Monday, September 25, 2006

Bring Them Home

Disclaimer: I hope this article becomes obsolete before publication. I sincerely hope the captives are free when this article runs two weeks from now.

Does your conscience bother you? Well, it should. I have my own blunders to reflect on during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. But some failures are communal, and this year, our entire community’s conscience should be troubled. Our community has forgotten her captive sons.

Gilad Shalit, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev are still held prisoner by Hamas and Hezbollah. The Red Cross cannot visit them, and there has been no independent verification of their condition. No one knows if they are alive or dead.

Because of these three young men, Israel has gone to war. This war has left Israel with a huge casualty total, and still, Gilad, Ehud and Eldad are not home.

Of course there was no guarantee that this war would bring the captives freedom. But where have we been since the end of the war? These captives are not exactly the cause celebre of the Jewish world. There have been rallies in Tel Aviv and New York. Is that all we can expect from a people that believes that each Jew is responsible for the other?

Freeing captives is a fundamental Jewish value. The Exodus narrative instills in Jews a profound love of freedom. Exile made the ransoming of slaves an all too common event, and a communal priority. Most importantly, the commandment to free captives is rooted in kinship and community.

Kinship is the starting point of Jewish identity. Abraham risks his life to save his nephew Lot from captivity. Actually, he can’t stand Lot; but family is family, and saving Lot is the responsibility of kinship. (Years later, Abraham’s great grandchildren will commit the cardinal sin of kinship, and sell their brother into slavery. For that sin, the Jewish people will be exiled to Egypt). Jews throughout the ages have emulated Abraham, and gone to heroic lengths to free their captive brethren.

In the Middle Ages, Jews emptied their savings to ransom captives. In 1286, the Jewish community collected 23,000 Marks (the contemporary equivalent of 15,000,000 dollars) to ransom Rabbi Meir of Rothenberg. (Rabbi Meir refused to allow them to pay the ransom). Israel’s history is filled with dramatic rescue efforts like Entebbe and Operation Solomon, as well as lopsided prisoner exchanges like the Jibril Deal. Jews don’t ignore their captive brothers.

Today, we must raise our voices to help Gilad, Ehud and Eldad. We must mention their names at every Jewish event, pray for them every Shabbat, and write letters to our MP’s. We need to support their families, and we must march on the Iranian embassy in Ottawa.

It’s time for the Jewish world to take responsibility for the captives. We need to let the world know their continued captivity is an outrage. And we need to bring Gilad, Ehud and Eldad home.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Here's an op-ed describing Jewish sensitivities regarding the captives. I urge all of you to sign on at the ADL website. We also need to get a campaign of support for these captives going here in Canada.

Israel and Her Captives

Would 300,000 Canadians rally for three missing soldiers?

In a country where politics is the national obsession, it was a singular event: a rally without a political message. On August 31st, over 60,000 Israelis squeezed into Rabin Square in Tel Aviv to demand the return of three Israeli soldiers kidnapped by Hamas and Hezbollah. Israelis from all walks of life, from the deeply religious to secular cosmopolitans, joined together to rally for the three captives, Ehud Goldwasser, Eldad Regev and Gilad Shalit. On a moment’s notice, this large crowd came out to show solidarity with the kidnapped soldiers.

It is hard to imagine a similar response taking place in Canada. In Israel, 60,000 people, one percent of the total population, showed up at this rally. Would 300,000 Canadians show up to rally for three soldiers? The Israeli dedication to rescuing any citizen in distress is exceptional. Israel’s history is filled with dramatic rescue efforts like Entebbe and Operation Solomon, as well as lopsided hostage negotiations.

Over the last twenty years, Israel has released over 6,000 prisoners in order to bring home nineteen soldiers and eight bodies of soldiers. In the famous “Jibril Deal," of May 1985, three soldiers were returned to Israel in exchange for 1150 Palestinian prisoners. Indeed, Israel’s enormous emphasis on repatriating captive soldiers is often exploited at the negotiating table.

Israel’s concern for captives has deep roots. Jewish law requires the community make the rescue of captives its number one priority. The Talmud considers the redemption of captives to be the most important religious commandment.

This emphasis on releasing captives is also a product of Jewish history. The Exodus from Egypt, arguably the most important event in Jewish history, places personal freedom at the center of Jewish ideals. The experience of exile plays a decisive role as well. As a minority without rights, Jews were particularly vulnerable to imprisonment and slavery. Captivity was more than a personal problem; it was an existential danger, one which threatened the morale of the entire community. The religious responsibility of ransoming captives became a way for Jews to achieve a sense of security in an insecure age.

