NEW YORK (JTA) – At the Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School here, Rabbi Dov Linzer decided Wednesday that it would be inappropriate to start the day like any other given the news that the two Israeli soldiers abducted by Hezbollah in July 2006 were returned to Israel deceased.
Instead, Linzer passed around several media reports about the return of Israeli reservists Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser, effected in exchange for five Lebanese and the remains of some 200 Arab fighters.
The morning’s discussion eventually turned to the ethics of the exchange – a debate that has raged in Israel in recent weeks as the country has wrestled with the appropriateness of trading live terrorists for dead Israelis.
“Everybody really was struggling with it,” Linzer told JTA. “It wasn’t a black-and-white issue, even if people came out on one side or the other.”
The plight of Israel’s captive soldiers has galvanized the American Jewish community in ways that few Israel-related issues have in recent years. While the merits of the exchange were debated passionately at Chovevei and elsewhere Wednesday, Jewish groups that had worked for the soldiers’ release made no mention of the controversy surrounding their return.
Instead they expressed sympathy for the pain of the families, recognition of Israel’s difficult moral choices and a commitment to work toward the release of Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier captured by Hamas in the summer of 2006 just a few days before Hezbollah’s attack.
“As we mourn Ehud and Eldad, let us redouble our efforts to seek the safe return of Gilad Shalit to his family,” Rabbi Steve Gutow, the executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, wrote in an e-mail message. “The blue bracelet with the names of all three soldiers will stay on my wrist until that blessed day comes. And let us keep all the other captive soldiers – Guy Hever, Zachary Baumel, Tzvi Feldman, Yehuda Katz, Ron Arad, Majdy Halabi – in our thoughts and prayers.”
Since their capture in cross-border raids two years ago, Shalit, Goldwasser and Regev have inspired broad action by American Jews. More than a dozen groups dedicated to securing their release were created on the popular social networking Web site Facebook, a rally for their release was held at the United Nations and a petition sent to the U.N. secretary-general garnered 150,000 signatures.
Concern for the three MIAs reached the highest echelons of the U.S. Congress, where House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) emerged as arguably the most vocal Washington lawmaker on the issue.
In early 2007, Goldwasser’s wife, Karnit, presented Pelosi with copies of the soldiers’ dog tags, and the speaker has taken them around the world, showing the dog tags to heads of state as she lobbied for the soldiers’ release.
In a statement Wednesday, Pelosi joined the chorus of sympathizers expressing condolences to the families and pledging to keep working for Shalit’s release.
“Today our hope has been replaced by grief,” Pelosi said. “As we mourn, I will hold on to these dog tags as a symbol of the sacrifices made – sacrifices far too great – for peace and security for the State of Israel.”
Like most Jewish groups, her office declined to comment on the swap deal itself.
Linzer, who encouraged his students to express their opinions on the swap, acknowledged that care should be taken on such matters.
“In general,” he said, “while we should feel invested, we should also be careful, as people who are not living in Israel, about the way in which we judge those who are.”
The news of the return of the soldiers’ bodies prompted mixed feelings for Gabrielle Flaum, the New Jersey teenager who founded a youth advocacy group for the MIAs called SOS: Save Our Soldiers.
“I keep trying to tell myself that no matter what, this is what we wanted,” Flaum said Wednesday. “Even if they’re not alive, we want their bodies. We want their families to be able to move on. We want them to have closure.”
Last year, Flaum came up with the idea of placing three empty chairs in synagogues on the High Holidays, a practice that was widely adopted around the country.
Now SOS is planning an online memorial for the soldiers while directing its efforts toward the release of Shalit, who unlike Regev and Goldwasser, has sent several messages to his family after his abduction and is thought to be alive.
“We’re not going to stop,” Flaum said. “I feel that he’s alive and I want to see him returned.”