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entries tagged with: Linda Gradstein


Five years on, Shalit’s imprisonment an open wound for Israel

Published: 01 July 2011

JERUSALEM – Michal Naamani traveled to Jerusalem from her home near Kfar Saba to hand out yellow ribbons to passers-by and bumper stickers to motorists reading “Gilad is alive.”

Naamani, a high school teacher, felt that she wanted to do something to help captive Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

“I’m a mother. I have a younger brother doing reserve duty,” Naamani told JTA last Friday, the day before the fifth anniversary of Shalit’s capture in a raid on the Gaza-Israel border that left two other soldiers dead. “I’m here because if it was my son, I would want someone to support me as well.”

Shalit’s family members have done practically everything they can think of to keep Gilad in the public eye.

Last year they marked the anniversary of his capture by marching from their home in northern Israel to Jerusalem, with thousands of Israelis joining them for part of the way. This year Gilad’s older brother, Yoel, disrupted Israel’s state ceremony on Israeli Independence Day.

“We say to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, you have no mandate to sentence Gilad to death,” Noam Shalit, Gilad’s father, said during a news conference Sunday morning outside the prime minister’s official residence in Jerusalem, where the family announced a new campaign to garner more tangible public support for striking a deal to bring home Shalit.

Shalit family members chained themselves together outside the residence in Jerusalem on Saturday night, as hundreds of supporters gathered in support. Others protested outside Netanyahu’s home in Caesarea.

Meanwhile, dozens of Israeli celebrities and politicians marked 24 hours beginning Saturday night at Herzliya Studios, Israel’s largest TV facility, with each spending an hour in “solitary confinement” in solidarity with the captured soldier.

Netanyahu, meanwhile, announced that his government had accepted a German-mediated deal to free Shalit.

“This proposal was harsh; it was not simple for the State of Israel,” Netanyahu said Sunday in a statement released after the weekly cabinet meeting. “However, we agreed to accept it in the belief that it was balanced between our desire to secure Gilad’s release and to prevent possible harm to the lives and security of the Israeli people. As of now, we have yet to receive Hamas’s official answer to the German mediator’s proposal.”

Netanyahu did not specify the terms of the proposal, but said that “The State of Israel is ready to go far, more than any other country, in order to secure Gilad’s release but it is my responsibility, and the responsibility of those who are sitting here, to see to the security and lives of the Israeli people.”

But the news came on Tuesday that Hamas rejected the German-mediated offer

Hamas political bureau deputy chief Mousa Mohammed Abu Marzouk in an interview with the Al Hayat newspaper called the offer “unjust” and said the German mediator “endorsed the unfair and unjust positions of the Zionist government,” according to reports.

Hamas will no longer negotiate with the German mediator, he added.

“There is no chance that the German mediator will return because he is not carrying out his duties and is failing in his mission,” Marzouk said. “We all expected that he would present a fair and not extreme position. But instead of trying to reduce the demands of the Israeli government, he accepted its terms.”

Five years on and without a clear sign that a prisoner-exchange deal with Hamas is in the offing or even that their son is still alive, the Shalits have become a symbol of what Israelis — whose children are subject to mandatory military service — fear most.

“Gilad Shalit is every Israeli parent’s worst nightmare,” Israeli journalist Stuart Schoffman told JTA.

Some Israelis say that Shalit also has become a symbol of Israelis’ frustration with Hamas, the terrorist group that rules the Gaza Strip and is believed to have authority over Shalit’s captors. A few Israeli military officials have expressed concern that Shalit’s capture might sap motivation among young Israelis to sign up for combat units in the Israel Defense Forces.

But Meir Elran, an expert on the Israeli army at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv, says motivation remains high.

“Thousands and thousands of people were killed in battle in the last 63 years,” he said. “People who go to combat units know that this is a dangerous business and you take a risk of not coming back.”

Shalit was 19 when he was taken captive. Assuming he is alive, he is now 24. Despite repeated requests, including one this week, the Red Cross has never been allowed to visit Shalit.

He is believed to be held somewhere in Gaza, probably in an underground bunker. His face has become ubiquitous in Israel — seen on posters, balloons, T-shirts, and bumper stickers. The Israeli public has not received any sign of life of Shalit since September 2009, when a video was released showing him looking wan but unharmed. Hamas has rejected an appeal by the Red Cross for a new video.

For several years, Israel has been negotiating with Hamas indirectly over Shalit. Hamas’ demands have not changed: the release of 1,000 Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails, among them dozens of men convicted of murdering Israelis.

