Terror on Trial – WSJ

An excellent piece on the subject of putting terrorists on trial.  As we continue to await the trial of KSM, it is worth contemplating the differing perspectives on what a trial like his will look like.

Expect to hear a lot about Nuremberg in the months ahead. The war-crimes trials of leading Nazis, begun in that German city in 1945, will form an important subtext as we approach the trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the accused mastermind of 9/11, and his associates. The pretrial proceedings at Guantánamo may start as soon as March.

Since 9/11, America’s attempt to balance justice and national security has drawn protests both at home and abroad. Some of the criticism has been fair, but much of it ignores the dilemmas that any administration would face in dealing forcefully with 21st-century terrorists who, unlike the defendants at Nuremberg, have not yet been defeated. Few things are harder for democracies than to render justice to enemies whose aims are both irrational and non-negotiable.

The trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed will be historic. It will address not just a group of thugs but the enduring human phenomenon of evil. Mutable and persistent, evil has not been discouraged by the progress of reason or the taming of nature. Evil reinvents itself in every age and is reinvigorated by mankind’s inevitable immaturity. Like the fascist ideology that the democratic world fought in the 1940s, the dogma of al Qaeda (and of the extremist Shiite dictators of Iran) is despotic, anti-Christian, anti-Semitic and nihilist. Like the Nazis, they cannot be appeased.

On the campaign trail in 2008, Barack Obama invoked Nuremberg. He had studied the tribunal in law school and referred to it in the context of the Supreme Court decision in the case of Boumediene v. Bush, which gave Guantánamo detainees the right to challenge their detention in federal court. Mr. Obama praised the opinion and linked it to the respect for due process, which he said, Nuremberg had exemplified. “During the Nuremberg trials, part of what made us different was even after those Nazis had performed atrocities that no one had ever seen before, we still gave them a day in court, and that taught the entire world about who we are.”

To which the most appropriate response is—up to a point. The top Nazis captured in 1945 were indeed given “their day in court.” But that court was a unique military tribunal, created specifically for the circumstances after V-E Day. The defendants were far better protected than they would have been in any Nazi court (or Soviet court, for that matter), but they certainly did not enjoy the rights of defendants in the U.S. The idea that top Nazis should have the same protections as those afforded to Americans by the U.S. Constitution never occurred to the jurists devising the rules for Nuremberg.

To some, Nuremberg will always be an example of “victors’ justice.” I believe that view is wrong and that the tribunal (where my father, Hartley Shawcross, was the chief British prosecutor) was a necessary and successful exercise of law. At Nuremberg, our civilization developed a vehicle to anathematize men imbued with evil.

Justice Robert Jackson, the chief U.S. prosecutor and the architect of Nuremberg, put it well when he spoke of the regime that the accused at Nuremberg had served: “Civilization can afford no compromise with the social forces which would gain renewed strength if we deal ambiguously or indecisively with the men in whom those forces now precariously survive.”

The scale and nature of the threats from fascism and Islamist extremism are different, but that same problem persists today. In trying both to prevent further atrocities by Islamist extremists, and to deliver justice to those detainees suspected of such crimes, President Obama has found himself, like President Bush before him, faced with decisions that test our ideals. He has been forced to shed many of his preconceptions.

On Sept. 30, 2011, drones high above Yemen targeted a car carrying Anwar al-Awlaki, a radical Islamic preacher—and an American citizen. A Hellfire missile killed Mr. Awlaki and another American jihadist travelling with him.

Mr. Obama said afterward that the successful attack, coming less than five months after the killing of Osama bin Laden by the U.S. Navy’s SEAL Team Six, was “further proof al Qaeda and its affiliates will find no safe haven in Yemen or anywhere around the world.”

The decision to use a drone to kill American citizens in Yemen was a remarkable turnaround for a politician who had criticized almost every aspect of the “war on terror” waged by his predecessor in the Oval Office. But by fall 2010, it did not come as such a surprise. By then Mr. Obama had also authorized military trials (which he once condemned) to take place in Guantánamo (which he had promised to close).

There is no question that Mr. Awlaki was a remarkably dangerous man. Born in New Mexico to Yemeni parents in 1971 and largely educated in the U.S., he spoke mellifluously and possessed a deep understanding of Western popular culture. His sermons were designed to encourage individual Muslims around the world to launch “lone wolf” attacks against all “infidels” and to persuade American Muslims to rise up against their government.

Over the Internet, Mr. Awlaki personally instructed Maj. Nidal Malik Hassan, the American Muslim soldier who murdered 13 of his colleagues and wounded 30 more in a rampage at Fort Hood in November 2009. He helped to train the so-called “underpants bomber,” Farouk Abdulmutallab, who came close to blowing up a Northwest Airlines flight over Detroit on Christmas Day 2009.

In 2010, Mr. Awlaki started to groom a British Muslim, Rajib Karim, who worked for British Airways, and instructed him to place a bomb on a flight to the U.S. Mr. Karim was arrested before the plot went far. Later that year, Mr. Awlaki’s group, al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, managed to get two bombs, disguised as printer cartridges, onto cargo planes bound for U.S. They were discovered and defused en route.

By this time, the U.S. government had decided that it had enough evidence to designate Mr. Awlaki an active terrorist threat who could be targeted. As the administration argued, over the protests of human rights groups, Mr. Awlaki was playing an operational role as part of the enemy forces covered by the legislation authorizing the use of military force that Congress had passed immediately after 9/11. Mr. Awlaki had made no attempt to surrender, and the U.S. was not able to arrest him.

As for the idea that his citizenship should give him protection from attack, it is worth recalling that in the case of Nazi saboteurs arrested in the U.S. in 1942 (the case of Ex Parte Quirin), two of them were U.S. citizens. They were nonetheless convicted and sentenced to death. The Supreme Court ruled that the U.S. citizenship of “an enemy belligerent does not relieve him of the consequences of belligerency.”

Since 9/11, drones have provided a vast revolution in warfare. They have multiplied, as missile platforms and observers, and their technology is still rapidly advancing. Soldiers can now launch drones from backpacks, and the Pentagon is experimenting with drones the size of dragonflies.

Such technological developments raise new questions about the relevance of the Geneva Conventions, whose interpretation has dominated the waging of the war on terror. P.W. Singer, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and an expert in robotic warfare, points out that the Conventions were last effectively updated in 1949, at a time when the 45-rpm vinyl record was a hot new invention. The old laws, he argues, are struggling to keep up with high-tech weapons “like the MQ-9 Reaper, which is being used to target a 21st-century insurgent who is intentionally violating those laws by hiding in a mosque or a civilian house.”

Mr. Bush used drones sparingly to attack terrorism suspects. He is said to have feared the inevitable accusation of war crimes. By the time he left office, there had been just 44 drone strikes over five years, according to the New America Foundation, all of them in Pakistan. They are thought to have killed some 400 people.

After taking office in 2009, Mr. Obama swiftly expanded the use of drone attacks on suspected Islamist terrorists in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and then in Somalia and Yemen. Drone strikes in Pakistan grew from 33 in 2008, Mr. Bush’s last year in office, to 53 in 2009. Altogether, there have been more than 240 drone attacks in Pakistan since the beginning of 2009, with a death toll of more than 1,300.

