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Call to Kill Suicide Bombers' Families Stirs Passions

Conflict: Article urging execution of those who condone relatives' acts reveals deep divisions among U.S. Jews.

July 13, 2002|HOLLY LEBOWITZ ROSSI

If a young Palestinian chooses to commit an act of terrorism with the blessing of his or her family, the consequences will be dire--the bomber's parents, brothers and sisters will be executed soon after the attack takes place.

That is the policy that noted Washington lawyer Nathan Lewin suggested in last month's issue of the respected Jewish journal "Sh'ma: A Journal of Jewish Responsibility."

Since then, a firestorm has erupted over Lewin's article, as well as the response by Brandeis University's Rabbi Arthur Green, in the form of scores of letters to the journal, plus a heated exchange in the Forward newspaper. The debate points to the increasingly volatile level of discourse and ethical discussion in the Jewish community.

If American Jews have anything in common these days, it is that they are actively thinking--but deeply divided--about the problem of how to deter suicide bombings and resolve the ever-escalating Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Lewin wrote in Sh'ma, a 32-year-old journal whose title is the Hebrew word meaning "listen attentively," that Palestinian families should be given ample opportunity to denounce the suicide bombings by their children and reject financial gain from the missions. But if the families do not comply, they should no longer be considered innocents and should be executed.

"This consequence would, I believe, deter most suicide killers--many of whom now anticipate that not only will they be rewarded in a world-to-come, but that their immediate families will be honored and granted lavish benefits on this Earth," wrote Lewin, who is on the adjunct faculty of George Washington Law School and Columbia Law School and has argued cases before the U.S. Supreme Court.

Green, a professor of Jewish thought at Brandeis and a former president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, said that his response upon reading Lewin's argument was to "tear my garments, as a sign of mourning on hearing the desecration of God's name."

Green's counterproposal is that two independent states be established, and that the Palestinian people be shown respect and legitimacy as a nation so that they will no longer need to resort to terrorism.

"Endless checkpoint delays, bulldozing of homes, uprooting of trees, disrespecting of elders and lots more have been the daily lot of Palestinians for 35 years," wrote Green.

"These constant humiliations are the immediate source of the rage that motivates suicide bombers, most of whom come from the very respect-based culture of traditional Arab villages."

In a flurry of discussions in the press and other public venues, various other suggestions have been offered, even as the Forward reported that recent surveys by Palestinian pollster Khalil Shikaki revealed that more than 70% of Palestinians endorse suicide bombings.

In a June 27 article in the Wall Street Journal, author Scott Green offered to "buy Palestinian children for $30,000 each," $5,000 more than Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein has purportedly offered families if their children carry out suicide missions.

Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz suggested in the Jerusalem Post that leveling the villages of suicide bombers--after the residents have been given a chance to escape--would serve as a similar deterrent.

The two-state solution outlined by Green is also on the table.

"I don't think American Jews look down on a two-state solution; they favor it," said Samuel G. Freedman, a journalism professor at Columbia University and the author of "Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry."

"What they feel is that it's incredibly naive and insecure for Israel to make peace with the current Palestinian regime," he added.

Sh'ma officials say that the decision to publish the Lewin-Green exchange, while a tortured one, was an important way to give voice to the range of opinion that exists in the Jewish community.

"Extreme positions on all sides have been filtering in whispers in all walks of the Jewish community," said Yosef I. Abramowitz, who is the publisher of Sh'ma, which circulates to 10,000 readers. "As a public service, we felt we had to out the issue and had to have that conversation," he said.

"It's alive," Abramowitz said of the debate, adding that it might serve as a powerful weapon against suicide bombings by itself.

"What I'm wondering is that perhaps the fact that the Jewish community is debating this might serve as a deterrent to suicide bombers. The fact that what used to be an extreme idea whispered at Shabbat tables is now openly debated might give pause to those who would become suicide terrorists," he said.

Freedman, however, calls Lewin's argument "so extreme that it has created a distraction."

"The harm isn't the vigor of the debate, it's the waste of time and energy. The discussion American Jews ought to be having is what kind of form unilateral separation should take," Freedman said.

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