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Jewish Support Builds for Anti-persecution Bill

April 1, 1998
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As Congress took its first action last week on legislation targeted at religious persecution abroad, support for such a law continued to build among Jewish groups.

The House International Relations Committee approved the Freedom From Religious Persecution Act last week by a vote of 31-5, handing a victory to religious activists who began trumpeting the cause more than a year ago.

But in the Senate, alternative legislation has emerged that is further complicating an already complicated and contentious issue — and its implications for Israel seem to be one source of concern.

The measure, introduced by Sens. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) and Don Nickles (R- Okla.), contains a far broader definition of persecution, prompting concerns among some Jewish activists about what it would mean for Israel.

Because single acts, rather than a pattern of abuse committed on account of an individual’s religious beliefs, would apparently constitute religious persecution under the Senate bill, some activists say certain Israeli practices toward Palestinians — such as detentions, interrogations, curfews and closures — could come under scrutiny, even though religious, not political, actions are the target of the proposed legislation.

“Israel could be held as restricting religious freedom under the Senate version,” one Jewish lobbyist said. Another said: “We’re still thinking about it and digesting it.”

A spokesman for Lieberman, an Orthodox Jew, said, “It’s a universal standard, it applies to everybody,” but added, “Israel’s record is an extremely good one.”

The measure that passed the House International Relations Committee, sponsored by Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) and Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), specifically targets “widespread and ongoing” government acts of abduction, enslavement, imprisonment, forced mass relocation, rape, crucifixion and other forms of torture of religious minorities.

It would bar all but humanitarian aid to countries engaged in the persecution of religious minorities, ban exports of equipment that could be used as instruments of torture by oppressive governments and make it easier for those fleeing religious persecution to be granted asylum.

Over the course of the past year, the fight against worldwide religious persecution has emerged as a leading political cause.

The bill’s sponsors say most of the abuses are occurring within militant Islamic countries and the few remaining Communist nations. They have cited Sudan, China, Iran, Egypt, Pakistan, Vietnam and Algeria as some of the worst offenders.

Proponents of the campaign in the Christian community have sought input and support from Jewish leaders from the beginning as they looked to model their campaign after the Jewish community’s successful efforts to free Soviet Jews in the 1970s and 1980s.

But Jewish groups, while supporting the concept of combating religious persecution, have feared that the bill would do more harm than good and elevate the cause of religious persecution over other human rights concerns.

The Anti-Defamation League endorsed the legislation last week, saying that recent modifications have satisfied concerns about whether the measure can effectively address the problem.

In a letter to members of the House International Relations Committee, the ADL said it “supports combating all forms of oppression with equal vigor, but we also recognize the value of spotlighting problems such as religious persecution which is a bellwether for how countries behave on other fronts.”

The Orthodox Union also announced its support for the bill, joining the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center and the Republican-aligned National Jewish Coalition, both of which got behind the bill last year.

Some mainstream Jewish groups continue to express reservations about the measure, saying more changes may be needed before they can get behind it.

The Council of Jewish Federations and the American Jewish Committee, for example, say they are concerned about the requirement that sanctions automatically be imposed against offending countries. They fear that it may straitjacket U.S. foreign policy.

The Clinton administration, which opposes the Wolf-Specter bill, has raised similar objections.

House Republican leaders, for their part, have declared the Wolf-Specter bill a high priority and say they hope to bring it up for a floor vote in coming months after it wends its way through two more committees.

No action has been scheduled in the Senate.

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