Author Archives: Aryeh Tepper

Aryeh Tepper

About Aryeh Tepper

Aryeh Tepper completed his doctorate in Jewish Thought at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem in July, 2010. He presently writes for Jewish Ideas Daily.

To Ransom or Not to Ransom?

Reprinted with permission from

Jewish Ideas Daily


The PLO’s first attack on Israel came in 1965, when Mahmoud Hijazi and five other terrorists attempted to bomb a water-pump station in southern Israel. Once captured, Hijazi received the second death sentence ever handed down in Israel (Adolf Eichmann‘s being the first). Though his sentence was later overturned, the story was far from over.


A new chapter began on January 1, 1970, when Fatah terrorists crossed into Israel from Lebanon and kidnapped a guard stationed in the border town of Metulla. That man, Shmuel Rosenwasser, was brutally tortured by his captors for over a year, until the Israeli government exchanged Hijazi for Rosenwasser’s release: a one-for-one deal.

Nine years later, the terms had already shifted, and the price for prisoners skyrocketed. In exchange for an Israeli soldier who had been abducted in Lebanon by Ahmed Jibril’s especially murderous branch of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), the Israeli government released 76 PLO operatives, 20 with “blood on their hands.”
gilad shalit
In 1985, Israel agreed to the infamous “mother of all prisoner exchanges,” again with Jibril’s PFLP, trading 1150 Palestinian prisoners for three Israeli soldiers. The exchange came in for harsh criticism, with Haaretz’s veteran military analyst Ze’ev Schiff writing at the time that with each successive agreement, Israel was “conceding more and more to the terrorist organizations” and thus demonstrating greater and greater weakness.

Schiff passed away in 2006, before Israeli concessions reached a previously unthinkable acme in a 2008 prisoner swap with Hezbollah. In that exchange, Israel freed five terrorists, including the notoriously savage Samir Kuntar, plus 200 bodies, in exchange for the bodies of two IDF soldiers. It was the first time that Israel traded live terrorists for corpses. 

Gilad Shalit

Israelis take great pride in their commitment never to abandon one of their own, whether dead or alive, behind enemy lines. But does the willingness to pay any price to bring home fellow Israelis reflect communal solidarity, or does it instead reflect an increasingly defeatist mentality? A recent conference at Hebrew University examined the legal, psychological, and political dimensions of negotiating with terror organizations for the release of Israeli captives. The painful dilemmas that these negotiations pose are exemplified in the heated discussion around the fate of Gilad Shalit.

Ezekiel in Iran

Reprinted with permission from

Jewish Ideas Daily


A synagogue in today’s Jerusalem bears the name “Hajji Yehezkel.” Yehezkel is Ezekiel, and Hajji is the Persian term for one who has fulfilled the Islamic precept of going on pilgrimage to Mecca. Who was this Ezekiel, and how did he earn his improbable honorific? In its own way, his story encapsulates 2,700 turbulent years of Jewish life in Iran, the country once known as Persia.


An exhibit at Tel Aviv’s Beit Hatfutsot–formerly called the Museum of the Diaspora, now the Museum of the Jewish People–examines the alternating realities that have characterized the long and tangled history of Iran and its Jews. That history goes back to biblical times, as attested in the Purim story of royal intrigue and a narrow escape from attempted genocide at the hands of the evil Haman. But even in those days, Persian history revealed a schizophrenic character; earlier on, it was the humane and tolerant King Cyrus who, after the Persians defeated the Babylonians in 539 B.C.E., had invited the exiled Jews to return to their homeland, itself now under Persian rule, and to rebuild their temple.

iran ketubahUnder the rule of two Persian dynasties (247 B.C.E.–651 C.E.), both the Mishnah and the Babylonian Talmud, the twin ancient rabbinic collections of law and lore, were composed. At the opening of the Tel Aviv show, the Israeli scholar Shaul Shaked detailed some of the legal and ritual terminology in the Talmud that reflects its Persian context, and Houman Sarshar, an Iranian-born chronicler of Iranian-Jewish life, declared that the work should rightly be called not the Babylonian but the Persian Talmud. Even after the Arab-Muslim conquest in the mid-7th century C.E., Persia became the first kingdom in all the “lands of Islam” not to adopt Arabic, instead jealously maintaining its attachment to its own language–in whose preservation the Jews played a crucial role. The earliest surviving writings in Persian are texts written in Hebrew characters.

The Old Young Guard

Reprinted from Jewish Ideas Daily.

One of the most significant movements of Jewish renewal in the 20th century was Hashomer Hatzair: the Young Guard. Founded as a youth group in Vienna in 1916, the movement set itself in opposition to what it regarded as the emaciated character of Jewish life. In place of this, it aimed to restore vitality, community, and optimism to the Jewish people by founding communal settlements (kibbutzim) in the land of Israel. There, life would be reorganized along Marxist-Zionist lines and people would be re-educated to share everything. Against the “idolatrous worship of books” typical of traditional Jewish society, Hashomer Hatzair also called for a return to the simplicity and beauty of nature.

