Rabbis, Cantors Step Up Campaign Against Torture

By Ori Nir

Published September 23, 2005, issue of September 23, 2005.
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WASHINGTON — An interdenominational group of more than 700 North American rabbis and cantors is stepping up its “campaign to end U.S.-sponsored torture” through a combination of political lobbying, protests and grass-roots mobilizing in synagogues.

Last week the group, Rabbis for Human Rights North America, sent orientation packages to about 4,000 rabbis across the nation, encouraging them to talk to their congregants about torture during the upcoming High Holy Days.

On Tuesday, the group organized a conference call with dozens of leading rabbis. After the conference call, leaders of the group, along with Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Reform movement’s Washington office, met with Senator John McCain. In the face of strong opposition from the Bush administration, Arizona Republican McCain is pushing legislation to ban the torture of detainees captured during America’s war on terrorism. McCain, a likely candidate for president in 2008, was severely tortured when he spent more than five years as a prisoner in a North Vietnamese camp.

“Senator McCain has taken the moral leadership on this issue, but we intend to follow up and meet with other elected officials and at the same time share ideas with rabbis on how to talk with congregants about torture,” said Rabbi Brian Walt, executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights North America.

Walt said that McCain’s staunch support for the Iraq War was not a problem for his group. “Our position on torture has nothing to do with whether there should or should not be a war. We don’t have a position on it,” Walt said. “So it’s irrelevant to us.”

The organization was established in 1999 to support the Israeli-based Rabbis for Human Rights, which was founded 11 years earlier to protest alleged Israeli abuses of Palestinian rights. Last year, however, the North American group expanded its mission to address alleged human-rights violations by the American government.

The organization’s leaders presented McCain with a letter signed by more than 500 rabbis, cantors and rabbinical students. It put forth a case against torture, drawing on biblical and rabbinic texts. The letter, addressed to President Bush and all members of Congress, was written in January, following the discovery that White House staffers issued a memo in 2002 sanctioning the infliction of pain — short of serious bodily injury — during interrogations of terrorism suspects.

“As Jewish leaders representing all the movements of our Jewish community, in consonance with world consensus and with the teachings of Jewish tradition in every age, we call for complete repudiation and prohibition of torture for any purpose, in any instance,” the letter states. “Furthermore we call for full investigation of all allegations of torture committed in settings under United States control and for proper legal sanctions to be applied against individuals who are found to have committed acts of torture.”

Several other Jewish organizations have been outspoken in opposition to torture and maltreatment of detainees. Some, such as the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League, have filed amicus briefs in such cases dealing with torture. Others, including the American Jewish Congress and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, have spoken out against torture.

But Rabbis for Human Rights is the first Jewish group to launch a public advocacy campaign on the issue.

To bolster its grass-roots campaign, the organization has commissioned a comprehensive study of the way in which Jewish texts and Jewish tradition relate to torture. Melissa Weintraub, a rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America — the Conservative movement’s main rabbinical school — wrote the study. It concludes that torture is not even permitted in cases of self-defense, including the “ticking bomb” scenario of a prisoner who has information that could be used to stop a pending attack.

In its letter and its study, the coalition of rabbis notes that even though Israel has been locked in a fight against terrorism, the country’s Supreme Court still outlawed the use of torture in interrogating terrorism suspects. Even in the ticking-bomb scenario Israeli security agents are banned from using physical pressure, though the court has ruled that if interrogators are tried for torture, it might rule — after the fact — that such circumstances justified the use of force to extract information from prisoners.

Following the Tuesday meeting with McCain, Saperstein said that the senator was familiar with the Israeli court ruling and referred to it as a good model for American legislation.

The Bush administration maintains that it never has sanctioned torture as a legitimate tool in investigating detainees. But anecdotal evidence and several official government documents, released in recent months through the Freedom of Information Act, have led human rights and civil rights groups to accuse the Bush administration of sanctioning and even prescribing torture as a regular tool.

The United States is a signatory to a number of international treaties prohibiting cruel treatment of detainees.

“The use and legitimization of torture by the United States violates not only Jewish values but also the democratic traditions of America and international law,” said Rabbi Gerry Serotta, chair of Rabbis for Human Rights North America. “It is our responsibility as rabbis to call our country back to its moral foundations.”

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