Prisoners Weigh Making Jewish Identity Public

Captives Ponder Whether It Will Help or Hurt Freedom Plea

Poignant Plea: After a year in Al Qaeda captivity, aid worker Warren Weinstein appealed to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to help win his freedom. He also asked his wife to enlist the support of Jewish organizations.
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Poignant Plea: After a year in Al Qaeda captivity, aid worker Warren Weinstein appealed to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to help win his freedom. He also asked his wife to enlist the support of Jewish organizations.

By Nathan Guttman

Published September 24, 2012, issue of September 28, 2012.
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An American Jew’s desperate plea to Israel and the American Jewish community for help has highlighted his plight as a captive of Al Qaeda in Pakistan, which has held him for more than a year.

In two videotaped messages released by the terror group in September, Warren Weinstein, a foreign aid contract worker from Maryland, spoke of his Jewish faith for the first time and asked the community to intervene on his behalf. “Please, also, I beg you,” Weinstein asked his wife in one of the messages, “work with the American Jewish communities in order to work with the Israeli government.”

Robert Levinson
courtesy of helpbobLevinson
Robert Levinson

The request caught the organized Jewish community off-guard. Activists have refrained up until now from making Weinstein’s captivity into a Jewish cause, for fear that it would only complicate his situation.

“It’s a new element in the story,” said Michael Salberg, director of international affairs at the Anti-Defamation League. “It changes things, because now he is calling in a public way on the Jewish community to address his case.”

In fact, Weinstein’s plight is one of four involving imprisoned or kidnapped Jews overseas with which the organized community is wrestling as the new Jewish year begins. Each is being held under different circumstances, but all share the dilemma of whether to highlight their Jewish identity or hide it. For its part, the Jewish community must weigh each case according to its individual circumstances, including the role the individual’s Jewishness plays in his captivity.

Beyond these particulars, there is also the Jewish religious and cultural imperative to redeem captives held by non-Jews. Known in Hebrew as pidyon shvuyim, such redemption is a supreme commandment, or mitzvah, that, according to the historic 13th-century Talmud scholar Maimonides, “takes precedence over supporting the poor or clothing them — there is no greater mitzvah.”


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