Netanyahu announced this week that because Hamas would not allow Shalit a Red Cross visit, Israel would be stiffening conditions for Palestinians in Israeli jails convicted of terrorism, among other things eliminating their ability to obtain an academic degree while in prison.

A survey released this week found that 63 percent of Israelis support a deal to free Shalit. There has been a flurry of diplomatic activity in recent weeks and even rumors that the deal was on the verge of being signed. Some Israeli analysts say that Hamas needs the PR boost that a large-scale prisoner release would provide, especially if Palestinian elections take place in the next year.

Support for Hamas in Gaza has dropped; recent polls show Hamas trailing far behind the more moderate Fatah.

Yet unless Hamas significantly softens its demands, the chances of a deal appear slim.

Schoffman says this has fueled public displeasure with Netanyahu.

“It has exacerbated dissatisfaction with the current government, regardless of one’s political affiliation,” he said. “Most Israelis say, ‘Make this happen already, this is outrageous.’ “

Israel has agreed to swaps with terrorist groups twice in recent memory.

In 2004, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon agreed to a prisoner exchange for Israeli businessman Elhanan Tannenbaum, a reservist in the Israeli army who was lured to Lebanon for a prospective drug deal and then taken hostage by Hezbollah. Israel released 435 Lebanese prisoners in exchange for Tannenbaum and the bodies of three Israeli soldiers Hezbollah had in its possession.

In 2008, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert agreed to release five prisoners, including a notorious Lebanese man serving four life sentences for murder, in exchange for the bodies of two Israeli soldiers. The soldiers, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, were taken captive days after Shalit’s capture in a Hezbollah attack thought to have killed them and that sparked the 34-day war between Hezbollah and Israel in 2006.

Last Friday, Shalit’s parents, Noam and Aviva, spent the morning at a memorial ceremony for one of the soldiers who was killed the day that Shalit was captured. Then they came to Jerusalem to spend Shabbat in the protest tent opposite the prime minister’s residence, a fixture now for several years.

“We’re different from other countries that would never let 1,000 prisoners go for just one soldier,” said Naamani, the teacher. “He went to protect this country, and we owe it to him and his family to bring him back.”

JTA Wire Service


Six years on, lessons of Gaza withdrawal resonate for west bank

SHILOH, west bank – Yisrael Medad remembers when just eight families lived in the red-roofed homes in this Jewish settlement deep in the hills of the west bank.

Now some 2,500 Israelis live here, and Shiloh has playgrounds, schools, and a yeshiva. The red-roofed homes sprawl over several hills, and new homes continue to be built. At the bottom of the hill is the archeological excavation of the biblical Shiloh, where the tabernacle is believed to have been built.

Shiloh is often cited as one of the settlements likely to be uprooted under any final peace deal with the Palestinians. It is relatively isolated, about 28 miles north of Jerusalem, and halfway between the Palestinian cities of Ramallah and Nablus.

But with little movement in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, Shiloh is not likely to disappear anytime soon. And even in the long term, any discussion of dismantling Jewish settlements in the west bank is haunted by Israel’s experience six years ago this summer, when the removal of some 9,000 settlers from their homes in the Gaza Strip was followed by a Hamas takeover of Gaza and rocket attacks against Israel.

“The expulsion from Gaza should serve as a warning for any withdrawal from Judea and Samaria,” said Hamutal Cohen of the Committee for the Residents of Gush Katif, which was the largest bloc of Jewish settlements in Gaza. “The government totally failed with 9,000 settlers. How can they manage with tens of thousands?”

Only 20 percent of the 1,700 families forced to leave Gaza have moved into permanent homes, according to the committee. Many, especially farmers, have not been able to find work.

“You can’t fix the trauma and crisis these people are still suffering six years later,” Danny Danon, a Knesset member from the Likud Party, told JTA. “Marriages have broken up and a lot of kids dropped out of school. People still live like refugees.”

There is great debate in Israel over whether the withdrawal from Gaza, which then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon carried out in August 2005, was a strategic failure or success.

On the one hand, Israel no longer had to deal with the daily security threats and headache of protecting 9,000 Jews in Gaza. And on the diplomatic front, Israel’s withdrawal ended Israel’s formal occupation of the coastal strip, which it had captured from Egypt in 1967 but never incorporated into Israel proper.

On the other hand, a year after the Israeli withdrawal, Hamas seized control of Gaza and rocket fire from Gaza into southern Israel increased dramatically. At the end of 2008, Israel launched a three-week war to stem the rocket fire, drawing international condemnation for its military actions. Over the last few years, Palestinian advocates also have argued that Israel’s blockade of Gaza, which has loosened recently, constituted a de facto continuation of the occupation.