The remarkable thing about the president’s reliance on drones is how little protest, until recently, it has aroused. Waterboarding may be deemed an abuse of a terrorism suspect’s rights, but an attack by a Predator drone results (in the Vietnam-era phrase) in “termination with extreme prejudice.”

Public acquiescence in these aerial killings demonstrates the way in which political and moral judgments can be driven by perceptions of personality and politics. But even Mr. Obama’s honeymoon had to come to an end. His policy of killing suspects rather than detaining and interrogating them has come under increased scrutiny, and not just in the case of Mr. Awlaki.

John Bellinger, the former legal adviser to the State Department, argues that one of the Bush administration’s biggest mistakes was neglecting to secure international support for its novel counterterrorism policies. Unless Obama is careful, Mr. Bellinger says, his drone program could “become as internationally maligned as Guantánamo.”

“The trial of Khalid SheikhMohammed will addressnot just a group of thugs butthe enduring humanphenomenon of evil.”

As a senator and a presidential candidate, Barack Obama criticized almost all of Mr. Bush’s decisions in the “war on terror.” Two days after his inauguration in January 2009, he ordered Guantánamo shut within a year, and that November his attorney general, Eric Holder, insisted that the main 9/11 suspects at Guantánamo, including Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, would be put on trial in federal court in Manhattan.

Justice Robert Jackson, chief U.S. prosecutor at Nuremberg, argued against acting ‘ambiguously or indecisively.’

Since discovering the complexities of fighting Islamist terror, Mr. Obama has abandoned many of his earlier positions. In March 2011, he signed an executive order allowing terrorist detainees to be held indefinitely at Guantánamo. He also agreed that the base’s recently constructed courthouse should be the venue for the military tribunals that he had set out never to allow there.

Brig. Gen. Mark Martins is to perform the task that Justice Robert Jackson did at Nuremberg. He was appointed last June by the secretary of defense to be the chief prosecutor of the military commissions, which were reformed by act of Congress in 2009.

This was, by all accounts, an inspired choice. A former infantryman who has thought deeply about the history of military tribunals, Gen. Martins recently won widespread praise for his work as commander of the Rule of Law Field Force in Afghanistan.

In some ways, his task is even more daunting than that of his illustrious predecessor in 1945. Jack Goldsmith, a former Bush-administration lawyer and the author of “The Terror Presidency,” says that Gen. Martins faces a much more difficult task in legitimating the tribunals than Justice Jackson did at Nuremberg.

For his part, Gen. Martins pointed out recently, in a speech to the American Bar Association, that the military courts, as now reformed, “incorporate all of those fundamental guarantees of a fair and just trial that are demanded by our values.” Anyone accused in them enjoys far more protections than the Nazi defendants had in 1945—indeed, more than in many respected criminal justice systems around the world. Anyone convicted also will have the ultimate safeguard under American law—the right of appeal, all the way to the Supreme Court.

Why not, then, just use the federal courts to try terrorism suspects? They can be used in many cases, Gen. Martins says, but military tribunals are more appropriate, in certain cases, for the trial of non-U.S. citizens who fight in no uniform and without obeying the rules of war—”unprivileged belligerents.”

While giving great protection to defendants, the rules of military tribunals also accord more protection to the government those defendants are accused of seeking to destroy. The rules prohibit the use of statements obtained as a result of torture, or of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, but they take into account the challenges of intelligence-gathering in wartime operations overseas, do not require soldiers to give Miranda warnings to captured enemy forces, and allow an occasional hearsay statement, when it is the best available evidence from a now unavailable witness and the interests of justice are best served by considering it.

Referring to Nuremberg, Gen. Martins says that the new military tribunals cannot “make decisions to please the public or the Congress. Like our forebears, we are compelled to step back from ‘victor’s justice.’ This is what the rule of law is about. Sometimes various people or interests will not be happy. But in the end we can only do the right as we see the right…and trust that our efforts will stand the test of time.”

***

All wars involve choices between lesser evils. In a 1973 essay, the philosopher Michael Walzer described the politician who decides that he has to authorize torture to save lives. “His choices are hard,” Mr. Walzer wrote, “and he pays a price not only while making them but forever after.”

The Bush administration’s early post-9/11 decisions on Guantánamo and “enhanced interrogation” of some detainees (three were waterboarded) are believed to have provided life-saving intelligence, but each proved costly to the reputation of the U.S. Mr. Obama’s decision to kill many terrorism suspects rather than interrogate them has certainly disrupted plots and saved lives. But it carries similar costs.

This continuing crisis is not of America’s making. It stems in large part from the struggle within the Muslim world for the soul of Islam, of which the most brutal manifestation is the pitiless campaign of mass murder waged across the world by al Qaeda and its associates, most often against fellow Muslims.

Since the beginning of the 20th century, America’s commitment and sacrifices have been essential to the world’s ability to resist the forces of nihilistic aggression. That was certainly true in the war against fascism, and it is still true today. Like Mr. Bush, Mr. Obama has had to learn the hard way that, as the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr warned, “we take and must continue to take morally hazardous actions to preserve our civilization.”

—Mr. Shawcross’s new book, “Justice and the Enemy: Nuremberg, 9/11 and the Trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed,” will be published next week by PublicAffairs. His previous books include “Deliver Us From Evil: Peacekeepers, Warlords and a World of Endless Conflict” and “Murdoch: The Making of a Media Empire.”

Advertisements

Religious Isolationism and Pearl Harbor

I realize this is a few days late, but I used this article in a discussion group yesterday and found it to be thought provoking.  As you read, you will recognize how religion as influenced by society often establishes and dismisses beliefs as deemed appropriate.  Additionally, one can see some interesting parallels between then and today, even within the notion of religious isolationism. 

 

Religious Isolationism and Pearl Harbor

By on 12.7.11 @ 6:07AM

The pacificism of the post-World War I era would no longer do.

In the American psyche there’s never been an event like Pearl Harbor, 70 years ago this week. Of course, 9/11 comes closest, but it followed decades of America’s strategic involvement in the world as a superpower, including the Cold War, Korea, Vietnam, and later the Persian Gulf War and Balkans’ conflicts, among others.

Pearl Harbor followed two decades of virtual U.S. strategic isolation from most of the world’s great conflicts. Most Americans had recoiled from World War I by firmly adhering to isolationism, non-interventionism, pacifism, or various combinations of all three. Clergy of the dominant Mainline Protestant churches, post-WWI, flocked to pacifism, reinforced by the liberal, utopian, “Social Gospel” theology then ascendant in the churches. A 1931 survey showed 54 percent of nearly 20,000 clergy rejecting war. A 1934 survey showed nearly 70 percent doing the same, with Methodists the most pacifist.

Methodism was then America’s largest Protestant denomination and closely followed this trend. After enthusiastically backing WWI, the church in 1924 declared war the “supreme enemy,” while insisting “selfish nationalism, economic imperialism, and militarism must cease.” Methodist bishops visiting President Calvin Coolidge in 1926 urged “avoiding military alliances of a political and military character.” In 1928 the church renounced “war as an instrument of national policy.” 

