Civil Liberties War Among Jews


An abiding value I learned growing up poor in a Boston Jewish ghetto during the so-called Great Depression was social justice. Not the poisonous kind in Father Charles E. Coughlin’s national anti-Semitic newspaper called Social Justice, but the real thing—the Bill of Rights’ protections of each individual against the state.

Franklin D. Roosevelt carried our Ward 12 overwhelmingly in all his campaigns, but the FDR Democrats were the conservatives in my neighborhood. The rest of the residents were socialists, Communists, and so far as I knew, nonviolent anarchists. I didn’t see an actual Republican living there until I was a teenager.

Most of the adults were immigrants, including my parents. Many of them had come to America to escape the pervasive prejudices of the Old Country, the pogroms, and the routine injustices of the czar’s authoritarian state.

Whatever our fierce differences in politics, most of us Jews were pro-labor and against the bosses—the ones we knew (my first job, at age 11, was in a haberdashery) and the ones we read about.

My father, without sloganeering, believed that the essence of Judaism was to lead a just life. He despised racial or any other form of discrimination.

In our living room was a brass clock in the shape of a ship’s wheel, and standing over that wheel, gripping a spoke, was Franklin Delano Roosevelt. There was no sign of a wheelchair. At the base of the clock was the phrase “At the Wheel of a New Deal.” Long after the clock stopped running, it was kept on the shelf, a symbol to my father of the difference between America and the fearsome Russia he had left.

Every Sunday, my father read the Forward, a Yiddish-language newspaper. It embodied the values and hopes of our community and of most Jews in America. There is now in New York a weekly English-language Forward, to which I’ve subscribed since Seth Lipsky—soon to be the editor of a new New York daily, The Sun—created it.

On the front page of the Forward of December 21, 2001, there was this subhead: “Jewish Groups Seen Taking Powder as Civil Libertarians Raise Alarms.” The story, by Ami Eden, began:

“The White House strategy for fighting terrorism is driving a wedge between leading Jewish champions of civil liberties and many of the Jewish organizations that have been their traditional allies.”

Among the champions Ami Eden mentioned were Anthony Lewis, William Safire, Senator Arlen Specter, Richard Cohen, and Russell Feingold, the only senator who was mensch enough to vote against John Ashcroft’s USA PATRIOT Act. (Where were you, Paul Wellstone?)

But when the ACLU organized more than 150 groups—right, left, middle—to protest Ashcroft’s war on civil liberties, only one Jewish organization signed on: Women of Reform Judaism. But since then, Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and Reform movement leader Rabbi Eric Yoffie at the Union of American Hebrew Congregations have strongly and trenchantly joined the forces working to regain our constitutional rights. Next week, I’ll be quoting from their letter to the shredder of the Constitution, John Ashcroft.

The absence of the other major and minor Jewish organizations from the ACLU’s list was noted by its president, Nadine Strossen, who said of the huge coalition she had helped put together: “The signers are very diverse, across the political, ethnic, racial, and religious spectrum, but woefully short of Jewish organizations.

“I think [their abstention] matters very much,” Strossen told Ami Eden of the Forward. “We want it to be clear that we are talking about core American values. Just as it’s important to be able to cite Republicans as well as Democrats, conservatives as well as liberals, I want to be able to cite not only Arab American groups, but also Jewish groups.”

So where, for example, is the Anti-Defamation League? I consider its national director, Abraham Foxman, a friend. We disagree on some issues, but he knows a hell of a lot more about civil liberties than John Ashcroft. While many Jews were kvelling (being joyously proud) over Joe Lieberman’s being the first Jew to be on a major party’s presidential ticket, Abe broke ranks when he saw that Lieberman was running as if he were seeking office in a theocratic state.

When Lieberman repeated again and again that in this great nation, “there is no freedom from religion,” Abe publicly reminded him that he was misquoting the Constitution (Article VI: ” . . . no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States”).

So what does Foxman say when Bush and company have violated lawyer-client confidentiality in federal prisons and set up military tribunals in direct violation of both the Geneva Conventions and fundamental American due process, while also pillaging other parts of the Bill of Rights? Civil liberties have never before in our history been as systematically and extensively attacked by the government.

As a prelude to quoting Abraham Foxman directly in the Forward, Ami Eden pointed out that according to “organizational activists . . . most Jewish groups see their primary mission as defense of the Jewish people. Right now, they suggested, the main threat to Jews comes from terrorism, not from any theoretical government repression.”

Theoretical? Shards of the Constitution are on the floor.

And Foxman says of the ADL’s reluctance to confront John Ashcroft: “Jewish organizations are here to protect the community and advocate on behalf of the community.” Then, he adds, like a wet latke, “That doesn’t mean we are not concerned with civil liberties.”

Later, Foxman told The New York Times he had commended Bush and Ashcroft for their anti-terrorism legislation.