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Heilman’s Week: 5 years for Shalit, Lithuanian justice, cutting circumcision

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Five years for Shalit: There aren’t many causes for which all Israelis can rally. They’re divided over Palestinian statehood, territorial concessions, the role of religion in the state, and whether or not Israel should use military force to prevent Iran from going nuclear.

When it comes to Gilad Shalit, however, Israelis universally express sympathy. Maybe it’s because this is one of those rare causes that unites the secular left and the nationalist right. Maybe it’s because in a country where practically every parent sends a kid to the army, the Shalit saga hits painfully close to home. Ever since the 19-year-old soldier was taken captive five years ago Saturday in a cross-border raid near Gaza, his name and likeness have become ubiquitous in Israel, plastered on billboards, bumper stickers and T-shirts.

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The rallying cry for Shalit carries far beyond Israel. This weekend, the anniversary of his capture will be marked by demonstrations of support from Chicago to Tel Aviv, and on Twitter too.

What’s in dispute is what price Israel should pay for Shalit’s release — assuming he’s still alive. That debate does not break down along traditional left/right lines, with some saying that giving in to all of Hamas’ demands would invite more hostage-taking, while others argue that Israel has an obligation to redeem its captive soldiers, no matter the price.

More than two years since he came to power, Benjamin Netanyahu is holding firm on his parameters for a deal. On Thursday, the prime minister used a speech at the President’s Conference in Jerusalem to announce that because Hamas will not allow the Red Cross to visit Shalit, Israel will impose tougher restrictions on the convicted terrorists being held in Israeli prisons.

Star power in Israel: Shimon Peres has always craved reverence. But it arguably took the Israeli president until his ninth decade to find a role in which both his admirers overseas and his fellow countrymen could appreciate him: elder statesman. Of course, first Peres had to lose a vote for the presidency to a man who later turned out to be a rapist.

This week provided an occasion for Peres, a member of Israel’s founding generation, to bask in adulation as thousands of scholars, politicians, artists and notables came to Jerusalem for the third Presidential Conference, a celebration and discussion of "Facing Tomorrow." Among those who made the trek: American Jewish comedienne Sarah Silverman, who was on her first trip to Israel despite the fact that her sister lives in Israel’s Arava Desert; pop star Shakira, who ignored a Facebook campaign urging her to skip the conference only to have her name mangled by Peres at a joint news conference; former British prime minister Tony Blair, who has spent so much time in Israel he’s probably at Matmid member of El Al’s frequent flyer club; and French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levi, the Jewish intellectual superstar from Paris.

And, of course, there were the Israelis, many of whom lavished praise on the 87-year-old president. Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon called Peres "the premier statesman of our time." Meir Sheetrit of Kadima said, “I think he’s a miracle of this century.”

Symbolic justice in Lithuania: In the long, hard road to obtain compensation from European countries for Jewish property that was seized, stolen or looted during the Holocaust, there have been few successes outside of Germany or Austria.

Tuesday’s decision by Lithuania’s Parliament to OK a proposed law offering $52 million in compensation for property confiscated from Luthianian Jews by the Nazis and Soviets and now in the hands of the Lithuanian government marked a rare exception. Under the law, which still needs to be signed by the president, the government would begin paying into a special compensation fund starting next year that will be used to restore Jewish heritage sites and give cash grants directly to survivors in the country.

Lithuania is one of five countries in which the World Jewish Restitution Organization, which is charged with obtaining Holocaust-era compensation from countries other than Germany and Austria, has been hoping to reach agreements. The others, according to WJRO Director General David Peleg, are Latvia (Peleg is optimistic about a deal this year), Hungary (ongoing discussions), Romania (the European Court of Human Rights told Romania to prepare new legislation within 18 months), and Poland (negotiations fell apart in March).

There are a few things that make this a real uphill battle: Many governments don’t want to acknowledge they control property that doesn’t really belong to them. Europe is in the midst of an economic crisis, so money is tight. The beneficiaries of Holocaust compensation legislation often are Jewish heirs overseas, and that doesn’t play well among the domestic constituencies at the polls.

Cut it out: The battle over the right to circumcision in San Francisco took a new twist this week when activists filed a lawsuit to block a vote this fall on a proposition banning the practice within city limits for boys under age 18. JTA’s Sue Fishkoff reports:

Although public opposition to the ballot measure has centered on religious freedom and the health benefits of circumcision, the lawsuit is more narrowly focused on the fact that medical procedures in California are regulated by the state, not by local municipalities.

What’s so troubling about the push to outlaw circumcision, writes Rabbis Basil Herring and Joel Finkelstein in a JTA Op-Ed, is the "gathering assault on the religious freedoms enjoyed by faith minorities in this land that so proudly celebrates the separation of church and state."

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