A prominent dissenter to Methodism’s increasing pacifism in the 1920s wondered if Britain’s hypothetical intervention on behalf of massacred Armenians under the Turks might be a “high act of ethical devotion.” This clergy also suggested “to allow atheistic Russia to overthrow American civilization would be a worse crime than war.” But this view was in the minority for church elites. In 1936 Methodism declared it did “not endorse, support, or purpose to participate in war.” The bishops confidently asserted that any objector to the church’s anti-war stance had “none other refuge” within Protestantism.

In a 1939 message to the Methodists, President Franklin Roosevelt noted the “trampling under foot of the sacred right of freedom of conscience” around the world while pledging the U.S. would continue to “sustain before all the world the torch of complete liberty.” At the church’s governing General Conference that year, FDR’s 1936 presidential opponent, Republican Alf Landon, a Methodist and delegate, condemned FDR’s step away from neutrality and recommended “further discussion” with Hitler. Landon warned: “Let’s stop fooling the people that economic quarantines and economic assistance mean anything other than sending American boys into the cockpit of Europe to fight.” But Landon, a non-interventionist who was not a pacifist, angrily disagreed with most delegates who endorsed conscientious objection to U.S. military service. In 1940, even as Hitler was overrunning France, Methodism, reiterated it “will not officially endorse, support, or participate in war.”

The most prominent Methodist and churchman of that time was the Rev. E. Stanley Jones, long-time distinguished missionary to India, friend to Mahatma Gandhi, and best-selling author, whom Time magazine later recalled as the best known American preacher other than Billy Graham. Jones had loudly denounced Japan’s invasion of China while also frenetically negotiating to prevent U.S. war with Japan. His solution: give imperial Japan the island of New Guinea to compensate for her withdrawing from China and to accommodate Japan’s “surplus population.”

New Guinea, Jones argued, had only 600,000 people but could fit 20 to 40 million. It was then evenly divided between the Dutch and Australia, “neither of whom needed it,” and whom America would financially compensate. Himself an international celebrity, Jones marketed his novel idea to prominent officials, including Assistant Secretary of State Dean Acheson and the Dutch and Australian ambassadors to the U.S. He claimed he found a “good deal of sympathy,” though the Dutch ambassador insisted “no part of the Dutch Empire is for sale!” The Australian ambassador politely noted his country would fear Japan’s being at its border.

Later, Jones advocated a partial lifting of the U.S. oil embargo against Japan to induce negotiation. Ostensibly the British ambassador, Lord Halifax, was receptive and even “threw me a kiss” as Jones watched Halifax head to a meeting with the U.S. Secretary of State. Jones also met with the Chinese and Japanese ambassadors to the U.S., who were mostly respectful but noncommittal. On December 3, 1941, he met with FDR at the White House, passing along the counsel of the Japanese ambassador that the President appeal for peace directly to the Japanese emperor. The delighted Japanese then promised Jones a dinner party on December 8 and added: “The Embassy is your home.”

Japanese Ambassador Kichisaburō Nomura told Jones, as Jones recalled: “Thank you for what you are doing. Those who try to reconcile others are doing the work of Heaven for it is Heaven’s work to reconcile us.” After the December 7 Pearl Harbor attack, Jones faulted the U.S. for giving Japan an ultimatum to withdraw from China without a quid pro quo, such as New Guinea.

“Japan is the immediate cause of this war,” Jones concluded. “But America has her responsibility in the remote causes that led up to it.” Oddly, years after the war, Jones was still pushing the idea of giving defeated Japan New Guinea. He claimed that Douglas MacArthur and John Foster Dulles, when he met them, were receptive. More likely, they were polite.

Of course, Japan invaded New Guinea, with the rest of Southeast Asia and the South Pacific, after Pearl Harbor, inflicting untold savagery everywhere. In his new book, Inferno: The World at War, 1939-1945, British journalist Max Hastings reports that more than 1 million Vietnamese were starved to death during their own Japanese occupation. Japan starved all its territories to ship food to the homeland. Elderly Vietnamese told him those several years were worse than subsequent decades of war with the French and U.S. They represented only a tiny percentage of imperial Japan’s millions of victims.

In 1944, Methodism’s governing General Conference revoked its pacifism. Noting over 1 million Methodists were in the U.S. armed forces, it declared: “We are well within the Christian position when we assert the necessity of the use of military forces to resist an aggression which would overthrow every right which is held sacred by civilized men.” But the motion passed the clergy delegates by only 1 vote.

Religious pacifists in the innocent years before Pearl Harbor imagined the world, like their then well-run denominations, was innately orderly and susceptible to good will and reason. They had forgotten the savage power of human evil. Pearl Harbor reminded America then, as it should today, especially religious utopians, that peace and decent order are the hard exceptions rather than the rule for our fallen world.

Black magic widespread in Middle East

Black magic widespread in Middle East – JPost – Middle East.

While many of us would think this is merely superstitious, it is clear that much of the world still believes in traditional magic.  In the west, these are not as overtly discussed, but in the Middle East, fear of dark magic runs deep within the culture.  Keep in mind that this is not just a belief held by Islamic Arabs.  Many North African and Middle Eastern Jews also believe in the powers of magic, both for good and bad.  One book I recall reading was called Without Bounds, by Yoram Bilu, a professor of anthropology and psychology at the Hebrew University (also see here).  In it he describes the life of a lesser known North African rabbi, including discussion of demonology and magic.  The rabbi lived in the last century and his family continues to live in Israel today. As you will see from the article below, even those who recognize the “forbidden” elements of magic are hard-pressed not to be influenced by it. 

Belief in witchcraft, spells, the occult and protective charms runs deep, despite religious and governmental bans against using magic.

 

When Tara Umm Omar was a young bride in her first marriage, she and her Moroccan husband took the youngest sister of a family friend into their home. On the day the young Moroccan woman arrived, she gave Umm Omar a doll, which Umm Omar promptly placed in a dresser drawer.

When Umm Omar told a friend of the doll, the friend suspected it was an item for black magic and suggested the doll be destroyed. Instead, Umm Omar tossed it in the garbage. That’s when household items disappeared, the family dog barked incessantly, Umm Omar started fighting with her husband and she began seeing strange insects in the house. When the guest finally moved out, the couple found their bed sheets and an identical doll to Umm Omar’s among the woman’s discarded belongings.

The message to Umm Omar was clear: The woman she invited into her home sought to destroy her happiness through black magic.

Umm Omar is since remarried to a Saudi and now lives in Riyadh. She runs the popular blog, Future Husbands and Wives of Saudis, a help website for non-Saudis marrying Saudis. As a quasi-marriage counselor for brides and grooms nervously entering Saudi society, Umm Omar dispenses religious and practical advice to help ease the cultural shock. That includes providing insight to the real world concerns of black magic and the evil eye.

“The truth is that all magic is haram [prohibited] and only leads to bad ends,” Umm Omar told The Media Line.

Belief in black magic runs deep in Saudi society. The issue was raised last month when the quasi-legislative body Shoura Council granted permission for Moroccan women to work as maids in Saudi households. Hundreds of Saudi women complained to the Council that granting Moroccan maids permission to work was tantamount to allowing the use of black magic in their homes to steal their husbands. Saudi wives complained the issue was not lacking trust in their husbands, but their men were powerless to ward off spells.

