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Tuesday, August 6, 2013

One Particular "Confidence-Building Gesture"

As I'm sure we all know, as a result of Secretary of State Kerry's indefatigable efforts, peace talks have resumed between Israeli officials and representatives of the Palestinian Authority.  As I am writing, Tsipi Livni, Israel's Justice Minister, and her staff are meeting with Dr. Saeb Erekat and his staff in Washington, D.C.

This wouldn't have happened -- or so the press has reported -- had Israel not agreed to several "confidence-building gestures." During the past decade or so, it's been fairly common for the Israeli government to engage in "confidence-building gestures" in order to induce Palestinian leaders to engage in negotiations.  See here

This time, the most prominent action was the decision to release 104 Arab prisoners held in Israeli jails.  (See here.)  The cabinet approved of this gesture the other day in a vote of 13 to 7, with 2 abstentions.  (See here and here for details.) 

For some of us here in the United States, such a gesture might seem insignificant.  How difficult, how compromising could it be to release a few prisoners?  And even if it is, how could such challenges compare with the opportunity to reach a final agreement with the Palestinians?  

Yet, for Israelis, it can be quite difficult and quite troubling. To pardon unrepentant convicted murderers and release them from prison on the basis of political considerations appears to flout the rule of law, and can undermine the nation's confidence in the criminal justice system.

Let me give you an example.  Let me tell you the story of one particular victim of one particular crime, committed by one particular prisoner -- who is due to be released prematurely from prison shortly.


I remember the first time I read the writings of the great Jewish scholar, Menachem Stern.  I was in the library of the Jewish Theological Seminary. It was in the late-1970s.  I happened upon a copy of Stern's "Greek and Latin Authors on Jews and Judaism," and I found it fascinating.   

For some reason, in my mind at least, Jewish history on the one hand, and ancient Graeco-Roman history on the other, were two very different domains.  Until I perused Menachem Stern's book, it hadn't occured to me that Greeks or Romans wrote much about Jews and Judaism.  In college, I had studied Plato and Socrates in philosophy classes, and had read plays by Sophocles and Aristophanes, selections from Ovid's Metamorphoses, and other Greek and Latin works in literature classes.  All of those authors had seemed oblivious to Jews and Judaism.  And so Stern's work was eye-opening to me.  

Menachem Stern was born in Poland in 1925.  His family moved to Vienna, Austria, shortly thereafter, and it was from there that, in the nick of time, they made aliyah in 1938.  

Cheering crowds greet Hitler as he enters Vienna. Austria, March 1938. 
(Source:  United States Holocaust Memorial Museum) 

Stern studied at the Reali School in Haifa (whose students come each year to the Boston area on an exchange program sponsored by the Boston-Haifa connection) and the Hebrew University.  Upon receiving his PhD from Hebrew University, he began teaching there, and he became a full professor in 1971.  In 1977, he was awarded the Israel Prize, the nation's highest civilian honor. 

Internationally recognized as an expert in both the History of the Jews during the Second Temple Period as well as Graeco-Roman History, Stern was also known to be gracious and generous with his time and assistance to  graduate and undergraduate students.  


Professor Stern's life was cut short on June 22, 1989.  While walking from his home to the Hebrew Universityas he did virtually every weekday morning, through the Valley of the Cross, a lovely wooded area at the foot of the Israel Museum in the shadow of a medieval monastery, he was murdered.  

A group of first-graders, out for a walk with their teacher, found his body alongside one of the paths.  The police came to Professor Stern's house on Tchernichovsky Street, and brought his wife, Hava, with them to the Valley of the Cross to identify the body. The police commander told Hava that he had had the privilege of studying with Professor Stern when he was a student at the university.  Thousands came to the funeral, held at the Hebrew University.

A plaque has been erected at the site of the murder. 

Three years later, Professor Stern's assailants were finally apprehended, and shortly thereafter they were tried, convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment.  

Professor Menachem Stern was not an ordinary person. Not only was he "a great humanist and scholar of the ancient world," in the words of Professor Peter Brown of Princeton, but he was also "modest in demeanour ... and an amiable, peace-loving man" who "eschew[ed] academic pomposity." (See here.)  

He also was apparently exceptionally kind and gentle.  Here are the words of one colleague, Professor Miriam Eliav-Feldon, who spoke about him in 2000 on behalf of the Israel Historical Society:  

One could hardly imagine a person less associated with brutality or hatred than the gentle and soft-spoken Professor Stern, who was loved and respected by all: colleagues, students, and acquaintances alike.  His sudden and horrifying death left a wound and a pain that is still felt not only by his family and close friends, but also by the entire academic community in Israel and by historians of the classical period around the world.  The establishment of the Menahem Stern Jerusalem Lectures is, I believe, the most appropriate way of commemorating the life and contribution of such an erudite and influential scholar.  As long as lecture halls are filled to capacity by men and women seeking knowledge and wisdom, ... we know that Menahem Stern’s legacy is still maintained.

For a wonderful tribute to Professor Stern (in Hebrew) on the 20th anniversary of his death, click here.  

I thought about Menachem Stern during my recent sabbatical.  It was hard not to: my wife, Elana, and I were living in the neighborhood where he used to live.  We walked through the Valley of the Cross many, many times.  We passed by the square named in his memory, on the street where he had once lived:

Moreover, Elana took an ulpan class with Menachem Stern's daughter at the Conservative Yeshiva.  And so it was hard not to be aware of this tragic loss.


The list of prisoners due to be released shortly as a "confidence-building gesture" includes one of Menachem Stern's murderers.  

One wonders: what is the message of this release?  What is the nature of the confidence that is being built up with this gesture?

On the one hand, this does achieve one objective: it certainly makes the point that Israel is prepared to take very painful steps to achieve progress in its negotiations with the Palestinians.  

But, of course, a gesture can work both ways.  

In this case, in addition to building confidence among Palestinians that Israelis are prepared to make painful compromises,  this gesture builds confidence among Israelis that terrorist attacks are and will continue to be considered legitimate tactics in the Palestinians' on-going struggle with Israel.  This gesture builds confidence within Israel that the Palestinian leadership does not distinguish and will continue not to distinguish between the killing of an armed combatant during a military operation and the killing of an unarmed civilian -- a professor in his sixties at that -- on his way to the library.  Perhaps most dangerous of all, it builds confidence among Israelis that the Palestinian leadership lacks basic human decency.  All of these, unfortunately, will hinder rather than advance peaceful relations.  

I do not write these words to suggest that the Israeli government should not have agreed to release Professor Stern's assailant -- although some will argue just that.  (For example, the mother of a girl who was killed in the infamous Sbarro Pizza attack in Jerusalem in 2001 has strongly condemned the current prisoner release.  One of the terrorists responsible for that attack, who was subsequently convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment, was among those released two years ago in order to free Gilad Shalit.  Click here to read that mother's bitter, impassioned words.)  

I write only to suggest just how problematic and how painful such a gesture can be, not only for the families of the victims, but for all Israelis.  Simply multiply the pain arising from the release of the murderer of the gentle and peace-loving Menachem Stern by 104, and you can get an idea just how difficult it has been -- and will continue to be -- as Israel continues to walk down this difficult and perilous path.  

Nevertheless, let us hope that the current efforts will bear fruit, and that both Israelis and Palestinians will move closer to the goal of mutually respectful and peaceful relations.