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.