Of course, the Jewish community’s diligence in redeeming captives was noticed by kidnappers. As a result, the ransom for captive Jews was often pegged at a very high amount, and Jews were targeted by pirates and highwaymen. In response, the Mishnah, an 1,800 year old text, decreed that communities must refuse to pay a higher than usual ransom for Jewish captives. (Yes, there was once a “normal” price for ransoming captives). Paying too high a ransom was now considered a hazard to the community, a course of action that would encourage future kidnappings.

The Mishnah’s decree on ransom engendered a great deal of debate. The emotional instinct to free captives and the rational response to limit ransoms often clashed. Sometimes the emotional instincts won out, and medieval Rabbis accepted several loopholes to allow the payment of large ransoms. At other times, communities acted more carefully, and refused to pay irresponsibly high ransoms. In one celebrated incident, a famous 13th century Rabbi, Meir of Rothenburg, spent the last seven years of his life in prison because he refused to allow his community to pay a ransom for his release.

In contemporary Israel, this debate continues to rage. On January 29, 2004, Israel released more than 430 Arab prisoners in exchange for the bodies of three kidnapped Israeli soldiers and an Israeli businessman who had been abducted in Abu Dhabi. This exchange was hotly debated in Israel, and ratified by an 11-10 vote of the Israeli cabinet. Many argued that the Mishnah’s logic remains persuasive, and any disproportionate exchange will only encourage future kidnappings. However, most Israelis backed the government’s actions. Supporters of these lopsided exchanges argue that in a country with universal military service, it is necessary for each soldier to know that he will not be abandoned in the field. In their view, making sure that no soldier is left behind is now part of the Israeli social contract and critical for military morale.

What remains unquestioned is the enormous emphasis all Israelis place on the redeeming captives. In the coming weeks, as various negotiations on the ceasefire in Lebanon move forward, headlines will begin to turn to the fate of the kidnapped soldiers. The safe return of Gilad Shalit, Eldad Regev, and Ehud Goldwasser will play a critical role in the future stability of the region.

From an Israeli perspective, this makes eminent sense. After all, Israel is a country nourished by Jeremiah’s vision “that the children shall return to their homeland”. Israel simply cannot forget its lost children, and abandon three young men in the field.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Why Are Fringe Rabbis on the Front Page?

By: Chaim Steinmetz

No news story about an anti-Israel protest would be complete without a quote from a member of the Neutrei Karta, a group of Ultra- Orthodox Jews who oppose Israel. Indeed, at a recent anti-Israel rally, the Montreal Gazette, put a picture of a Hassid holding a placard on its front page. But who are the Neturei Karta, and are they truly newsworthy?

In the early 1900’s, before the State of Israel existed, Zionism was debated among Orthodox Jews. A significant group supported Mizrachi, a religious Zionist organization that worked together with secular Zionists. However, many Orthodox Jews rejected Zionism. Some, part of a coalition called Agudath Israel, were concerned by the lack of religiosity in the secular Zionist leadership. A much smaller group, coalescing around ultra-Orthodox groups in Hungary and the Edah Hacharedis organization in Jerusalem, took the extreme view Zionism was a heresy. In their view, Jewish belief in a Messiah obliged loyal Jews to wait for the Messianic redemption, rather than take matters into their own hands. The group most prominent in contemporary demonstrations, the Neturei Karta, was formed in the mid-1930’s as a radical breakaway from the Edah Hacharedis.

The Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel transformed Orthodox views on Zionism. Rabbi Issacher Shlomo Teichtal, a prominent anti-Zionist, became a religious Zionist because of the Holocaust. Formerly anti-Zionist groups, such as the Hassidic communities of Belz, Klausenberg, and Lubavitch, adopted a more positive and pragmatic view toward the new Jewish state. Indeed, Agudath Israel had its representatives sign Israel’s Declaration of Independence. For most Orthodox Jews, rejectionist anti-Zionism was a matter of the past. Even many of those who have retained an anti-Zionist stance, such as Satmar Hassidim, currently value Israel as place where Jews can live in safety, and refuse to make any common cause with Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas.

Today, the Neturei Karta have about 1,000 supporters. Finding themselves more isolated than ever, the Neturei Karta’s theology has grown even more radical, and the behavior of its leaders is increasingly bizarre. For example, a leader of a Neturei Karta affiliated group currently living in St. Agathe, Rabbi Shlomo Elbarnes, spent time in a U.S. jail for kidnapping a teenager. For today’s Neturei Karta, anti-Zionism is the focus of their theology, and as a consequence, they demonize all Zionists as disciples of Satan.