While greeted with skepticism in western societies, Saudis would no more question the existence of black magic than they would Islam. Two surahs (chapters) in the Qur’an under Al Mi’wadhatyan address black magic and are often recited during or after prayer. Simply, part of being a Muslim is believing in the existence of magic.

In April of this year, members of the Saudi Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice underwent special training in the Eastern Province to investigate black magic crimes.

Although also found in Christianity and Judaism, casting spells is particularly common in Oman, Sudan, Yemen, Morocco and Indonesia. Turkey is a secular Muslim country, but protection against evil eye is deeply rooted in virtually all aspects of daily life. Tools of witchcraft include using lizards, dead birds, photographs, hair, thread, dirt, blood and red ink. Hiding places to place “spells” may be in bedrooms and under beds. Written spells generally contain the intended victim’s name and one or two words to state the intention to do harm.

In 2007, the religious police in Yanbu, Saudi Arabia, removed 23 black magic tokens, including knives and written spells on paper, from two graves in a cemetery. Black magic artists placed the tokens at the heads and feet of the corpses.

The Saudi press reported recently that evil eye was suspected in causing the death of Mastoora Al-Ahmadi, the Saudi poet who garnered international attention for her performance on “The Million’s Poet” on Abu Dhabi TV. She was the first woman to reach the semifinals in the Arabic poetry contest. Al-Ahmadi died unexpectedly on Oct. 2 in Madinah after falling into a coma.

Howaizan Muhammad, 26, of Madinah, told The Media Line that she had difficulty finding a job and failed in many interviews. And she hated the jobs she did find. She broke up with her fiancé and couldn’t find a husband. “My sister told me to read the surah Al-Baqarah to protect me against any spells,” she says. “After 14 days, my father found a spell written on paper and in blood with my name on it on the roof under our water tank.”

Muhammad says she had Indonesian maids at the time, but notes that anybody could have left the spell.

Sheikh Abu Ameenah Bilal Philips, an Islamic scholar based in Qatar and the author of The Exorcist Tradition in Islam, told The Media Line that Muslims must not fight witchcraft with their own magic but refer to the Qur’an. “There are a number of Qur’anic texts that the Prophet said should be read with reflection as a means of removing or reducing the effects of black magic,” he says. “Eating adjuwah dates from Madinah is also a means of protection.”

He notes there is a tendency to fight magic with magic, but it’s prohibited. “People should avoid charms, amulets and other things that people have proffered, which has become something of a business in the Muslim world.”

Philips acknowledges that Moroccans have an “international reputation” among Muslims for practicing witchcraft, but cautions against overemphasizing Moroccans as master artists of voodoo. “Historically they [Moroccans] are most noted for it. But they are not much different than most in the Muslim world. Chechnya and Bosnia probably engage in it more.”

Although Saudis may claim that witchcraft is at the heart of their distrust of foreign maids, Umm Omar suggests that old-fashioned power struggles and jealously play vital roles in conflicts.

“There is a factor that Saudis are more well-to-do than Moroccans and magic can be used to remove those blessings [of wealth] if [maids] dislike them,” Umm Omar says. “Saudi women are used to feeling superior over maids, and in some cases look down on them. Moroccan women do not like to be pushed around and will defend themselves. My experience with Moroccan and Saudi women is they both like to be in charge of the household and are naturally bossy.”

Umm Omar adds that if a maid feels threatened, she could resort to black magic. “Of course that is not to say that a Saudi woman won’t seek out magic to harm a Moroccan maid.”
Left unsaid in this battle of wills between Saudi and Moroccan women is the consequences of practicing black magic in Saudi Arabia. Practicing witchcraft is an offense punishable by death.

Saudi religious police arrested popular Lebanese television personality and fortuneteller Ali Sabat in May 2008 on charges of witchcraft while he was on a pilgrimage. A Saudi court sentenced him to death. But an appellate court threw out the sentence in 2010, citing lack of evidence that Sabat harmed anybody. According to Amnesty International, the last documented execution for witchcraft in Saudi Arabia was in 2007. A Saudi court sentenced Egyptian pharmacist Mustafa Ibrahim to death for casting spells in order to separate a married couple.

“Fortune telling is not just sleight of hand tricks, but involves the spirit,” says Philips. “As evil, it’s the same thing as black magic. Sharia proscribes the same punishment for both.”

Umm Omar points to ignorance and the absence of a strong foundation in the teachings of Islam that lead some Muslims to practice magic and evil eye.

Although Philips says that ignorance is no excuse for breaking laws, forgiveness should be considered. “God does forgive ignorance,” he says. “We should be more tolerant in some cases because some people are not doing [harmful] things deliberately.”

 

The Pursuit of Truth

Rabbi Angel offers a piece on this week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha, which asks the age-old question of whether or not we should acknowledge the literal story presented in front of us, specifically when it comes to whether or not the characters sinned.  He uses this as a polemic against literature that tries to gloss over the failures of the great rabbis.  In many traditions, it is inappropriate to assign sin to someone of grand stature, so instead the stock answer is that don’t really understand why they did what they did.  Now, I do believe the suspension of vulnerability and humanness among these people has led to lesser folks seriously sinning (i.e. the countless charges of sexual inappropriateness among clergy), yet the biblical element is more complicated than that.  It is difficult for some people to see a role model as being imperfect.  So instead, we gloss over or reinterpret the imperfections in a way as to exonerate the individual.

Personally, I want to see the vulnerability and the flaws.  It reminds us that we too are human and that we are all susceptible to error.  Yet, we can make mistakes and still rise to the highest of levels.  Instead, if we read about superhuman humans, we can easily feel less inspired because without the innate abilities that each has, we are merely treading water throughout life.

Some years ago, I had a conversation with a Hassidic Jew who assured me that his Rebbe never committed any sins. He stated with certainty that his Rebbe was endowed with a grand and holy soul, far superior to the soul of any other people.

When I pointed out to him that even Moses committed sins, he flatly denied that this was so. I reminded him that the Torah itself reports Moses’s shortcomings. He said: You do not understand the Torah! It is impossible that Moses could have done anything wrong. He was perfect in every way.

The conversation came to an end, with both of us unhappy with the result. He felt I did not demonstrate enough faith in the perfection of saintly personalities, and I felt he was guilty of distorting the Torah’s words and distorting the reality of the human condition.

This conversation came to mind recently when I received an email from a colleague, in which he included some important passages by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch. The comments related specifically to stories reported in Parashat Lekh Lekha—but Rabbi Hirsch’s point is of general relevance to our study of Torah…and to our evaluation of saintly individuals.

The Torah relates various problematic narratives about Abraham.  For example, when going to Egypt, Abraham feared that the Egyptians would murder him and take his wife Sarah. Abraham told Sarah to say she was his sister, rather than his wife. In spite of (or because of!) this deception, Sarah was taken to Pharaoh. Abraham was given rewards and he thrived in Egypt. When God punished Pharaoh and when Pharaoh realized that Sarah was really Abraham’s wife, Pharaoh expressed outrage to Abraham over the deception. Pharaoh expelled Abraham and Sarah, who left Pharaoh’s domain with much wealth.

This story surely does not cast Abraham in a good light. He asked his wife to participate in a deception. He let his wife be taken by the Egyptians. He reaped financial rewards while his wife was in captivity in Pharaoh’s house.