For a time, the kibbutz movement associated with Hashomer Hatzair and other such groups was a wild success, especially among young Jews attracted by the idealism of a collective life on the land. After Hashomer Hatzairthe founding of the state of Israel, the kibbutzim produced a disproportionate number of elite Israeli soldiers and officers. One Hashomer Hatzair kibbutz was Yad Mordechai, established in 1943 about a mile north of the Gaza Strip. It was named after Mordechai Anielewicz, a leader of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising and himself a member of the movement. In his final letter from the besieged ghetto, Anielewicz celebrated the revival of the Jews’ martial spirit: “The dream of my life has risen to become fact. . . . I have been a witness to the magnificent, heroic fighting of Jewish men in battle.”

That spirit would be put to the test when Yad Mordechai came under attack by Egyptian forces during Israel’s war of independence. Abandoned in May 1948, the kibbutz was razed by the Egyptians before being retaken by Israeli troops toward the end of the year and later rebuilt from the ground up.

In 1968, a museum was opened at Yad Mordechai to commemorate the lost world of European Jewry, the battle for the kibbutz, and the rebirth of the Jewish state. Since it lies off the beaten path and is now within range of Kassam missiles fired from Gaza, the museum has tended to attract relatively few visitors. But it recently made a bid for greater attention by hiring a prominent designer to bring an Epcot Center-like sensibility to its exhibits. Among the innovations was a technologically sophisticated tribute to the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, complete with yellow stars projected onto visitors’ clothing and a reconstruction of the basement bunker housing the command center of the Jewish resistance.

Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag

Reprinted with permission from Jewish Ideas Daily.

Aside from a small circle of students and admirers, Rabbi Yehuda Ashlag was an unknown figure at his death in 1954. Today, religious schools and New Age “educational centers” around the world are actively spreading his ideas, and his writings are being analyzed by professors and graduate students. After spending an hour in the rabbi’s stone mausoleum, the pop-diva Madonna emerged with tears in her eyes. Who was this person to whom scores of pious (and impious) Jews and non-Jews are turning for inspiration?magic kabbalah

Born in Poland in 1885 to an Orthodox family, Yehuda Ashlag quickly established himself as a Talmud scholar and rabbinical jurist. His deepest commitment, however, was to kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition, which he interpreted in light of the revolutionary fervor that characterized his times. After moving to the land of Israel in 1921, he quickly began to disseminate his radical claims.

A New Interpretation of Kabbalah

Far from being an otherworldly tradition, kabbalah according to Rabbi Ashlag is a logical system intended for the ethical and political redemption of human society. And far from being an esoteric discipline, study of which must be reserved for an intellectual and spiritual elite, kabbalah should be taught to everybody.

Although his books display impressive erudition, the heart of Ashlag’s teaching is quite simple: God is the absolute good, Who gives and never takes. By observing His commandments, we can overcome our own desire to receive, cultivate our capacity to give, and thus become godly ourselves. A society ruled by the desire to receive rather than to give—in other words, a society that celebrates the acquisitive impulse—distances itself from God and has a deeply corrupting influence. In this light, it is easy to understand why Ashlag championed a Torah-based form of communism.

After his death, the rabbis’s two sons and brother-in-law set out to propagate his ideas by publishing books and founding schools. They, too, died marginal figures, but they raised a generation of students and disciples who have rescued their teacher’s work from the margins. Among institutions spreading versions of his teachings, one in particular, the U.S.-based Kabbalah Center, has proved especially effective, not least in reaching the likes of Madonna.  

The Mood of the Oud

Reprinted with permission from Jewish Ideas Daily.

Politically speaking, the state of Israel remains largely cut off from the surrounding Arab world. On a cultural level, however, Arab elements continue to animate many forms of Jewish expression that, originally rooted in Arab countries, have been transplanted into Israeli society. The most conspicuous example is music.

The great musical tradition that grew out of the Islamic conquests of the 7th century was itself a cultural mélange, a fusion of the pre-Islamic songs of the Arabian Peninsula with Persian music distilled in light of musical theories from classical Greece and India. To all of this would be added a distinctive Spanish flavor from the centuries of Islamic dominion in Iberia. In the continuous give-and-take that comprises cultural exchange, the Arab tradition in turn influenced music throughout the Middle East and Central Asia, to the point where it is now possible to speak of seven main strains that have descended from the Arab-Islamic core: Middle Eastern (roughly corresponding to the lands of the Fertile Crescent), Persian, Central Asian, North African, Turkish, Indian, and Bedouin.

The Jerusalem Oud Festival

Amazingly, however, there is only one country in the Middle East where all seven traditions still thrive: Israel. And the one place where they can all be heard is the Jerusalem Oud Festival, which originated in 1999 with the modest intention of exposing Israelis to some of the wonders of classical Arab music. Eleven years later, the festival has earned an international reputation and includes a roster of first-rate musicians from around the globe.

Why the oud? Known as the "sultan" of Arab musical instruments, the oud is the father of the lute and the grandfather of our guitar. A string instrument with a pear-shaped body and a deeply resonant tone, it represents and embodies the richness of the Arab musical tradition. Indeed, the 2010 festival, held November 11–25, included a tribute to one of the great oud players of the 20th century, Farid al-Atrash (1915–1974):