As Prisoner Abuse Controversy Rages, Most Groups Keep Quiet

By Miriam Colton

Published May 14, 2004, issue of May 14, 2004.
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As the scandal over U.S. abuse of Iraqi prisoners mounts, only a handful of Jewish organizations have stepped forward to speak out on the issue.

Three of the organizations — the Anti-Defamation League, the National Council for Jewish Women and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism — issued statements condemning the turn of the events. But two groups — the Jewish War Veterans and the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, or Jinsa — took a different tack, reserving the bulk of their criticism for critics of the Bush administration.

Jinsa, a Washington-based organization with strong ties to several Pentagon officials, jumped to the defense of the Bush administration. In its May 11 statement, Jinsa deplored the abuse of prisoners, but argued that “it would be a far greater tragedy if it led to the resignation of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.”

The Jewish veterans issued a statement titled “Show Trials Will Not Solve the Iraq Question,” which declared: “In the rush to satisfy the cravings of the media — which has created frenzy in regard to the allegations of abuse — the military must not be guilty of scapegoating those enlisted personnel who are at the lowest reaches of the chain of command.”

Most Jewish groups have avoided issuing statements on the controversy, including the community’s two major umbrella organizations, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. While both umbrella organizations are opting for silence now, they each issued statements in advance of the Iraq war supporting the use of force as a last resort to eliminate Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction.

Silence on the prisoner issue is a mistake, said Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the RAC. “This is a moral and political issue that affects all Americans,” Saperstein said, “and the Jewish community has an obligation to speak out when our country is involved in activities that are morally problematic.”

The decision to keep quiet on the prisoner debate echoes the silence of Jewish groups in the face of escalating controversies over the administration’s handling of prewar intelligence and the failure of U.S. forces to locate weapons of mass destruction in the year since the invasion. Leaders of several Jewish groups, including ones that have criticized the White House on other fronts, say they are reticent to weigh in on many Iraq issues for fear of being viewed as partisan. Another problem appears to be the lack of a unified message for Jewish groups to rally around.

“There are differences of view on this issue, so it’s not something on which there is a previous precedent and we could issue something right away or where there is complete consensus,” said Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents, which represents 52 national organizations. According to Hoenlein, some of the conference’s members are unsure whether the Jewish community should enter into the public debate.

The list of organizations opting to keep quiet on the issue includes the American Jewish Committee, which, on the eve of the war, voiced support for the Bush administration’s efforts to “vanquish tyranny and terror in Iraq,” and the Orthodox Union, which has worked closely with the White House on several issues. B’nai B’rith and the American Jewish Congress crafted statements condemning the treatment of Iraqi prisoners, but only earlier this week, after being asked by the Forward for comment.

“We find the abuse of prisoners to be abhorrent,” said Paul Miller, the newly elected president of the American Jewish Congress, in an interview with the Forward. “However, it is inappropriate to comment or take a broader position while there is an ongoing investigation. We take solace knowing that there is a commitment to an open airing and full public disclosure.”

The ADL appeared to break the silence of Jewish groups with its May 5 statement, one week after photos of the abuse were first aired on the CBS news program “60 Minutes II.” The statement quoted the ADL’s national director, Abraham Foxman, as saying: “We support the investigations into these abuses and are confident that those implicated in this abuse of prisoners will be appropriately punished.”

In addition to the ADL, the NCJW and the RAC also issued statements late last week condemning the treatment of Iraqi prisoners.

The NCJW defended the length of time it took to respond, attributing the passage of a week to standard organizational procedure and the need to ensure that the organization’s statement conveyed the right message.

The three organizations that issued strong condemnations steered clear of calling for the resignation of Rumsfeld or any other U.S. official.

The RAC, which issued the sharpest condemnation, called on the administration to make public all investigation results, and questioned its preparation for dealing with the aftermath of the war. The director of the Reform organziation, Rabbi David Saperstein, said the White House should have taken the situation “more seriously several months ago before public pressure and exposure forced them to do so.”

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