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Jewish World Review Sept. 8, 2000 /7 Elul, 5760

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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Unfortunate Pilgrim

Should we speak up for a revolutionary tourist? -- One of the most powerful obligations for Jews has always been the concept of pidyon shvuyim — the redemption of captives. In the name of this principle, Jews have mobilized to save, and if needed, ransom, fellow Jews who have fallen into the hands of unfriendly powers throughout the world.

From the Jewish captives who were enslaved by the genocidal military power of the Roman Empire two thousand years ago to the millions of Jews held hostage by the evil empire of the former Soviet Union, pidyon shvuyim has been the rallying call of Jewish life.

But unlike those efforts, the latest such cause is not on behalf of a Jew who has been victimized for his or her Jewish identity. Instead, this time we are being asked to call for the freedom of a Jew who worked for a revolutionary Marxist group in the South American country of Peru.

The captive in question is Lori Berenson, a Jewish girl from New York City who was sidetracked from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology by the siren call of Central America in the 1980s.

Berenson threw herself into the complicated world of the civil wars racking El Salvador and Nicaragua. After a period of activism in those countries, she went on to Peru, where twin insurgencies by the conventionally pro-Soviet Marxist Tupac Amaru and the maniacal Maoist Sendero Luminoso movements had turned that nation into a slaughterhouse.

After hanging out with the Tupac Amaru for six months in 1995, Berenson was arrested and convicted of taking part in the planning of a terror attack on the Peruvian Congress. Defiantly, she defended her Peruvian comrades in a memorable scene televised in Peru, and then was sentenced to life in prison by a military court.

After five years in prison — and hard time at that — her cause has recently prospered. Now that the Marxist insurgents have been defeated, the Peruvian government may be rethinking the case with last week’s decision that Berenson is to be retried by a civilian court.

In addition, some have taken up Berenson as Jewish cause. Many synagogues and rabbis have called for her freedom. And some Jewish newspapers have gotten into the act as well.

Most prominent was the Forward, which waxed lyrical on her behalf in an Aug. 25 editorial that claimed “Ms. Berenson’s crime, if there was one, amounts to a foolish overzealousness in pursuit of the very Jewish ideal of social justice.”

But is this true?

To understand what led Berenson to her current plight, it is necessary to briefly revisit the history of these conflicts, as well as the ideologies that drove them.

As the Cold War ebbed, the United States gradually transferred its support from right-wing oligarchies to local democrats in an effort to prevent countries like El Salvador and Nicaragua from becoming Marxist dictatorships like Cuba. At the same time, some on the left in this country allowed themselves to romanticize the Marxist guerrillas of Central America.

Religious groups such as the Quakers’ American Friends Service Committee were conspicuous in this regard. Leftist American Jews were not far behind.

While there was much that was wrong with the governments of Central America, groups like the Sandinistas and their compadres elsewhere in the region were little better when it came to respect for human rights and democracy. But that did not stop many Americans from portraying them as latter-day Thomas Jeffersons.

This was in the grand tradition of a century of ideological pilgrims for Marxism. For such revolutionary tourists, the left was always above criticism. Thus, the famous proclamation of English socialists Sidney and Beatrice Webb, whose visit to the nightmare world of Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union prompted them to say that they “had seen the future ... and it works.”

For a later generation of Marxist pilgrims, the left-wing tyrants and terrorists of Latin America have served a similar purpose.

In Berenson’s case, the triumph of democratic forces in both El Salvador and Nicaragua left her a rebel without a cause. She then moved on to the latest “front” against capitalism in Peru, just as that nation’s authoritarian leader Alberto Fujimoro was rallying the majority of its people against the terror groups.

Interestingly, the line put out by many of Berenson’s supporters who have claimed that she was an innocent bystander has been undermined by one of the left’s leading journals.

The Nation, America’s leading far-left periodical, recently published a fascinating study of the Berenson case. While the result of this investigation, which was clearly sympathetic to Berenson, helped dispel some of the Peruvian government’s propaganda (such as its preposterous claim that Berenson was a leader of Tupac Amaru), it also undermined some of Berenson’s defense. The Nation’s writers emerged with the conclusion that there were inconsistencies in her story that might lead the reader to think there was little doubt of her involvement with the rebels.

Berenson's defenders rightly claim that she was convicted by a panel of hooded anonymous judges. They fail to point out that the only reason judges in Peru wore hoods is that both revolutionary groups made a habit of systematically murdering judges, not to mention politicians, policemen, and any ordinary citizens who displeased them. Taking a page out of the book of both Mao and Stalin, sometimes whole villages of peasants were dispatched by the Sendero Luminoso merely to inspire terror and obedience.

The Forward also claimed that Berenson’s case is tainted by anti-Semitism, a charge that remains unsubstatiated. But the truth is, the small Jewish community of Peru was often targeted by the Marxist rebels. As in the past, leftist Jews support the revolutionaries, but it is the ordinary Jew who pays the price for their “idealism.”

Where does that

leave the Jewish community? Should we all be speaking out to “free” Lori? As a community, we ought to maintain a nonjudgmental attitude toward helping any Jew in need, politics aside. Berenson deserves the sympathy that anyone suffering in harsh Peruvian prisons ought to receive. It is also possible to argue that the charges and the sentence Berenson received were excessive.

After five years behind bars, it is appropriate to seek mercy for this foolish American.

But those, like the Forward, who seek to defend her involvement in Peru as a “pursuit of the very ideal of Jewish social justice” are profoundly mistaken.

Those who served as apologists or camp followers for bloody Marxist terrorism should not be allowed to masquerade as Jewish martyrs. Allegedly good intentions are not a defense for justifying or practicing anti-democratic violence. Allowing Jewish sympathy for the underdog to morph into a defense of such actions is itself a betrayal of the ideals of Jewish justice. To liken support for the violence and contempt for democracy of the Tupac Amaru to a Jewish desire to repair the world — as the Forward seems to do — is dangerous nonsense.

We need to draw a clear distinction between cases such as that of Berenson — where the prisoner is probably guilty and was acting on behalf of a bad cause — and those of innocent persons whose only crime was merely being Jewish, such as the 10 Iranian Jews recently convicted on patently false charges of espionage by the Tehran regime.

Lori Berenson is no martyr to Jewish idealism. She is, instead, just the latest victim of the mythology of the old left.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. He was the recipient of the American Jewish Press Association's highest awards in two categories: First Place in the Louis Rapoport Award for Excellence in Commentary and Editorial Writing for his column "Israel's China Syndrome -- and Ours" and First Place for Excellence in Arts and Criticism for his column "Jewish Art, Jewish Artists." The awards were given to Mr. Tobin at the AJPA's 2000 Simon Rockower Awards dinner at Washington D.C. on June 22, 2000. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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