Rabbi Hirsch makes a profoundly important point: “The Torah does not attempt to hide from us the faults, errors and weaknesses of our great men, and precisely thereby it places the stamp of credibility upon the happenings it relates. The fact that we are told about their faults and weaknesses does not detract from our great men. Indeed, it adds to their stature and makes their life stories even more instructive. Had they all been portrayed to us as models of perfection we would have believed that they had been endowed with a higher nature not give to us to attain. Had they been presented to us free of human passions and inner conflicts, their nature would seem to us merely the result of a loftier predisposition, not a product of their personal merit, and certainly no model we could ever hope to emulate.”

Rabbi Hirsch goes on to say that “we must never attempt to whitewash the spiritual and moral heroes of our past. They are not in need of our apologetics, nor would they tolerate such attempts on our part. Truth is the seal of our Word of God, and truthfulness is the distinctive characteristic also of all its genuinely great teachers and commentators.”

Our great biblical heroes, as well as our great spiritual heroes of all generations, were real human beings, not plaster saints.  They had real feelings, real conflicts. Many times they performed admirably; on some occasions they fell short.  To suggest that anyone is “perfect”—totally devoid of sin and error—is to misrepresent that person and to misrepresent truth.

There is a popular genre of “religious literature” that presents biographies of biblical and later religious luminaries as paragons of virtue, totally devoid of sin and inner conflict. In fact, such books are not authentic biographies, because they describe their heroes in an untruthful way. These personalities are drawn in such superlative terms, that readers will find it exceedingly difficult to identify with them or to emulate them.

There is an opposite tendency in some circles to point to every flaw and sin of our spiritual heroes, and to undermine their credibility as religious models. Our prophets and teachers are presented as though devoid of higher spiritual and moral qualities.

Just as it is false to overstate the perfection of our heroes, so it is false to undervalue their spiritual achievements. Rather, we must study their lives honestly, recognizing that these are remarkable individuals who reached great heights—and who had to struggle mightily to attain their levels of religious insight and righteousness.  Their failings can be as instructive to us as their successes.

Just as Truth is the seal of the Word of God, so is the pursuit of Truth the proper objective of all students of Torah and Jewish tradition.

The Arab Spring is not about Western Democracy

I saw a piece, Did the Libyan Leadership Deceive the West, which implies that we didn’t realize what was going on in Libya.  It saddens me to think how many people really did believe that what we were witnessing was the beginning of a complete change in the Western sense.  I am not saying that certain leadership needed to stay in power, but to assume rioting means more freedoms is naive.  We don’t learn from history.

Did the Libyan Leadership Deceive the West?

Jonathan D. Halevi

  • On October 23, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, Chairman of the National Transitional Council (NTC) that is the temporary power in Libya replacing the Gaddafi regime, announced: “We, as an Islamic state, determined that Islamic law is a major source for legislation, and on this basis any law which contradicts the principles of Islam and Islamic law will be considered null and void.”
  • The NTC has the support of the West and NATO countries, which helped it militarily to bring down the Gaddafi regime, hoping to establish a democratic regime in Libya.
  • In early October, Dr. David Gerbi, who was born in Libya and fled to Italy in 1967, arrived in Tripoli and asked to repair the synagogue. The NTC was quick to remove him, while demonstrations were held in Tripoli calling to prevent any Jewish presence in Libya or the establishment of synagogues. The NTC did not condemn this expression of anti-Semitism, nor was there any objection by any other political factions in Libya.
  • NTC and Western officials have already stated their growing concerns that Qatar is trying to interfere in the country’s sovereignty, and the rebels are said to have received about $2 billion from the Qatari government. Qatari involvement is likely to produce a regime in Libya that follows the political orientation of Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi, thereby giving the Muslim Brotherhood an open door in the new Libya.
  • The political debate in Libya will be within an essentially Islamist universe, with different leaders distinguished by the degree to which they seek to implement their Islamism. It seems that the strategy of the democratic states that trusted the promises of the rebel forces to adopt and implement the principles of democracy has collapsed, and that Western aid to overthrow Gaddafi’s tyrannical regime prepared the groundwork for the establishment of an Islamic state, which eventually may become hostile to the West.

The Supremacy of Islamic Law

Libya is opening a new page in its history after the execution of former leader Muammar Gaddafi. At a ceremony in Benghazi on October 23, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, Chairman of the National Transitional Council, which is the temporary power in Libya replacing the Gaddafi regime, announced the completion of the “liberation of Libya” and outlined the characteristics of the new government, which adopts Islamic law (Sharia) as a major source for legislation. That means Libya’s transformation into an Islamic state.

In his victory speech, Abdul Jalil said: “We, as an Islamic state, determined that Islamic law is a major source for legislation, and on this basis any law which contradicts the principles of Islam and Islamic law will be considered null and void. As an example of such laws I will mention the law of marriage and divorce which limited polygamy. This law is contrary to Islamic law and its application is suspended.” Abdul Jalil added that the new regime intends to base the banking system on legislation consistent with Islamic law that prohibits interest, which he described as fundamentally evil and corrupt. As an immediate measure to realize this intention, Abdul Jalil announced an exemption from interest for bank loans up to ten thousand dinars, and in the future, he said, interest will be cancelled completely in accordance with Islamic law.

The National Transitional Council has the support of the West and NATO countries, which helped it militarily to bring down the Gaddafi regime, hoping to establish a democratic regime in Libya. NATO’s political, military, and economic support of the rebels played a decisive role in breaking the yoke of the Gaddafi regime. This included economic sanctions, military attacks on targets in Libya, enforcing a no-fly zone over Libya, and intelligence assistance.

The Democratic Vision of Libya

The West’s basic assumption was that the leadership of the National Transitional Council would remain faithful to its promises and commitment to the implementation of democracy in Libya, protecting human rights, and fighting terrorism. The message conveyed by the National Transitional Council was clear, as reflected in its platform published in the Council’s official website. The section “The Democratic Vision of Libya” reads as follows:

The National Transitional Council presents the vision to building a democracy in Libya….There is no alternative to building a free, pluralistic and democratic society, a unified state based on the rule of law, human dignity, and protecting human rights and formation (of these rights)….We recognize without reservation our duty and our commitment as follows:

Formulation of a national constitution…keeping a civil constitutional state which will ensure ideological and political pluralism…protecting freedom of expression…promising that the state will draw its power from the provisions of religion which teach of peace, right, justice and equality…applying a political democracy and the principles of social justice, including…

A constitutional civil state which respects the sanctity of faith and condemns fanaticism, extremism and violence…a country to which we aspire that condemns violence, terrorism, fanaticism and cultural isolation, seeing how it respects human rights and the foundations and principles of citizenship and the rights of minorities and weaker groups. Every person shall enjoy the full rights of citizenship regardless of color, sex, race or social status.

The building of a democratic Libya which bases our foreign relations and relations with regional countries on (the following principles): establishing democratic values ​​and democratic institutions that honor our neighbors, that build partnerships and recognize the independence and sovereignty of other countries…a country which will promote the values ​​of international justice and citizenship and will respect international humanitarian law and human rights conventions…a country that will join the international community in the opposition and condemnation of discrimination, racism and terrorism and will strongly support peace, democracy and freedom.

