Jewish groups may be poised for a major burst of activism on the issue of torture and detainee abuse — an issue that until now has produced what one prominent activist called “shameful” silence from the Jewish community.
The shift was apparent in an interfaith ad in The New York Times on Wednesday arguing that “Torture is a Moral Issue” — a letter signed by the leader of the Conservative movement, as well as a Reform leader who has been an outspoken critic of administration policy on the issue. “
I have been doing a lot thinking about it, and I have started to hear more concerns about the issue as I travel around the country,” said Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.
“I’m hearing people say this policy is bad for our soldiers, that it is inappropriate for civilized humanity to act this way.” Rabbi Epstein, who stressed he signed the interfaith ad as an individual, said he will push to have the Conservative movement’s public policy committee take up the torture issue in response to a growing clamor from congregations, with the hope the movement will take a strong stand.
Nationally, the issue flared again this week with the suicide of three inmates at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility in Cuba.
On Wednesday, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture published the first in a series of advertisements in national newspapers urging the administration to “abolish torture now — without exceptions.”
Jewish signers included Rabbi Epstein, Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel and Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, a longtime critic of U.S. handling of detainees in the war on terrorism.
The coalition also urged the administration to end the use of secret U.S. prisons around the world and the policy of “rendition” — sending terror suspects for interrogation to nations that openly use torture.
Rabbi Saperstein said his group will actively seek greater involvement in the issue by a Jewish community that has been reluctant to speak out. Jewish organizations “overwhelmed by a number of other issues” have not paid close attention to the issue, he said, but added that there are growing signs of concern about the torture issue across the Jewish spectrum.
Rabbi Sidney Schwarz, president of Panim: The Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values, said that many Jewish organizations fear that speaking out on torture will be seen as partisanship because it involves criticizing Bush administration actions.
“The organized Jewish community has been very reticent to do that on a range of issues,” he said. “But I would argue that torture transcends partisanship.”
Rabbi Schwarz said the relative silence of the Jewish community on the issue reflects “25 years of retreat from the major progressive issues of the day.”
Rabbi Schwarz is a member of the board of Rabbis for Human Rights – North America, which is in the process of mounting a full-bore campaign on the torture issue. Recent RHR hired a full-time staff person to help organize the Jewish religious community on the issue.
The group’s leader, Rabbi Brian Walt, said it is a “great shame” that the Jewish community has been so quiet on torture and detainee abuse.
“One reason many Jewish leaders cited is that there weren’t Jewish resources on the issue of torture,” he said. “So we took that on and created a packet that we have sent to rabbis around the country.”
That packet includes an extensive discussion of how Jewish law and tradition approach the issue of physical coercion and torture.
“I have a lot of confidence the Jewish community will start to mobilize around the issue when there is more awareness,” said Rabbi Melissa Weintraub, a Conservative rabbi and the RHR official detailed to work on the torture issue. She is also the author of the group’s packet on torture and Jewish law. “I find in my speaking and my teaching that when people know what’s going on, they care and there is an immediate response. There is a big awareness gap in the community.”
Weintraub said there is “no overt prohibition of torture in Jewish law. But the weight of the restrictions on the use of permissible violence, even in the name of self-defense, places too many constraints on our use of violence to permit routine torture.”
The use of coercion to extract information, she said, is particularly problematic from a Jewish point of view.
“There is the prohibition against self-incrimination in Jewish law — Judaism’s version of the Fifth Amendment, but much more stringent,” she said. “In Jewish law, a confession is inadmissible evidence; there is no such thing as a guilty plea. Many scholars believe that prohibition, which arose under the Romans at a time when many Jews were being tortured, was meant to ensure that Jews never inflict torture in interrogation.”
Rabbi Saul Berman, leader of the progressive Orthodox group Edah, recently led a session with Washington and Baltimore-area rabbis on the subject.
He agreed that Jewish law, while not specifically addressing torture, includes numerous prohibitions that would preclude the use of coercive techniques. But Jewish groups have been reluctant to get involved in the political controversy over torture, he said, for three reasons.
“There is a general reluctance in the Jewish community now with being identified with ‘liberal’ issues,” Rabbi Berman said. “Many people are mistaken in thinking this is a liberal issue.
Some Jewish leaders, he said, are “really frightened that if the Jewish community does focus on the issue of torture, it will reflect badly on Israel.”
That, he said, is a “deep error because Israel has an extraordinarily good record on the issue.” Israeli courts, he said, have banned outright torture and ruled that even “moderate physical pressure cannot be used to extract information.”
But the biggest factor may be the lingering consequences of the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
‘The sense that we are confronted by an irrational enemy and that fundamentalist political Islam is willing to do anything to achieve its goals, has created a feeling that we should not be too punctilious about things like torture, because our punctiliousness could lead to our own destruction,” Berman said.
The counterargument, he said, is that “it is vital for this society to retain its essential values precisely when combating enemies of this sort.”
And that imposes a special responsibility on the religious community, he said, “to persuade people that the abandonment of our own values would have dire consequences.”
He said the religious community is slowly rising to the challenge; the community- wide response to the genocide in Darfur, he said, “bespeaks a shift in which our capacity to reach out on humanitarian issues far beyond the confines of the Jewish community is growing.”
Brian Walt, director of Rabbis for Human Rights, said that his group is working to “create a network of organizers in local communities nationwide that will advocate on the issue.”
The group has convinced 700 rabbis to sign a letter rejecting torture as a tool in the war on terrorism. That’s just the first step, he said, in creating a community-wide awareness of the issue.
“And we plan to take it several steps further by urging Jews to sign statements opposing torture,” he said.