Danon says the Gaza withdrawal was clearly a mistake and a west bank pullback would be an even bigger mistake. Citing the rocket threat, he noted that an Israeli withdrawal even from part of the west bank would leave central Israel — including Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Ben-Gurion Airport — well within Palestinian rocket range.

“People in Israel were willing to pay a heavy price in exchange for a real peace, but now they feel betrayed,” Danon said. “They feel like it was all for nothing.”

Then there’s the military challenge inherent in any west bank withdrawal. During the pullout from Gaza, many in Israel speculated that pro-settler soldiers and officers would disobey orders to evacuate the Gaza settlers. That did not happen and most soldiers did their jobs. The few who in good conscience felt they could not perform this duty were quietly excused.

But a withdrawal from the west bank could be different. For one thing, the number of settlers whose communities would not be annexed to Israel could exceed 80,000 (an estimated 320,000 Jews are living in west bank settlements, not including eastern Jerusalem, which Israel annexed).

Yossi Klein Halevi, a journalist and a fellow at Jerusalem’s Shalom Hartman Institute, says support for Jewish settlers in the west bank has gone mainstream in a way that support for settlements in Gaza never did.

“Two generations have grown up in Israel who see the settlements not only as part of Israel but as the heart of Israel,” Halevi told JTA. “Any withdrawal from the west bank would involve mass refusal of soldiers to follow orders, and I am deeply worried about the ability of the army to continue to be an effective fighting force.”

Halevi estimates that Jewish settlers and their supporters make up 40 percent of some combat units; an Israeli army spokesman said the IDF does not release figures “on such a sensitive subject.” Orthodox men, who constitute a wellspring of support for the settlements, continue to volunteer for combat units in large numbers.

These Orthodox youth also are fiercely loyal to their rabbis. When Israeli police recently detained Rabbi Dov Lior of the Jewish settlement of Kiryat Arba to question him on charges of incitement and racism, hundreds of Orthodox youth in Jerusalem blocked streets and clashed with police. If Lior issued a ruling that it is forbidden to force Jews to leave Jewish settlements in the west bank, many Orthodox Jewish soldiers might find themselves torn.

Gershon Baskin of the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information says such fears are overstated and that most religious soldiers would follow the orders of the army, not their rabbis.

“Israel is a state where the rule of law works,” Baskin told JTA. “If there’s a democratic decision which is seen as legitimate, supported by Knesset, and perhaps backed by a referendum, the public will not be behind any settlers who will take the law into their own hands and use violence.”

“It will be much more traumatic than the Gaza withdrawal. But if people are convinced that peace is going to be real and settlement withdrawal would be gradual and incremental over time,” they would support it, he said.

It’s not clear whether Jews who live in settlements like Shiloh would have the option of staying on under Palestinian sovereignty or whether they would want to remain. Some Palestinian officials, including Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, have welcomed the idea, but PA President Mahmoud Abbas has expressed reservations.

“If a Palestinian state is created and my security could be ensured, I would definitely choose to stay,” said Medad of Shiloh, who has lived in the settlement since 1981.

JTA Wire Service


Wedding ‘revolution’ slowly growing in Israel

Modern Orthodox women seek to bypass rabbinate for more inclusive ritual

Published: 02 December 2011

JERUSALEM – Anna Melman and Ari Bronstein are in the midst of planning their wedding, which will be held next month in Israel. They have a venue and a rabbi. They want, however, to find ways of making the traditional ceremony more egalitarian.

“In the wedding ceremony as it is now, the bride is inherently passive,” Melman said. “We wanted to do something where it would be more egalitarian within the confines of a non-egalitarian ritual. I wanted to have more of a voice.”

They plan to modify the ceremony while staying within the confines of halachah, or Jewish law — something essential in a country where all Jewish weddings must be sanctioned by an Orthodox-controlled rabbinate.

Melman and Bronstein are planning a joint “tisch” — the traditional bridegroom’s table, where the bridegroom signs the marriage contract and offers words of Torah. In their case, both the bride and groom will speak. The couple also will sign a “partnership agreement” in addition to the standard ketubah, or marriage contract.

“I wanted to be more involved than just sitting in a chair and looking pretty,” Melman said.

Increasingly, Israeli couples are seeking to create weddings that are more reflective of their own lifestyles. Because Israel has no civil marriage, however, meaning that the officially sanctioned rabbinate retains exclusive control over marriage and divorce, this puts many couples in Israel on a collision course with that rabbinate.