The National Transitional Council emphasized the words “democracy,” “pluralism,” “civil rights,” “justice,” and “equality,” but their meanings in its eyes are quite different from those of the Western democracies that supported it and actually enabled its rise to power in place of Gaddafi. Like the Muslim Brotherhood, the National Transitional Council subjects “democracy” to Islamic law (Sharia), and actually drains it of its contents by stating that Islamic law is the source of legislation and that all laws that contradict it are null and void.

The declaration by Mustafa Abdul Jalil of an Islamic Libyan state was not received with any opposition from members of the National Transitional Council and the Libyan public, and it apparently expresses the dominant mood within the public, which tends to accept Islamic rule.

No Tolerance for Jews

One can learn about the atmosphere on the Libyan street from the hostile and anti-Semitic public reaction to the arrival of Dr. David Gerbi in Tripoli in early October. Gerbi, who was born in Libya and fled to Italy in 1967 out of fear of harm to the Jewish community after the Six-Day War, visited the synagogue in Tripoli and asked to repair it. Upon learning of the synagogue visit, the National Transitional Council was quick to remove him from the synagogue, arguing that he was not authorized to enter the complex, which is under the authority of the Department of Archaeology. At the same time, many demonstrations were held in Tripoli calling to prevent any Jewish presence in Libya or the establishment of synagogues in the country. The National Transitional Council did not prevent this expression of anti-Semitism and did not condemn it, nor was there any objection to this by other political factions in Libya.

Key Islamic Figures

A central force of power in the National Transitional Council is Abdelhakim Belhadj, commander of the military forces in Tripoli who led the campaign to remove the Gaddafi regime and occupy the presidential compound in Bab al-Azizia. Belhadj, who was appointed by Mustafa Abdul Jalil, has an extensive jihadist background. He fought alongside the mujahideen in Afghanistan against Soviet forces and was a senior member of the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group (LIFG), a radical Islamic terrorist organization, which until recently held a world view rather similar to that of Al-Qaeda. The Al-Sharq Al-Awsat newspaper reported that nearly 800 soldiers from the LIFG were involved in the fighting in Tripoli, some of them former combatants in Afghanistan and Bosnia.

In September 2010, a former leader of the LIFG and colleague of bin Laden in Afghanistan, Noman Benotman, addressed an open letter to bin Laden, calling on him and al-Qaeda to “abandon armed struggle,”stating that “Your actions have harmed millions of innocent Muslims and non-Muslims alike. How is this Islam or jihad? For how much longer will al-Qaeda continue to bring shame on Islam, disrupt ordinary Muslims’ lives, and be the cause of global unrest?1

Just a year earlier, the LIFG published a very long, revisionist document to repudiate al-Qaeda’s ideology of global jihad. This was part of a more comprehensive deal, orchestrated by Saif al-Islam Gaddafi, who was interested in promoting his planned reforms and the leadership of the LIFG and other imprisoned Islamist groups, to release them from prison in return for their reintegration into society and abandonment of terror.2 The document, however, did not mean that the LIFG was to abandon its Islamist tendency. Indeed, it was mainly endorsed by senior scholars close to the Muslim Brotherhood’s ideology like Saudi Sheikh Salman al-Awdeh.

In addition to Benotman, Libyan Sheikh Ali al-Salabi, who until recently resided in Qatar, served as the intermediary between Saif al-Islam and the LIFG leadership. Salabi is a member of the International Union of Muslim Scholars (IUMS),3 a global umbrella group headed by Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi, the Qatar-based leader of the Muslim Brotherhood on a global scale. Even though he had no official position in Libya at the time, Salabi had already won the title of the “spiritual guide of the Libyan revolution,”4 and was also described by the New York Times as someone who may well be the most important politician in the new Libya.5

A few weeks ago, Salabi called on the top leadership of the NTC to resign, saying that they supported the West’s agenda and interest in taking control over Libya’s resources.6 Salabi further stated that the rebels had received about $2 billion from the Qatari government,7 and indeed, NTC and Western officials have already stated their growing concerns that Qatar is trying to interfere in the country’s sovereignty, bypassing an internationally-agreed assistance strategy for Libya to throw its support behind individuals and factions contributing to the continuing political instability.8 Qatari involvement is likely to produce a regime in Libya that follows the political orientation of Sheikh Yusuf Qaradawi, thereby giving the Muslim Brotherhood an open door in the new Libya.

In North Africa, Libya is emerging as a very different country from Morocco or Algeria, for, unlike its neighbors, Libya is headed towards the establishment of an Islamic state.  The political debate in Libya will be within an essentially Islamist universe, with different leaders distinguished by the degree to which they seek to implement their Islamism.  We already can see that many of its new leaders are far from the values ​​of democracy and human rights as understood in the West. It seems that the strategy of the democratic states that trusted the promises of the rebel forces to adopt and implement the principles of democracy has collapsed, and that Western aid to overthrow Gaddafi’s tyrannical regime prepared the groundwork for the establishment of an Islamic state, which eventually may become hostile to the West.

*     *     *

Notes

 1. http://www.quilliamfoundation.org/index.php/component/content/article/690

2. http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/wikileaks-files/libya-wikileaks/8294845/QADHAFI-FOUNDATION-CONTINUES-DIALOGUE-ON-RELEASE-OF-FORMER-LIBYAN-ISLAMIC-FIGHTING-GROUP-MEMBERS.html

3. http://www.iumsonline.us/ar/default.asp?ContentID=1039&menuID=13

4. http://www.irishtimes.com/newspaper/world/2011/0903/1224303431024.html

5. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/09/15/world/africa/in-libya-islamists-growing-sway-raises-questions.html?_r=1&ref=global-home&pagewanted=all

6. http://almoslim.net/node/153294

7. http://www.elkhabar.com/ar/monde/266747.html

8. http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/oct/04/qatar-interfering-libya

Shalit chronicles

I realize I am late to the party.  Part of this was purposeful in that I felt others had captured much of what was out there regarding the release of Gilad Shalit.  Yet, I came across three pieces over the weekend that made me decide it would be good to at least offer up some of the material online regarding how we should think about and react to his freedom.  Here are a couple of the more fascinating pieces I found (for some other headlines, check out Bruce’s Mideast Soundbites).

A Mother’s Pain – Sherri Mandel

Why are we against the exchange that allows murderers to go free? Because we know the suffering that they leave in their wake.

Why is it that terror victims are seemingly the only ones against the prisoner exchange? While other Israelis are rejoicing, we are in despair.

Arnold and Frimet Roth circulated a petition against the release of Ahlam Tamimi, an accomplice in their daughter Malki’s murder at the Sbarro pizza shop.

Tamimi says she is happy that many children were killed in the attack. Meir Schijveschuurder, whose family was massacred in the same attack, filed a petition with the high court and says he is going to leave Israel because of his feelings of betrayal. The parents of Yasmin Karisi feel that the state is dancing in their blood because Khalil Muhammad Abu Ulbah, who murdered their daughter and seven others by running them down with a bus at the Azor junction in 2001, is also on the list to be released. Twenty-six others were wounded in that attack.

Why are so many of us against the exchange that allows murderers and their accomplices to go free? Because we know the suffering that these murderers leave in their wake.

