Search JTA's historical archive dating back to 1923

Community Groups Warn Bush: Don’t Tread on U.S. Civil Liberties

February 20, 2002
See Original Daily Bulletin From This Date

After months of relative silence, Jewish communities and national organizations said the Bush administration has failed to strike the proper balance between combating terrorism and protecting civil liberties.

As expected, the civil liberties resolution drew much debate Monday at the annual conference of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs — including the opposition of several of the largest Jewish groups involved.

The Union of American Hebrew Congregations, the congregational arm of the Reform movement, proposed the resolution. While it praised the White House for its overall efforts in the war on terrorism, the resolution said some of the efforts to investigate and prosecute suspected terrorists have raised civil liberties concerns.

In putting forth the resolution, the Reform movement — and its co-sponsors, the community relations councils of Detroit and St. Louis — challenged the organized Jewish community to speak out.

The Jewish community has a stake in civil liberties and must take a position, “even now, even when it’s hard,” said Mark Pelavin, associate director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism.

Before the vote, Pelavin warned plenum participants that to walk away from the opportunity to raise the Jewish community’s voices together would be an “abdication of our responsibility.”

The resolution, which passed by a vote of 326-196, details three areas where the group says the Bush administration is not appropriately balancing counter-terrorism and civil liberties:

Attorney-client privilege. The resolution says the Department of Justice directive allowing federal officials to listen in on conversations between certain detained individuals and their counsel undermines due process.

The detention of immigrants. The resolution says many feel that detaining suspects without charge for an unspecified “reasonable time” during a “national emergency” violates due process and the will of Congress.

Military tribunals. The resolution objects to the proposed use of closed-door military tribunals.

Some communities worry that voicing opposition to anti-terrorism measures will send the wrong message as the White House pushes forward with its fight against terrorism, which benefits Israel and is supported by most Americans.

But Ann Zousmer of Detroit said that, especially in this “time of terror,” it is important that the Jewish community not forsake its civil liberties platform.

Some argued that JCPA should wait until the Justice Department finalizes its guidelines.

But David Bohm, president of the St. Louis Jewish Community Relations Council and co-chair of a JCPA task force on Jewish security and the Bill of Rights, said the Jewish community must be involved as the country determines its direction.

“If we don’t weigh in while guidelines are being developed, there is the real possibility of harm occurring,” Bohm said.

The debate on the civil liberties resolution and others highlighted this week’s meeting of the JCPA, an umbrella group of 13 national organizations and 123 local federations and community relations councils.

The Jewish Community Relations Council of Bergen County, N.J., offered an alternative that called for more study of the resolution’s three main points, as well as several additional issues, including racial profiling and national identity cards. That proposal failed.

Jerome Milch, former chair of the JCRC of Bergen County, said communities had not had the chance to look at the issues closely and said the UAHC resolution was not representative of the Jewish community.

Indeed, some of the JCPA’s major component organizations — the Anti-Defamation League, American Jewish Committee, B’nai B’rith and Hadassah — and 10 communities all voted against the resolution.

Several other national organizations and 26 communities joined the UAHC, while the Orthodox Union and several communities abstained.

Jay Tcath of Chicago said his community abstained, since community members could not reach a consensus. In its resolution on “Meeting the Challenge of Terrorism,” however, the Metropolitan Chicago JCRC included language that addressed the issue.

The resolution said the JCPA supports “both respecting basic constitutional rights and strengthening domestic anti-terrorism measures that enhance law enforcement capabilities.”

Tcath admitted the wording was subtle, but said the resolution, which passed easily, allowed them to “stand on principle without getting into particulars.”

Other resolutions passed by the JCPA included:

“Support for Israel,” which faulted Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat for not doing enough to stop terrorism and urged Palestinian leaders to promote tolerance.

“Solidarity with the Jewish Community of Argentina,” which noted the severity of the economic situation there and called upon communities to support the United Jewish Communities’ efforts to help Argentine Jews;

“Making Poverty Reduction a Primary Goal of TANF Reauthorization,” which called upon Congress and the administration to shift the focus of welfare reform from caseload reduction to poverty reduction.

Recommended from JTA