Arts & Culture
When former president Bill Clinton jetted off on a plane to North Korea to obtain the release of the two American women reporters, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, who’d been imprisoned there since March, it almost seemed like a modern … Read More
When former president Bill Clinton jetted off on a plane to North Korea to obtain the release of the two American women reporters, Laura Ling and Euna Lee, who’d been imprisoned there since March, it almost seemed like a modern day wild West story. Brave white man comes charging to the rescue of hapless women taken hostage by the bad guys. Clearly, there had been all sorts of negotiations prior to Clinton’s arrival, the terms of which included expressing remorse, admitting to guilt, and providing Clinton himself as emissary. (The two women, it should be noted, were working for Clinton’s former Vice President, Al Gore’s ,media company, CurrentTV. ) I’m glad the women were released, no matter how bizarre the fiasco played out on the world scene. But the entire episode reminded me of the plight of political prisoners worldwide, from the other 200,000 prisoners remaining in North Korea, who were arrested for things like owning a Bible or not having a picture of Kim I1-Sung in their homes, to the 11,000 Palestinians imprisoned in Israel, some of them women and children, some arrested and imprisoned for throwing rocks, to the 430 prisoners in Guantanamo who were incarcerated simply because the United States suspected they might have done something wrong, to Gilad Shalit, a young Israeli soldier snatched by Hamas three years ago and who has been held in Gaza ever since. Initially, Hamas demanded that 450 Palestinians in Israeli jails–all women and kids under 18–be freed in exchange for Shalit. This number has now climbed to 1,000 in exchange for one Israeli. What makes no sense to me is that Israel, a democratic country that presumably attempts to govern according to a moral code, has so many prisoners. I can’t believe that they are all truly threats to Israeli society. So to what end are they keeping these people in jail? Are they human bargaining chips? I was thinking about imprisonmen while in a seventeenth-century home in Portugal that I visited this week. On a wall were a series of black and white etchings depicting the story of Joseph. In the first, Pothiphar’s half-dressed wife is lolling about in bed, grabbing onto a fleeing Joseph’s garment. In the next, Joseph is in the dungeon, accused of attempted rape. The theme of being unfairly accused of a crime is reversed later in the story when Joseph’s brothers come to Egypt. They don’t recognize him as the brother they’d sold into slavery years ago, but he recognizes them. His younger brother, Benjamin, whom Joseph loved and had played no role in selling him to the Ishmaelites, is back home in Canaan with their father, Jacob. So Joseph demands that Simeon remain behind as hostage, while the others fetch Benjamin. When they return, Joseph has a silver goblet planted in Benjamin’s bag, and uses that as a pretext to keep him. It’s not until the brothers plead with Joseph, expressing remorse, that Joseph reveals his identity, drops all charges and reconciles with his brothers. Okay, it’s not a complicated message: We’re all brothers (and sisters), and if you imprison anyone falsely, you are imprisoning members of your own family. Certainly, in the Middle East, there are more similarities between the Palestinians and the Israelis than there are differences. Sharing a common ancestor, Abraham, renders them half-brothers, according to both the Torah and the Koran. The unjust imprisonment of the North Koreans, the Palestinians and those at Guantanamo is perhaps more a manifestation of the countries’ themselves being imprisoned by their own fears of the Other. Throwing people in jail will not solve one’s own fears. Releasing them, however, might. Gilad Shalit turns 21 on August 28th. It would be a nice birthday gift if he were able to sing "Yom Huledet Sameach" with his family. Undoubtedly, there are a number of Palestinians who have birthdays coming up, too. And even if they don’t, Israel should say, "I’m sorry" and free its prisoners, not because they’re forced to do so, not as part of a negotiation, but because they need to take responsibility for having placed the silver goblet in their bags in the first place. And in doing so, perhaps Israel can free itself.