Yes, I want Gilad Schalit released. But not at any price. Not at the price we have experienced.

My son Koby Mandell and his friend Yosef Ish Ran were murdered by terrorists 10 years ago when they were 13 and 14 years old. They had been hiking in the wadi near our home when they were set upon by a Palestinian mob and stoned to death. It was a brutal, vicious murder.

We now run the Koby Mandell Foundation for terror victims’ families. We direct Camp Koby, a 10-day therapeutic sleep away camp for 400 children who have lost loved ones, mostly to terror. We also run mothers’ healing retreats and support groups.

MOST PEOPLE don’t understand the continuing devastation of grief: fathers who die of heart attacks, mothers who get sick with cancer, children who leave school, families whose only child was murdered. We see depression, suicide, symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder. You wouldn’t believe how many victims’ families are still on sleeping pills and anti-anxiety medication. We see the pain that doesn’t diminish with time. We literally see people die of grief.

Bereaved families face acute psychological isolation.

Nobody understands us, they often complain.

They mean that nobody understands the duration or the severity of their pain and longing. In the aftermath of a prisoner exchange, this isolation will only be exacerbated.

So will the feeling that our children’s deaths don’t matter.

When people tell me that my son Koby died for nothing, I always used to say: No, it is our job to make his death mean something.

But now I am not sure. It seems that the government is conspiring to ensure that our loved ones’ deaths were for nothing.

Cheapening our loved ones’ deaths only enhances the pain. If Israel is willing to free our loved ones’ murderers, then the rest of the world can look on and assume that the terrorists are really freedom fighters or militants. If Palestinians were murdering Jews in cold blood without justification, surely the Israeli government wouldn’t release them.

No sane government would.

When we were sitting shiva for Koby, a general in the army told us: “We will bring the killers to justice.” I believed him. I took his words to heart. Today I am thankful my son’s killers have not been found. So are my children. Of course, I don’t want the terrorists to kill again. But if they were to be released in this prisoner exchange, I don’t think I could bear it.

We don’t want other families to be put in our situation.

We don’t want terrorists to be free when our loved ones are six feet underground. Ten years after my son was beaten to death, the pain often feels like a prison. In many ways, I am not free.

We don’t want other terrorists to be emboldened because they know that even if they murder, they may not have to stay in prison. President Shimon Peres says he will pardon but he will not forgive. Terrorist victims’ families will not pardon or forgive the government for this release.

We have been betrayed. To pardon terrorists mocks our love and our pain.

Furthermore, terrorism aims to strike fear in an entire society, to bring a whole populace to its knees. During the intifada, the terrorists did not succeed in defeating Israeli society. But to release prisoners now signals to Hamas that their strategy of terror was correct, effective.

They will celebrate wholeheartedly because they have won.

And as a result of prisoner exchanges, the Israeli justice system can only be seen as a joke, a mockery, even a travesty of justice.

It provides no deterrent and no retribution. It’s as if our government says to the killers: Come hurt us again. We’ll be happy to release you one day. We’ll let you go when you demand it.

I want Gilad Schalit home.

We need to protect our own soldiers. But not with a wholesale prisoner exchange. I wish that I could rejoice with the Schalit family. But I can’t.

The price is too high.

The writer is the mother of Koby Mandell, who was stoned to death near his home in Tekoa in 2001.

‘Shalit release like resurrection of the dead’

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef expresses joy over kidnapped soldier’s return, says it illustrates what Jewish people should expect at End of Days by Kobi Nahshoni

Shas‘ spiritual leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, says the release of kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit is a sort of “preview” for the resurrection of the dead.

In a sermon delivered Tuesday night ahead of the holiday of Simchat Torah, the rabbi explained that the joy over Gilad’s return to his family illustrates what the Jewish people should expect at the End of Days, when the dead will rise out of their graves and return to life.

Yosef concluded his sermon by stating that “this is a great day of joy for all the people of Israel for Gilad Shalit’s return.”

“Every day we say (in a prayer), ‘Blessed is God, the resurrector of the dead’ – what a great joy we’ll experience. We are being described what will happen.”

According to the rabbi, the entire world was excited about the soldier’s release from captivity after five years, and in the future the dead will return to their families even decades after being taken away from them.

In a bid to demonstrate the great joy in the days of the Messiah, Rabbi Yosef explained that it would be like a multitude of weddings, as each person returning to life will have to remarry his widow in order to live with her again.

“Everywhere you go – a chuppah. This one’s wife has been resurrected, and that one’s wife has been resurrected – what a joy it will be!”

 

Rabbi Yosef followed Shalit’s return home on Tuesday, after being involved in the early stages of the prisoner exchange deal – offering support and encouragement. The rabbi stayed at home as usual and continued his Torah studies, but asked his family members to update him on every development.

Upon hearing that the soldier’s physical and mental condition was satisfactory, he excitedly recited the “Blessed is God that redeems and saves” prayer and said Jews must continue praying for his full recovery.

A Mitzvah Behind the Price of a Soldier’s Freedom By SAMUEL G. FREEDMAN

On the Sabbath morning of Nov. 5, less than three weeks after the release of Sgt. First Class Gilad Shalit in a prisoner exchange between Israel and Hamas, Jews in synagogues throughout the world will read a Torah portion concerning Abraham’s early journeys. The text recounts how invaders conquered the city of Sodom, taking Abraham’s nephew Lot as a captive, and the way Abraham raised an army to rescue him.

The timing of this Torah reading is an absolute coincidence, an unplanned synchronicity between the religious calendar and breaking news. Yet the passage also offers an essential explanation, one almost entirely ignored in coverage of the Shalit deal, for Israel’s anguished decision to pay a ransom in the form of more than a thousand Palestinian prisoners, including the perpetrators of terrorist attacks on civilians.

The story of Abraham saving Lot represents the earliest of a series of examples of the concept of “pidyon shvuyim” — redeeming the captives, invariably at a cost — in Jewish Scripture, rabbinic commentaries and legal codes. That concept, absorbed into the secular culture of the Israeli state and the Zionist movement, helped validate the steep, indeed controversial, price of Sergeant Shalit’s liberation.

Far from being some abstruse, obscure point of theology, pidyon shvuyim is called in the Talmud a “mitzvah rabbah,” a great commandment. The Shulhan Arukh, a legal code compiled in the 16th century, states, “Redeeming captives takes precedence over sustaining the poor and clothing them, and there is no commandment more important than redeeming captives.”

So while journalists, analysts and scholars have offered various motivations for the disproportionate deal — the effect of the Arab Spring, the institutional culture of the Israeli Army to never leave behind its wounded, the symbolism of Sergeant Shalit as everyone’s child in a country of nearly universal military service — the principle of pidyon shvuyim preceded all those factors.

“For most people in Israel, it doesn’t translate directly as a mitzvah, because even if they’re attached to Jewish tradition, they’re not halakhic,” said Noam Zohar, a professor of philosophy at Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv, using a term for following religious law. “But the underlying values — solidarity and the high value of every individual life — are part of our public ethos. The same values informed the high urgency of pidyon shvuyim.”

