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Have They Pursued Justice?

May 4, 2011 By:
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Newspapers announcing Osama bin Laden's death and U.S. flags decorate the fence overlooking the Flight 93 Memorial Park in Shanksville, Pa. Photo by David Denoma/Reuters

Bea Hollander-Goldfein may only have been 9 when segments of the trial of Adolf Eichmann were broadcast on television, but she still remembers the reaction of her "sweet, soft" mother, a Holocaust survivor who lost her entire family.

While she can't swear to an exact quote, it went something like: "They should give survivors knives, and we should cut him up piece by piece."

"I think that this is a raw, visceral response to a murderer who had a role in murdering your family," said Hollander-Goldfein, a clinical psychologist who directs the project "Transcending Trauma: Exploring Psychological Mechanisms of Survival" for the Council for Relationships.

Now, a few weeks after the 50th anniversary of the start of that landmark trial in Jerusalem, and 66 years to the day after Adolf Hitler's suicide in a Berlin bunker, comes the killing of Osama bin Laden -- the face of radical Islamic terrorism -- by U.S. forces at his compound in Pakistan.

The proximity to the Eichmann anniversary has thrown into relief the fact that, unlike one of the major architects of the Final Solution, bin Laden was never brought to trial, never confronted in a court of law by family members of his victims.

At the same time, images of triumphant, jubilant celebrations outside the White House have given some pause and caused many to wonder: Is the death of an evil man reason to feel a surge of pride or joy? What does the Jewish tradition have to say about issues of justice and retribution?

"The notion that Jews don't believe in vengeance is a naive notion," said Rabbi Avi Winokur of Society Hill Synagogue, which isn't affiliated with any movement.

While many might hope for a simple answer, Winokur said the complicated truth is that "Jews believe in vengeance and Jews don't believe in vengeance." It depends on the circumstances.

Tradition forbids taking any kind of personal vengeance or taking justice into one's own hands; that's why courts exist. But on the other hand, there's the Torah commandment for the Israelites to literally wipe out their biblical arch enemies, the Amalakites.

In addition, the rabbi pointed out, there's the holiday of Purim, which instructs Jews to engage in revelry and celebration, not only for the survival of the Jews of ancient Persia, but also over the defeat and deaths of Haman, 10 of his sons and 500 of his followers.

An Understandable Emotion

While the bin Laden episode is far more immediate, Winokur said that, in a way, some of the reaction to the news isn't all that different from the Purim concept.

"We finally got the guy. We are really glad we did. I don't know if it's the most noble emotion, but it certainly is understandable," he said.

While ideally it would have been better for bin Laden to have stood trial, practically, such a development could have led to more terrorist attacks, added the one-time attorney.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, founder of the Philadelphia-based Shalom Center, said that, as long as the reports are accurate and bin Laden fired on American troops, he had no problem with the fact that the terrorist was killed rather than taken into custody.

Yet Waskow said that he was "dismayed by the quasi-sports-victory tone of the celebrations that arose around the country."

"You don't celebrate the death of human beings," he said, noting that Israelis had reacted solemnly to the hanging of Eichmann in 1962.

Waskow recounted that in the biblical book of Exodus, Moses and Miriam led the people in a celebratory song after Pharaoh's army drowns in the Red Sea. In a much later rabbinic interpretation of the story, the angels in heaven dance and sing as well, but are rebuked by God.

Steven Kressel, a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army who lives in Cherry Hill, N.J., said that during his 22 years of active service, he never encouraged his troops to celebrate the death of an adversary.

While he said that President Barack Obama was muted in making the announcement, he thought others in civic life and the media should have encouraged the masses to treat Monday as a solemn day of reflection.

"We really lost a historic opportunity to take and hold the moral high ground. Monday should have been declared a day of mourning and reflection on our terrible loss of human life, and on the necessity of targeting bin Laden and the loss of one more human life," said Kressel, who is active in P'nai Or, a Jewish Renewal congregation in Philadelphia, and Chabad Lubavitch of Camden and Burlington counties.

"The killing of a human being is at times necessary and appropriate," he added. "The celebration of the kill is neither necessary nor appropriate."

The Concept of Amalek

But Rabbi Ira Budow, director of the Abrams Hebrew Academy, a Jewish day school in Yardley, said that Jews have no reason to feel bad for feeling good about the killing of bin Laden.

"There is the concept of Amalek in this world. We have an obligation to erase the memory of Amalek, and what Osama did made him an Amalek in every way," said Budow.

The rabbi said the news was far too important to treat Monday morning like any other day of school. Instead, he brought his student body to an outside garden that had been created in memory of Joshua Reiss, a 23-year-old bond trader who died in the twin towers. One of his sisters, Jennifer Reiss, was a student at Abrams at the time.

Budow said he spoke at length to the students about the grief that the family and the school community endured, and urged them to truly appreciate being Americans.

For her part, Joshua's mother, Juith Reiss, said her family, including her other four children, have never been the same since their brother's death.

"I would have liked to have spent the rest of my life being a soccer mom. I guess that wasn't in the cards," said Reiss. "It's hard because he's missed so much. They took his future. There are days that are real tough. Holidays are real hard."

"There is a special place in hell for this man," Reiss said, referring to bin Laden. She added that, while she didn't feel like going out and celebrating herself, she understood why people did.

Reiss said she wasn't sorry that there won't be a trial. She and her husband Gary have traveled to Guantánamo Bay to witness the military prosecution of Khalid Sheik Mohammed, and said he showed nothing but disdain for the justice system and the rights being afforded him.

Cheltenham resident Shelly Zalesne, whose son-in-law David Retik was aboard American Airlines Flight 11 when it crashed into the World Trade Center, said that bin Laden's death did not have a profound emotional impact on her or her husband, Saul.

"We care that people come to justice. He wasn't a big focus for us.We feel just like everybody else, that he got what he deserved -- he actually deserved worse," said Zalesne, whose daughter Susan gave birth to her third child two months after losing her husband. "We go about our daily lives. It's not that we avoid thinking about it; it's there all the time."

Hollander-Goldfein stressed that, for survivors, family members and even the general public, there is not really a normative response to the death of the likes of an Eichmann or a bin Laden.

"The first word that comes to my mind is justice," she said. "The punishment has been meted out. On a philosophical and value-based level, it helps us hold onto a meaning system."

Added Hollander-Goldfein: "You would want good met with good and evil met with punishment -- and that evil survives without punishment is very disconcerting. There is no way to make sense out of that."

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