Indeed, the Neturei Karta are enamored of Israel’s enemies and even anti-Semites. Rabbi Moshe Hirsch, the group’s elder statesman, has close ties to the Palestinian leadership, and was on Yasser Arafat’s payroll. These Neturei Karta maintain close ties to Iran’s radical regime as well. In June 2000, Rabbi Yisroel David Weiss supported Iran’s accusations that 13 Jews had spied for Israel; this, while governments around the world protested these false arrests. Neturei Karta’s leaders have also cultivated relationships with Louis Farrakhan, an American preacher known for his anti-Semitism, and Abu Hamza, a radical British cleric later imprisoned under Britain’s Terrorism Act. Because of their bizarre views and behavior, they have been condemned multiple times by other ultra-Orthodox groups, and they are viewed as infuriating oddities. Frankly, the Neturei Karta are a fringe group, even less relevant than the Amish or the Raelians.

Yet, despite being a marginal phenomena, the Neturei Karta receive a lot of media attention. Certainly, the Neturei Karta work tirelessly at public relations, issuing press releases, buying the occasional advertisement, and traveling all over North America to join with any anti-Israel group they can find. Due to sympathetic journalists, they manage to get a lot of media attention.

Of course, the Neturei Karta seem made for media. People are fascinated by Hassidic Jews in general, as exotic figures who seem to have stepped straight out of the 18th century. For journalists, the caftan wearing extremists of the Neturei Karta are an exotic “man bites dog” story, with very Jewish-looking Jews denouncing Israel. Indeed, Jewish solidarity with Israel puzzles many journalists, and leaves them searching in vain for some sort of internal Jewish discord. The Neturei Karta offer a story of internal debate unavailable elsewhere.

Contemporary media, much like pro wrestling, thrives on conflict. In that regard, the Neturei Karta are the “Andre the Giant” of pro-Israel events, protesting in order to irritate and annoy, hoping this will initiate conflict with supporters of Zionism. Sadly, when journalists give the Neturei Karta prominent coverage, they have taken a circus sideshow and put it on the front page. There are many important debates about the Middle East, but instead of those, these journalists have chosen to focus on a fringe phenomenon and consider it newsworthy.

It’s a shame the media seems to make this journalistic mistake, over and over again.

Friday, August 04, 2006

On Pacifism, Proportionality, and State Terrorism

By Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz

I have always dreamed of world peace. As a child, I was nurtured on visions of the messianic era, an epoch when soldiers world would beat their swords into plowshares. Because of this intoxicating image I have always aspired to fulfill the Psalmist's exhortation to "search for peace and pursue it".
Obviously, I can't stand wartime.

I read the newspaper, and the headlines assault me. An awful report about the dozens of civilians killed in an air raid in the village of Kana in Southern Lebanon. The story of the Al-Akhrass family, tragically wiped out while on vacation in Southern Lebanon. The ongoing saga of three Israeli soldiers held captive, uncertain if they will live or die. Yehudit Itzkovitch killed together with her 7 year old grandson, Omer, when a Kaytusha crashes into their home. There is much too much tragedy on both sides of the Israel-Lebanon border. As a supporter of Israel, it disturbs me when Israelis are killed; it disturbs me even more if Israelis have to kill.

As Golda Meir put it, "We can forgive you for killing our sons. But we will never forgive you for making us kill yours."

Considering the horrors of war, one has to examine the morality of each and every war, including this one. Of course, it is to be expected that the network of anti-Israel pundits would use the current bloodshed for polemical effect, as another opportunity to demonize Israel. However, other, more neutral voices have also questioned Israel's case for war. Some have made claims of "State Terrorism" and "Disproportionate Force", and have questioned the wisdom of Israel's strategies as well. As much as I love peace, I still cannot find any merit to these claims. Please allow me to explain why.

1. State Terrorism

Jack Todd, the sportswriter for the Montreal Gazette, has opined that Israel's actions amount to "state sponsored terrorism". He argues that if Israel strikes at Hezbollah targets in highly populated areas where there is a certainty of civilian deaths, this is same as targeting civilian lives. To Todd, Israel's actions are state sponsored terrorism, because "if you know there are going to be civilian casualties, is that not deliberate?".

This argument is the intellectual equivalent of a three base error. By Todd's logic virtually all war is a form of terrorism. No country could go to war, because every serious war will eventually cause civilian casualties.

How could the allies plan D-Day, knowing they will eventually kill civilians in the French countryside? (Let's forget for a moment the bombing of Dresden, Hiroshima and Nagasaki.) Is it possible to fight a war that will avoid civilian casualties?

What Todd has forgotten is that in the ethical realm, intention matters. In extenuating circumstances, an acceptable act that also causes a secondary, unintended and unwanted forbidden outcome is morally acceptable. (In Jewish ritual law, this category is called "p'sik reisha d'lo nicha ley"). Just like there is a major difference between a sacrifice bunt and a simple out, there is a major difference between targeting civilians and targeting combatants. Civilian deaths are always tragic. However, their deaths are not terrorism if they are unintended.