Moshe Halbertal, a philosophy professor at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, framed the issue similarly. “Those things are in the DNA of the culture,” he said of the religious teachings about ransoming captives. “It’s a sentiment that can’t be measured in exact legal or judicial terms. It plays a role in those moments of perplexity. You fall back on your basic identity. As a Jew, as an Israeli, what do I do?”

From its initial depiction in Genesis, the admonition to redeem captives reappears in the books of Leviticus and Nehemiah, as well as in the Talmud, Shulhan Arukh and writings of Maimonides. Among the ancient commentators, as well as among Israelis today, debate has persisted over whether pidyon shvuyim is an absolute value.

A passage in the Talmudic volume of Gittin, anticipating the recent voices of Israelis critical of the Shalit deal, cautions, “We do not redeem captives for more than their worth, so that enemies will not dedicate themselves to take other people captive.”

The traumas of Jewish history have provided innumerable opportunities for reconciling the tension between redemption and extortion. Throughout the Middle Ages, Jews who traveled as merchants and traders were frequently kidnapped by pirates or highway bandits. During the Holocaust, German forces routinely threatened to destroy Jewish communities unless the residents paid a pre-emptive ransom.

As Bradley Burston wrote last week in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, over the past 54 years, the nation has freed a total of 13,509 Arab prisoners in exchanges that brought home 16 captive Israeli soldiers — a ratio of roughly 800 to 1.

With such an imbalance, pidyon shvuyim has been both a cherished and a contested belief. A prominent German rabbi taken captive in the 14th century, Meir ben Baruch, instructed his followers not to pay a ransom, which he feared would be onerously high, and ultimately was killed. Israel was torn apart in the 1950s by a libel trial involving Rudolf Kasztner, a Jewish activist in Hungary who had paid cash, gold and jewels to the Nazi officer Adolf Eichmann in 1944 to save about 1,600 Jews headed for death camps. So controversial were Mr. Kasztner’s actions that he was assassinated by a fellow Israeli more than a decade after the war.

While Israelis have widely believed that sovereignty and military might ended the need for paying ransoms, the Shalit deal has proven otherwise. It was approved by a prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, who had repeatedly written against what he termed “terrorist blackmail” earlier in his political career.

“The Zionist diagnosis, the post-Holocaust diagnosis, was that powerlessness invites victimization,” said Michael Berenbaum of the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, a prominent Holocaust historian. “What’s intriguing here is that power has not resolved Israel’s vulnerability.”

Indeed, as the Jewish ethicist Elliot N. Dorff pointed out, contemporary Israel is vulnerable in ways that the small, scattered communities of the Diaspora were not. It has its own enemy prisoners to be demanded in a trade. The Shalit negotiations took place in a constant media spotlight, tracking not just five years of failed deal making between Israel and Hamas but the tableau of Sergeant Shalit’s parents sitting in a protest tent outside Mr. Netanyahu’s office.

For all the practical, pragmatic, geopolitical calculations that went into the final deal, it also benefited from the endorsement of a leading Sephardic rabbi, Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of the Shas Party. With his approval, the Shas members in Mr. Netanyahu’s cabinet voted for the deal. And, in an unspoken, little-noticed way, religious tradition informed a real-world decision.

“The whole issue of redeeming captives,” as Mr. Dorff put it, “has not been a theoretical one.”

Should a candidate’s faith matter?

Robert Jeffress offers an op-ed in which he argues that we in America need be concerned by a candidate’s faith in making a decision about voting for the individual. I tend to think differently, and I assume many others I know would agree.  We do want to be aware a person’s faith.  However, the only time an issue of faith becomes an issue is when it is of a radical nature.  A candidate coming from a fringe movement that would want to fundamentally change this country would be dangerous.  However, someone who is Mormon, while seen as outside the pale by many, is not something to be feared.  Besides, considering the challenges this country faces, this issue seems somewhat unimportant.

Hearing Mitt Romney’s surrogate Bill Bennett refer to me as a bigot and Jon Huntsman call me a “moron” last week after my controversial comments on Mormonism, amid calls for civility and tolerance in public discourse, reminds me of the exclamation: “We will not tolerate intolerance!” But beyond the personal insults, I am concerned that these men are attempting to prematurely marginalize religion as a relevant topic in elections.

Utilizing such incendiary rhetoric against those of us who dare bring up a candidate’s spiritual beliefs cuts off discussion about religion before it begins. However, polls continue to reveal that a large segment of the population does care about a candidate’s faith. Voters who embrace any faith — or no faith — should consider the following:

First, discussion of a candidate’s faith is permissible. Over the past several days, talk show hosts have lectured me about Article VI of the Constitution, which prohibits religious tests for public office, as if considering a candidate’s faith is somehow unconstitutional, un-American or even illegal. How ludicrous. This is a not-so-subtle attempt to eliminate through intimidation religion as a suitable criterion by which to choose a candidate. The Constitution is referring to religious litmus tests imposed by government, not by individuals.

Interestingly, John Jay, the first chief justice of the Supreme Court and co-author of the Federalist Papers, thought a candidate’s religious beliefs should be a primary consideration in voting. Jay wrote, “It is the duty, as well as the privilege and interest of our Christian nation, to select and prefer Christians for their rulers.” According to Jay, preferring a Christian candidate is neither bigoted nor unconstitutional.

Second, discussion of a candidate’s faith is relevant. During a time of rising unemployment, falling home prices and massive deficits, it is easy to relegate religion as an irrelevant topic. Yet our religious beliefs define the very essence of who we are. Any candidate who claims his religion has no influence on his decisions is either a dishonest politician or a shallow follower of his faith.

Those on the left and right have been disingenuous in suddenly claiming a candidate’s faith is off limits. Just a few months ago, David Gregory of “Meet the Press” asked candidate Michele Bachmann how her religious belief about submission to her husband would affect her performance if she were president. That was a fair question: If she had to choose between obeying her husband or obeying the Constitution, what would she do?

Conservatives spent most of the 2008 election calling for an investigation of Barack Obama’s religious beliefs in relationship to his membership in the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s church. Did he embrace the views of his pastor? Again, a fair question because no religion I’m familiar with allows for a separation of faith from behavior. The question is not whether personal spiritual beliefs shape a politician’s values and policies, but what spiritual beliefs mold those values and policies.

Finally, discussion of a candidate’s faith is multifaceted. I believe I have been misquoted repeatedly as telling the GOP not to vote for Romney. I have never made such a statement; I realize I might very well end up voting for Romney if he is the Republican nominee. While I prefer a competent Christian over a competent non-Christian, religion is not the only consideration in choosing a candidate. Frankly, Christians have not always made good presidents. We must also consider whether a candidate is competent to lead and govern according to biblical principles.

During this firestorm I’ve reignited over the role of religion in politics, some have quoted Martin Luther as saying he would rather be governed by a competent unbeliever than an incompetent Christian. Yet evangelicals should remember that the purpose of the primary process is to keep us from having to make such a choice. At this point we have the opportunity to select both a competent leader and a committed Christian.

I predict secularists are going to be continually frustrated over the next 13 months as religion continues to be a part of the national political debate. America is filled with religious people, and to religious people, religion matters.

Jeffress, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Dallas, is the author of the forthcoming book “Twilight’s Last Gleaming: How America’s Last Days Can Be Your Best Days.” His e-mail is pastor@FirstDallas.org.