“The area of marriage is one of the most bitter areas of tension between secular Israelis and the religious establishment,” said Nachman Rosenberg, executive vice president of Tzohar, a Zionist rabbinic organization seeking to bridge gaps between secular and Orthodox Israelis.

In Israel, weddings must be performed by an Orthodox rabbi from a list approved by the Office of the Chief Rabbinate. Most of these rabbis are charedi, as are most of the 182 government-appointed regional rabbis in Israeli towns and cities who issue marriage licenses to couples who live in their cities.

Scare tactics

Some Israeli couples are put off by the bureaucracy of the rabbinate, others by mandatory “bride’s classes” in which critics say that brides often are told that if they do not observe the laws of family purity and go to a mikvah regularly, they or their children will be plagued by disease.

Secular Israelis long have bypassed the rabbinate entirely by obtaining marriage licenses overseas, which in turn are recognized by Israel. In 2008, for example, 5,028 Israeli couples married in nearby Cyprus, according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, while 37,188 Jewish couples married in Israel through the rabbinate. Many of those who married in Cyprus held their own non-official weddings in Israel without the rituals required by the rabbinate.

A growing number of Israeli couples, however, want alternatives in Israel that are recognized by law yet bypass the “acceptable” rabbis. Organizations such as Tzohar have been offering such alternatives to rabbinate-officiated weddings, allowing couples to add personal touches to their wedding ceremonies while staying within the confines of Jewish law.

Tzohar rabbis do not charge for their services. The rabbis from the official list are not supposed to charge, either, but many suggest a “tip” that is usually about $250, several officials in both the Office of the Chief Rabbinate and Tzohar confirmed. Tzohar now handles some 3,000 couples annually.

“We try to make the wedding an uplifting and positive experience,” Rosenberg said.

Recently, tensions between the rabbinate and Tzohar erupted when Israel’s Ministry of Religious Affairs announced that Tzohar rabbis would no longer be allowed to perform weddings. In a bit of a legal fiction, Tzohar was marrying couples throughout the country but registering them in towns whose official rabbis are sympathetic to Tzohar. The ministry said weddings must be registered in the town where they are performed.

Quick reversal

“It is very important that the rabbi doing the wedding know the couple and know 100 percent that they are Jewish,” Rabbi Rasson Amrusi, the chief rabbi of the Israeli city of Kiryat Ono and the chairman of the Rabbinate’s Marriage Committee, said in an interview. “That is why we want the registration to be where the couple lives.”

Tzohar and its supporters, however, saw the bid as a power play by the charedi-dominated rabbinate to disenfranchise the more liberal Orthodox rabbis employed by Tzohar. Following a public outcry, the Religious Affairs Ministry backed down. However, several days later, the Chief Rabbis Council in essence reversed the decision by threatening to remove accreditation from any rabbi who registers a wedding performed by a member of Tzohar.

Irit Koren, author of a book about Orthodox Jewish marriage called “You Are Hereby Consecrated to Me,” says that many of those seeking alternatives are observant Jewish women looking for new rituals to make the marriage ceremony more meaningful to them, meaning more egalitarian in nature.

“As opposed to most secular women, who are concerned mainly with their dress and makeup, these women are very knowledgeable about Judaism and they put a lot of thought into what the ritual means,” Koren said. “They deal with the tension between halachah and ideology.”

No to double ring ceremony

Amrusi says the rabbinate’s rabbis try to be sensitive to the desires of the couple but they cannot violate Jewish law. He says exchanging rings during the traditional ceremony is forbidden because only the man’s ring can signify the “kinyan,” or acquisition, of a wife by her husband.

“The groom gives the ring, but he also takes on the obligation of taking care of the bride,” Amrusi said. “If she gave a ring, it would mean she is taking on the obligation to take care of the groom. Giving a ring is not a great honor, it’s a responsibility.”

Nevertheless, many couples want to find a way to exchange a token of their affection.

“One thing I suggest is to have the bride and groom give each other a tallit under the chupah,” said Rabbi Haviva Ner-David, founder of Reut, the Center for Modern Jewish Marriage.

Since the chupah symbolizes the groom’s home, Ner-David also suggests that instead of the groom waiting under the chupah for the bride to be led to him, he wait just below the chupah and they enter together. Together they can also break the glass, which symbolizes the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. Women also may read English translations of the Seven Blessings, or add an eighth blessing. Many women also make their own chupot.

Koren says that efforts to change the wedding ceremony are only the first step in making Orthodox Jewish ritual more egalitarian.

“The change in the previous generation was that women began seriously learning Torah for the first time,” she said. “Reform in marriage will happen eventually, but I can’t tell you how long it will take.”

JTA Wire Service

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