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Silence undermines communitys moral credibility
August 19th, 2005
Has concern about Israel silenced the moral voice of the Jewish community?
Some worried observers say Israel is one major reason for the communitys relative silence as controversy rages over the treatment of U.S. prisoners in places like Iraq, Afghanistan and Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
Concerned lawmakers from both parties are seeking to bring some accountability to a justice system that is discarding longstanding legal protections in the name of fighting terrorism.
But many Jewish leaders just say theyre studying the issue, or plead that theres no consensus in their organizations to make it a priority.
Whatever the reason, the bottom line is the same. On a moral issue that will have a huge effect on the kind of society we will become in the perilous days ahead, the Jewish community has largely lost its voice.
Still shocked by the Sept. 11 terror attacks and worried that they were just the beginning of a new kind of war, the nation has given its leaders tremendous latitude in changing some fundamental rules.
In the name of fighting terrorism, civil rights protections have been weakened, the ability of the government to pry into its citizens lives expanded.
The Patriot Act which the House of Representatives voted to renew on July 21 and the Senate, in a slightly different version, on July 29; the two must be reconciled before President Bush can sign it is just the most visible manifestation of that effort.
There is a new tolerance for things that we used to consider beyond the pale of civilized behavior.
U.S. authorities use rendition to transfer detainees to countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt that permit outright torture, even though these same nations are criticized in each years State Department human rights report for just that reason, and despite controversy among experts about whether torture actually produces useful intelligence.
At Guantanamo Bay, hundreds of foreigners captured in Afghanistan and elsewhere are being held without charges, without recourse to our legal system and without the protections afforded by the Geneva Convention.
That could put American soldiers at increased risk in the future when their captors parrot the American claim that international law doesnt apply.
Images of gross mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq have fanned hatred in Muslim lands, shocked and offended reluctant U.S. allies and undermined this countrys push for democracy.
On Capitol Hill, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) was outraged enough to write legislation calling for an independent investigation of detainee mistreatment. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a former prisoner of war himself, has proposed legislation that would force the armed services to comply with their own rules barring inhumane treatment.
But the Bush administration is adamantly opposed to both bills. Vice President Dick Cheney has insisted that barring mistreatment of prisoners would hurt the war on terrorism. The White House has promised a veto of the entire defense authorization bill if it includes any detainee amendments.
The Jewish community, traditionally at the forefront of defending human rights, has been surprisingly quiet. Only the American Jewish Committee and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism among major Jewish groups are supporting the McCain legislation. None has announced support for Levins measure.
Jewish leaders offer a variety of explanations, including the difficulty of getting leaders together during the summer and the press of an unusual number of other issues.
But the relative silence is also part of a broader narrowing of Jewish interests. Its getting more difficult, some activists say, to mobilize communal resources for any but a handful of narrowly Jewish concerns, starting with defense of Israel.
Many Jewish leaders say broad human rights efforts are still important, but getting their organizations to act is getting harder as Israel activism trumps everything else.
Jewish organizations are also becoming more Israel-focused for institutional reasons. In todays competitive fundraising environment, Israel sells to big givers. Broad human rights activism doesnt.
Some Jewish leaders also cite practical political considerations. Siding with administration critics, some worry, could generate a White House backlash against Jewish interests starting with Israel.
Or they fear that criticizing U.S. human rights violations would inevitably focus attention on Israels handling of its detainees forgetting, apparently, that Israels Supreme Court has ruled against torture, something our own high court has yet to do.
Rabbi J. Rolando Matalon of Congregation Bnai Jeshurun in New York said that weve become a much more comfortable community, and at the same time, a community that is very self absorbed. We are not taking seriously our role as one among the concert of moral voices. This is an issue the Jewish community should be very vocal about.
So far, that hasnt happened. The resulting silence could undermine the communitys credibility as a moral force in America and, ultimately, impair our ability to serve as effective defenders of Israel.
Former Madisonian James Besser has been Washington correspondent for the New York Jewish Week, the Baltimore Jewish Times and other leading Anglo-Jewish newspapers for more than 15 years.