Synagogues Speak Out Against Wiretapping, Torture

By Marc Perelman

Published July 07, 2006, issue of July 07, 2006.
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The country’s two largest synagogue movements are stepping up their criticism of the Bush administration’s domestic wiretapping program and treatment of detainees, in sharp contrast to the approach of the major non-sectarian Jewish civil rights organizations.

Senior figures of the Conservative and Reform movements have recently called on the White House to prohibit the use of torture and urged Congress to look into the secret wiretapping program launched by the National Security Agency in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks. Officials at the Anti-Defamation League, American Jewish Committee and American Jewish Congress, on the other hand, have been silent on the wiretapping program and generally less confrontational when offering any critique of the administration on the torture issue.

The two issues highlight what appear to be both substantive and stylistic differences between the non-Orthodox synagogue movements and the Jewish civil rights groups, as well as policy gaps between the Jewish community’s grassroots and the more hawkish donors who hold increasing sway on many Jewish organizational boards. While the synagogue movements can boast of representing the millions of members of their congregations, observers in Washington say that lawmakers are more likely to see the nonsectarian groups as the Jewish community’s main address on security issues.

In recent years, and especially since the September 11 attacks, the ADL, AJCommittee and AJCongress have increasingly focused their advocacy efforts on the defense of Israel — be it against Palestinian terrorism or the Iranian nuclear threat — and the fight against Islamic terrorism. As a result, some observers said, they have been less outspoken on civil liberties issues when it comes to anti-terrorist measures.

The Reform and Conservative movements, meanwhile, have been prompted by growing concerns among their congregants to become more outspoken in their denunciation of torture and cruel treatment of detainees.

The Reform movement’s advocacy arm in Washington, the Religious Action Center, urged lawmakers to further investigate the NSA wiretapping program in a June 23 letter to the chairman and vice chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. The domestic surveillance program, which was revealed by The New York Times in December, prompted the administration to launch an investigation into possible leaks of security information.

“We believe that to allow the NSA program to continue without full understanding of its scope and impact violates basic American values and endangers civil liberties protections enshrined in the Fourth Amendment,” the letter stated. “It also accepts as normal an atmosphere of government secrecy, distrust and ambiguous legality — representing a step backward on our quest to create a just, moral and equitable society.”

Last March, at the annual convention of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly in Mexico City, delegates adopted a resolution on civil liberties that pointed to the domestic surveillance program as an example of how the Bush administration was weakening constitutional and statutory protections. The resolution called on the government to abide by the spirit and the letter of the Constitution.

The Rabbinical Assembly also adopted a resolution on the war in Iraq urging its members to “speak out against the use of torture as a tool of war” and to “maintain support for civil liberties during a time of war.”

Earlier this month, several rabbis, including the Religious Action Center’s director, Rabbi David Saperstein, and the executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, Jerome Epstein, signed an interfaith ad published in The New York Times calling on the administration to ban torture without exception, stop using secret prisons around the world and cease authorizing “renditions” whereby terrorism suspects are sent to countries known for their brutal interrogation methods.

On the wiretapping issue, the nonsectarian groups have opted not to take a position. “We are monitoring the issue but we don’t have an opinion,” said Richard Fulton, general counsel of the AJCommittee.

Abraham Foxman, national director of the ADL, said his organization had not debated the wiretapping issue. He stressed the need to recalibrate security and civil liberties by granting law-enforcement enhanced powers to fight the war on terror. “I don’t think this is a Jewish issue per se,” he added. “If rabbinical groups think so, God bless them!”

While the ADL has also not actively lobbied the administration on the issue of detainees, the AJCommittee and AJCongress have staked out similar ground as the Reform and Conservative movements, if not adopting the same confrontational tactics.

The president of the AJCongress, Paul Miller, sent a letter to congressional leaders last December urging support for amendments aimed at curbing potential abuses against detainees by American military and intelligence personnel, including one measure sponsored by Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican. The AJ Committee also publicly endorsed the McCain amendment. The amendment was eventually approved by a large majority, over the objections of the administration.

The AJCommittee also filed an amicus brief in the high-profile case Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, in which the Supreme Court ruled last week that the military commissions set up by the administration to judge terrorist suspects detained in Guantanamo Bay were illegal under both American and international law.

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs — an umbrella group consisting of 13 national organizations, including the ADL, AJCommittee and AJCongress, and more than 100 local Jewish communities — passed a resolution at its plenum this year opposing the use of torture and affirming the validity of the Geneva Conventions and of the convention against torture.

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