A word of explanation for my non-Jewish readers: "Birthright Israel" is a program where young North American twenty-somethings get a free trip to Israel to learn about our culture and history. I knew Bernie had guts, but I was still surprised when he let me lead off the following article with the provocative title "Birthright Afghanistan". Here it is in its entirety.
This is the story of a “hyphenated-Canadian family”, troubled by the mass media propaganda campaign which regularly demonizes their national homeland. They hear about a program whereby young people are given the opportunity to spend time overseas, immersed in their culture, to learn about their history and values from their side. They send their teenage son.
As part of this program, the young man learns about the dangers facing his people from powerful enemies. He learns about the cruel outrages inflicted in the past on his countrymen, and is taught to revere the brave soldiers who today defend his people from those who would subjugate them.
While the young man is overseas, the unthinkable occurs. One morning he awakens to learn of an audacious airborne attack which has, without warning, destroyed an imposing symol of enemy power. The enemy is outraged, and demands the arrest of those who planned the attack. The demand is defiantly refused.
Within days, the enemy forces have declared war on the outlaw state which harbors such “criminals”. The war is hopelessly one-sided. The village where the young man has been staying is in short order surrounded by enemy forces who threaten to kill all its defenders unless they immediately turn over their arms. The defenders vow to fight to the last man.
Shells rain down on the underground bunker where the young man is trapped with a handful of defenders, the same young men who only days before had been his teachers, guides and companions. Then there is silence, broken only by the footsteps of the enemy entering the bunker. Through a cloud of dust and smoke, they see the dead bodies of the young man’s companions. But the young man has survived, bloody and blinded in one eye by shrapnel. He pulls the pin on a grenade, and throws it. An enemy soldier screams in pain and crumples to the ground.
The enemy has won the battle but not without cost. Enraged, they pump two more bullets into the broken body of the young man. Still alive, he is dragged off and thrown in a cell. Ten years later, he remains imprisoned. Should we feel sorry for the young man?
I am amazed at the number of people who say that we should lock Omar Khadr in his cell and throw away the key. I wonder what those people would be saying if Omar Khadr had been a fifteen-year-old Jewish boy spending a year in Israel? And what if one morning the world woke up to learn that overnight, Israel had launched a massive air strike on the Iranian nuclear installations? Suddenly, Omar Khadr's story becomes our story: outraged by the attack, a coalition of Islamic nations invades Israel to arrest the “perpetrators”. Israel is quickly overwhelmed, and on an isolated kibbutz a young Birthright participant puts into practise the lessons that he has just recently learned at Masada: to die rather than to surrender. He releases a hand grenade as the the attackers enter the room and it explodes, killing an Iraqi (who happens to be a medic). But our boy miraculously survives. Is it so unlikely that we could one day be reading in the newspapers about a Canadian Jewish teenager being held in Iran as a war criminal and charged with murder?
There is of course a fatal flaw in my analogy: it's the naive assumption of moral equivalency. How can I compare the actions and motivations of our side and theirs? The answer is that when it comes right down to it, I can't. I really still believe that we are right and they are wrong, and justice is on our side. The only difference is that the older I get, the harder it is for me to think of reasons why our enemies shouldn't believe just as strongly that justice is on their side.
And in case I haven’t made it clear, I think Omar Khadr has suffered enough and now that he's back in Canada, we should let him out of jail as soon as possible.