Because he ignores each side's stated intentions, Jack Todd has a problem picking out the good guys and bad guys in this war. I have no such problem.
Hezbollah openly targets Israeli civilians, and even uses Lebanese civilians as human shields; that is why they are despicable terrorists. Israel sends out warning flyers asking civilians to leave targeted areas, and endangers ground troops in order to reduce the collateral damage of an aerial bombing campaign; that is why they are the heroes. It's a shame Jack Todd is too politically correct to see this.

2. Disproportionate Force

Disproportionate force is the new mantra of internationalists such as Kofi Annan, Javier Solana, Jack Straw and Jacques Chirac. Israel, in their view, is not responding proportionately. On the surface, they may have an argument. International law does require proportionality of response. That means, to quote Michael Newton, a professor of law at Vanderbilt University Law School "if someone punches you in the nose, you don't burn their house down." So, at first glance, it would seem two kidnapped soldiers is not a large enough grievance to start a full scale war.

But let's take the nose-punching analogy a step further. Imagine if someone punched your nose every so often, frequently enough to harass you, but infrequently enough for you to justify a serious retaliation. And what if this nose puncher has promised to kill you, and is presently searching for a knife. Now let's say he's got some local bullies to help him out. All of a sudden, his promise to kill you is looking a lot more threatening.

Now you have the full picture. Even after Israel's withdrawal from Lebanon 6 years ago, Hezbollah continued to fire rockets into Israel and skirmish with Israeli soldiers on a regular basis. Israel is not fighting this war for two kidnapped soldiers; they are fighting because Hezbollah, backed by Iran and Syria, is a genuine threat to Israel. Hezbollah doesn't care much about the 3 convicted Lebanese terrorists in Israeli jails; they want to destroy Israel, piece by piece. Now, the legal judgement is quite different. Almost all legal codes, (based on passages in the Bible in Exodus 22:1-2, and the Talmud Sanhedrin 72a), recognize that one can preemptively use lethal force against a person who will become a mortal threat in the near future.

Proportionality may be a valid principle in a grievance, when one party retaliates against another for the sake of righting a wrong. But self defense is different. When it comes to self-defense, there is no reason to give a future murderer second chances, even if his his last attempt was just a measly punch.

Hezbollah will be a mortal threat to the State of Israel in the near future (if it isn't one already). Israel would be failing its citizens if it didn't defend against this threat.

3. The Arab Street

Pacifism has a mixed reputation. Most people have a healthy respect for the idealism embodied in pacifism. At the same time, there is a general recognition that pacifism is quixotic and naive. Indeed, pacifism is often an unwitting form of collaboration with evil, a formula for ensuring that the bloodthirsty and immoral triumph.

But the one area pacifism excels at is public relations. Gandhi took the world by storm with a campaign of non-violence. Certainly pacifism can be strategic, advancing one's political cause without recourse to violence.

In the current conflict, it is undeniable that public opinion in the Arab world is inflamed against Israel. From a political point of view, this is a serious loss. Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times argues that Israel should consider what I would term as "strategic pacifism". He argues that despite initial disappointments, both Spain and England succeeding in curbing the IRA and ETA through restraint. To Kristof, "The record of Spain and Britain suggests that restraint and conciliation can seem maddeningly ineffective - but they are still the last, best hope for peace."

Actually, I don't completely disagree with Kristof. Unquestionably, Israel should try to win over public opinion in the Arab world. I imagine any intelligent supporter of Israel will regret how this conflict will hurt Israel's image in the Arab world. However, Israel's predicament is far different than Spain's and England's.

Hezbollah and Hamas don't want a specific territory; they are planning nothing less than the destruction of Israel. Their entire theologically laced ideology is based on the belief that all of Israel must become an Islamic land. The upshot of this is, unlike Spain and England, Israel cannot afford to gamble; If Hezbollah succeeds, it's bye bye Israel. In addition, because Hamas and Hezbollah are religious movements, their supporters are far less likely to be swayed by any overtures Israel has to offer. In fact, these true believers will interpret any overtures by Israel as proof that their extremist ideology is triumphant.

More upsetting to me is the implication that Israel is primarily responsible to win over the Arab world. Somehow, after the vast majority of the Arab world has refused to accept the State of Israel for the last 60 years, after multiple Arab regimes have sponsored terrorist groups, Israel bears the responsibility to make nice, as if all this fuss is her fault. Perhaps, for a change, someone else should be responsible for the political change in the Middle East!

And by the way, didn't overwhelming force, as opposed to strategic pacifism, transform Germany, Italy and Japan in 1945?

4. What Now?

Ultimately, peace must remain everyone's dream. But the peace of the naive is not a peace at all. When dealing with an uncompromising, rejectionist enemy, peace is elusive. Violent enemies may require an even more violent response. At times like this, we must fight.

However, at the same time, we must continue to hope and pray for world peace, a time when every one of God's children will unite together in brotherhood and love.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Happiness Warrior is now a trademark of Chaim Steinmetz