Jews Rise Against Ashcroft War


I have written about the civil war among Jewish organizations over the Bush-Ashcroft raids on the Constitution (Voice, January 15, 22), and there is now more news. As Eli Kintisch reported on the front page of the February 22 weekly Forward, in an article the paper supported with a resounding editorial:

“Delegates representing America’s largest Jewish organizations and the national network of Jewish community relations councils [have] passed a resolution criticizing the administration’s plans for closed-door military tribunals, detention of immigrants, and monitoring of conversations between attorneys and clients.”

Since then, the new rules for the tribunals have been released, and they reflect some of the criticisms in this column and elsewhere of the original draft. But they still violate the rule of American law in crucial respects.

The vote showed that although the Bush administration has been very supportive of Israel, the majority of these Jewish organizations are nevertheless willing to stand up for the Bill of Rights. The debate took place in Washington at the annual convention of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA), described in the Forward‘s editorial as a “crucial body that brings together the nation’s main Jewish organizations for annual policy coordination.”

Although the resolution—sponsored by the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (the Reform movement)—was backed by two-thirds of the JCPA’s local Jewish community relations councils, the split among the major national organizations remains. Voting against were the Anti-Defamation League, Hadassah, the American Jewish Committee, and B’nai B’rith International. (Some years ago, I lectured at the Washington office of B’nai B’rith International, praising Jewish students on college campuses who were deeply involved in civil rights and civil liberties activities. B’nai B’rith agreed with such efforts then.)

Co-sponsoring the controversial resolution was the JCPA’s Detroit community relations council. During the sometimes rancorous debate, its delegate—Wendy Wagenheim, who is also spokeswoman for the Detroit chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, said:

“I urge you all to think about what would happen if you lived in another country and you were detained without counsel, or if you were put in front of a military tribunal, or your legal counsel was eavesdropped upon while you were trying to get legal defense.”

But as Eli Kintisch reported, “Others suggested that support for the resolution could put the Jewish community on a collision course with the White House during a period that calls for unity. Joseph Novick, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Central New Jersey, called the resolution ‘disrespectful of the government.’ ”

However, according to Jewish Week’s story on the debate, Rabbi Douglas Kahn, executive director of San Francisco’s Jewish Community Relations Council, told delegates that the apparent lack of opposition by most Jews to the controversial anti-terror measures is causing anger among the Jewish community’s traditional friends.

“The Muslim and Arab American communities,” Rabbi Kahn continued, “are moving into the vacuum, and we aren’t even at the [dissenters’] table. This resolution provides an opportunity for us to be at the table.”

Actually, as I previously reported in this column, the Reform movement’s Rabbi David Saperstein was already passionately at the table, and he spoke vigorously for the resolution at the JCPA convention.

Also firmly in favor of the measure at the Washington meeting were the National Council of Jewish Women, the Jewish Labor Committee, the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, and Women’s American ORT. And from the beginning of the Ashcroft-Bush war on the Constitution, the Workmen’s Circle has been unequivocally engaged in protecting the Bill of Rights.

Opponents of the measure claim that more time is needed to consider the proper balance between security and civil liberties. But there has been no ambiguity in the Bush administration’s attack on our rights. The Forward’s editorial, “The War at Home,” emphasized that the Bush-Ashcroft assaults “set off alarms because they violate the procedural rules by which our society administers justice; in so doing they raise questions about the administration’s commitment to the constitutional freedoms we are supposedly fighting to protect. . . . The new rules on detention [without any charges linked to terrorism] have resulted in the arrests of perhaps 1000 persons—nobody knows exactly how many, because the government won’t say.

“Many have been held for months without access to lawyers, in some cases without even permission to contact their families,” the editorial continued. “There have been reports of physical abuse. This is the sort of thing we used to associate with Russia and Argentina. It shouldn’t be happening here, no matter what the provocation.”

I would imagine that the passage of this resolution angered God-fearing John Ashcroft—who has said that dissent from his policies provides “ammunition to the enemy.” The Forward also included a statement about the resolution by Jim Zogby, president of the American-Arab Institute in Washington.

During the 1982 invasion of Lebanon—led by Ariel Sharon in defiance of the initial orders of the Israeli government—Jim Zogby wanted to talk to some leaders in the American Jewish community to see if they could be made to realize the disastrous physical harm that the military operation was inflicting, particularly on innocent children. I tried to arrange such a meeting and failed.

Since then, Jim and I have been in touch on a number of issues. Most recently, we discussed this self-revealing accusation from John Ashcroft: “Islam is a religion in which God requires you to send your son to die for him. Christianity is a faith in which God sends his son to die for you.”

As the St. Louis Post-Dispatch said in a February 15 editorial, “Mr. Ashcroft is overseeing the investigation of terrorist activity in the United States, which inevitably involves many Islamic men of Middle Eastern descent. If Mr. Ashcroft believes—on a deeply personal, and usually safely hidden level—that all Muslims practice the kind of radicalism that Al-Qaida and the September 11 hijackers embrace, he could not only unfairly target hosts of innocent people, he could also steer the hunt for terrorists in thousands of wrong directions.”

But Jim Zogby and I disagree about the recent resolution. Jewish groups have now strongly criticized Ashcroft and Bush, but Jim Zogby told the Forward it was “just a whisper.”

It was a lot more than a whisper. It was the sound of the shofar calling for justice!

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