This past week, there were two Jewish individuals in the news on account of their captivity by hostile forces. Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich, 31, marked his 100th day under arrest by Russian authorities on the accusation of spying, while Princeton doctoral student Elizabeth Tsurkov, 36, a dual Israeli-Russian citizen, was captured by Islamic militants in Iraq.
The campaign to release Gershkovich is resonating in the Jewish community because the circumstances are familiar for older generations that fought for his parents’ right to emigrate.
“As Americans, we condemn how our fellow citizen, Evan Gershkovich, has been unlawfully arrested and detained by Russian officials,” Rabbi Mendy Mirocznik declared in May, as the executive vice president of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. “As Jews, we are offended by the apparent resurgence of governmental Russian anti-Semitism. As rabbis, we protest this injustice and demand that Russia does the just, moral thing and immediately frees Evan Gershkovich so he can safely return to his family.”
The Jewish Federations of North America also published a statement expressing gratitude to Secretary of State Antony Blinken in making the case for Gershkovich’s release a priority for this administration.
“Evan’s parents fled the Soviet Union and the anti-Semitism Jews faced there in 1979, seeking freedom and opportunity in the United States,” the statement reads. “Like many in our community, Evan was raised with a deep appreciation for the promise of the American dream. His story is one that all American Jews can relate to and has galvanized our community to act to ensure his safe return.”
Gershkovich was working in Russia as a reporter, documenting corruption, the war effort, and daily life of people in the Russian heartland. His presence in Russia was known to authorities. His reporting posed as much a threat to Vladimir Putin as Brittany Griner’s cannabis oil for which she was arrested last year and later released in a prisoner exchange.
Tsurkov entered Iraq ostensibly as a researcher with experience in Middle Eastern politics. A fluent Arabic speaker, she sought to work in the field, personally interviewing and documenting life in Iraq for her research on the political movement of Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Her kidnapping in March by the Iranian-allied Kataeb Hezbollah militia comes as a surprise, because Tsurkov’s public statements have been very critical of Israel and supportive of the Palestinians.
“Our first instinct was to shout about her disappearance on the Internet, in the media and on these pages,” New Lines Institute wrote in its magazine. “We debated this, but out of respect for her family’s wishes and the chance that this might be resolved with her quick release, we chose not to publicize it.”
Tsurkov is a fellow at this Washington-based think tank. It noted that although Tsurkov is an Israeli, she is “not a Zionist at all.” Her opposition to the expansion of Israeli settlements contrasts with her upbringing. Her parents were Soviet dissidents who spent many years in the gulag, and made aliyah when she was four. For a few years, they lived in the yishuv of Kfar Eldad, and she participated with her classmates in protesting against land for peace. The Israeli news site YNet reported that it was during her military service that Tsurkov began to oppose Jewish settlements and her parents’ views.
Although she is a student at an American university, the State Department has not intervened on her behalf, issuing a very brief quote to the media. “We are aware of this kidnapping and condemn the abduction of private citizens. We defer to Iraqi authorities for comment.”
Likewise, Russia also has not intervened, because Tsurkov has been critical of its war in Ukraine and its support for Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. Israel has been more involved in the matter, and it is believed that Tsurkov is being held as a bargaining chip in exchange for Iranian or Hezbollah prisoners held by Israel. Iraqi authorities are investigating how she entered the country and was taken captive.
For the Jewish community, Tsurkov’s case has not received as much attention as Gershkovich for a number of reasons. The latter was arrested by a government in the midst of a high-profile war, and the US ambassador to Russia is able to visit him, and he works for a leading newspaper. Prior to her kidnapping, Tsurkov was known mostly among her colleagues and online followers who share her views. Did I mention that she is highly critical of the countries that could negotiate for her release?
Tsurkov is not the first or only Jewish individual to enter a hostile country. Whether it is out of curiosity, work, or attention, there are many businessmen, globetrotting YouTubers, and students who understand the risks and hide their Jewish identities as they interact with societies that seek our destruction.
If Israeli efforts to secure her release are successful, I hope that it will serve as a lesson for Tsurkov and other individuals who oppose the government that is dedicated to the return of captive Jews, regardless of their political or religious views. These well-meaning individuals have an idea of tikun olam, and so do those who keep up with Daf Yomi. Earlier this month, we learned that tikun olam involves strategies to discourage the kidnapping of Jews – such as not paying an exorbitant ransom.
For humanitarian reasons, Israel may release an Iranian intelligence officer in exchange for Tsurkov. Between an agent dedicated to the destruction of Israel and a misguided PhD student who turned against the settler communities where she was raised, one thing is clear: Jewish lives matter.
By Sergey Kadinsky