Rabbis’ Group Focuses on Rights in U.S.

By Ori Nir

Published January 14, 2005, issue of January 14, 2005.
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WASHINGTON — Galvanized by President Bush’s nomination of Alberto Gonzales for attorney general, liberal American rabbis are vowing to fight alleged human-rights violations committed by the United States in the war on terrorism.

Rabbis for Human Rights - North America, an organization representing 700 clergymen in North America, launched a campaign last week against the abuse of terrorist suspects by American interrogators. As its first step, the group, which was started two years ago to support Israeli rabbis lobbying against violations of Palestinian rights, joined an interfaith coalition in opposing the nomination of Gonzales, due to his role as White House counsel in shaping the administration’s policy on handling terrorism suspects.

Rabbi Brian Walt, executive director of Rabbis for Human Rights - North America, told the Forward that his organization was not founded to take action aimed at the American government. However, he added, the organization has concluded that America “violates human rights on a much larger scale” than Israel.

The organization was joined by two other left-wing religious organizations, the Alliance for Jewish Renewal (Aleph) and the Shalom Center, a Philadelphia-based group headed by Rabbi Arthur Waskow, in a signed letter put out by the interfaith coalition. Two other organizations, the National Council of Jewish Women and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, raised concerns about Gonzales, but stopped short of opposing his nomination.

Most national Jewish agencies have not taken a position nzales nomination or addressed allegations of American abuse. Gonzales is expected to be quickly and easily confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

Last week, during his confirmation hearing, Gonzales acknowledged that he had taken part in discussions at the White House, which resulted in a controversial 2002 memo sanctioning the infliction of pain — short of serious bodily injury — when interrogating terrorism suspects. The memo was recently revoked by the Department of Justice after having been exposed in the media. In his testimony, Gonzales stated that while serving as the nation’s top law-enforcement official, he would not tolerate torture and abuse by American forces.

Such assurances have not quieted critics of the administration.

“Gonzales is just the lightening rod,” Walt said. “We are going to be involved beyond Gonzales.” He added: “Our next step is to work out a rabbis’ statement on torture. We will try to go and visit a detention center [and do] all the things that you may expect clergy to do to end this unjust practice.”

Waskow led a delegation of 21 Philadelphia-area rabbis that met last month with the new chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senator Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican. According to Waskow, Specter promised to ask some pointed questions to Gonzales regarding the treatment of American-held prisoners.

Indeed, when he pitched the first question to Gonzales at the confirmation hearing last week, Specter bluntly inquired, “Do you approve of torture?”

Specter’s meeting with the liberal rabbis took a curious turn, Waskow said, when the senator told the group that he feels lonely in the Senate, with only four moderate Republicans left, and encouraged Jewish clergy to influence the debate on values and public policy within the GOP. He urged them to routinely meet with Republican congressional leaders just as leaders of the religious right do.

Specter’s appointment as chairman of the Judiciary Committee was resolutely opposed by conservatives within his own party, particularly by Christian groups that oppose Specter’s support for abortion rights and that are outraged by comments he made suggesting that the president would be unable to win approval for a Supreme Court nominee who openly opposes Roe v. Wade.

Following the meeting, Specter told The Philadelphia Inquirer that this was the first time in his 24 years as a Senator that a group of rabbis asked to meet with him.

Specter, the longest-serving of the three Jewish Republican lawmakers in Congress, was the main GOP address for Jewish groups to raise concerns over some of Bush’s judicial nominees during the last session of Congress. Now that he has become committee chairman, officials with Jewish organizations say that they expect him to be in even greater demand.

Many Jewish organizations have avoided weighing in on Bush’s lower-court nominees, but say they would consider speaking out regarding a controversial Supreme Court pick.

As for the debate over Gonzales, one official with a national Jewish organization said that groups needed to be selective with a re-elected president in the White House who enjoys a sizable Republican majority in both houses of Congress.

“You will have to pick your fights,” the official said, on the condition of anonymity. “If there is someone like Gonzales, who is a shoo-in — and there will be many others like him who we may find disturbing but will face certain confirmation — then I don’t see why we should oppose just to make a point.”






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