in order to be free.

Every morning when I open my eyes, I say the words, “Elohai neshama shenatata bi tehorah hee” — “My God, the soul which you placed in me is pure.” This short meditation is what helps me to keep from drowning in my own slave mentality. I sent this message to William in my last letter; I reminded him that the Israelites, in their slavery, forgot to breathe and lost touch with their eternal, spiritual freedom. I prayed that he would keep breathing and expanding his soul so that when his physical freedom came, he could be ready to make the most of it. And that is my prayer for all of us, as a community, a nation and a universe. When redemption calls, may we have sufficient breath to answer.

Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater is the spiritual leader of the Pasadena Jewish Temple & Center. His first book, “Seeking Holiness,” has just been published and is available at www.pjtc.net. He is a certified Jewish meditation instructor and a member of the Southern California Rabbinical Council of Americans for Peace Now.

 

Five Iranian Jews Remain Jailed


Three Iranian Jews imprisoned on charges of spying for Israel have been released, but the last five remain in jail, contrary to earlier reports.

Sources close to the issue said Monday that Iranian authorities had granted the last five an indefinite furlough. On Wednesday, however, those sources confirmed that the reports from Iran were "disinformation."

That’s "why we urged people not to comment on this, because it’s happened before," said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

The uncertain status of the five seems to underscore the precarious situation faced by the entire Jewish community in Iran. They now number between 22,000 and 25,000, down from 100,000 or so prior to the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

After the three Jews were pardoned last week, hopes were raised among their families and American advocates that the remaining five would soon be freed.

Hoenlein said he was "still hopeful" that they would be released soon.

Both Israel and the Iranian Jewish community deny the men ever spied for "the Zionist regime," as Tehran alleges.

It’s unclear what led to the dissemination of the false reports.

Pooya Dayanim said Wednesday that sources in Iran informed the Council of Iranian American Jewish Organizations in Los Angeles on Monday that the five men were home with their families.

The release was confirmed the next day by an Iranian justice official in a statement to the official Iranian news agency, IRNA.

"We now know that the information given to us [was] false. The five remaining Iranian Jews are still in prison," Dayanim said.

Asked why the sources would provide erroneous information, Dayanim said, "No comment."

The five who remain in jail are Dani (Hamid) Tefileen, 29, sentenced to 13 years in prison; Asher Zadmehr, 51, also sentenced to 13 years; Naser Levy Hayim, 48, sentenced to 11 years; Ramin Farzam, 38, sentenced to 10 years; and Farhad Saleh, 33, who had received an eight-year sentence.

The three released last week — who reportedly were granted a pardon directly from Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei — were Javid Beit Yakov, 42, who had been sentenced to nine years in prison; Farzad Kashi, 32, and Shahrokh Paknahad, 24, who had received eight-year sentences.

Analysts suggested the release of the three might be due to a supposed power struggle between relative moderates in the Iranian regime who favor detente with the West and conservative clerics who have maintained a grip on power since the 1979 revolution. Analysts for months have suggested that several factors may be pressing Iran: President Bush’s lumping of Iran with Iraq and North Korea in his "axis of evil"; the prospect of a United States-led war against Baghdad; and the possibility that Iran may be the next target of America’s year-old war on terrorism.

It’s not only from Washington that Iran is feeling the heat. Europe, a significant economic partner, reportedly has cited Iran’s disregard for human rights and its treatment of minorities as impediments to improved relations.

According to analysts, the tension between Iranian hardliners and reformers influenced the original arrests.

Thirteen Jews were arrested in January and March 1999, but three were found innocent of the espionage charges and released. The other 10 were sentenced in July 2000 to jail terms of four to 13 years. The men appealed, and Tehran reduced the sentences from two to nine years in September 2000. Two men already were released after serving out their terms.

Advocates for the men say that what really bothered Iranian authorities was the men’s increasingly fervent brand of Orthodox Judaism. Most of the men were religious leaders from the southern Iranian city of Shiraz, a bastion of religious conservatism. The arrests were perceived as a warning to the rest of the community, and there was initial fear that the men might be executed.

In May 2000, after more than a year in solitary confinement, the 13 gave "confessions" for Iran’s Revolutionary Court.

But their advocates — and media, diplomats and human rights experts from around the world — pronounced the closed trial a fraud.