Rabbis Against Torture


On behalf of Rabbis for Human Rights — North America, we write out of a deep sense of concern about the erosion of America’s longstanding commitment that torture is absolutely reprehensible… What is most disturbing is that… the use of torture has been approved at the highest levels of the Administration. Letter to President Bush and members of Congress, January 27, 2005, from more than 500 American rabbis — Orthodox, Conservative and Reform

Many Muslims have left countries where dictators used torture, and for that reason came to America. We don’t want America to torture as well. Muhammad also warns against inhumane behavior. Captives were very important to him. ‘Don’t torture the creation of God’ — Muhammad said this three times. No event or situation should warrant torture. Sayyid Syeed, secretary general, Islamic Society of North America

In a June 13, 2006, ad in The New York Times by the National Religious Campaign Against Torture, 27 religious leaders — representing Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, and including Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel — declared: “Torture is a moral issue… Nothing less is at stake in the torture abuse crisis than the soul of our nation. What does it signify if torture is condemned in word [by George W. Bush] and allowed in deed? Let America abolish torture now — without exceptions.”

And in a full-page ad in the June 25 New York Times, Amnesty International began by saying: “Torture has no place on American soil. That’s why we have it done in Egypt,” adding: “Complicity with torture diminishes America’s ability to insist that other governments uphold human rights.”

The drumbeat against the CIA’s “renditions” — sending terrorism suspects to other countries to be tortured — and the CIA’s secret prisons (both authorized by President Bush) is rising. Also mounting is the insistence that the Republican-controlled Congress at last conduct a brightly lit investigation not only of the CIA’s, but of all the torture practices of this government.

Among the clergy on the front lines, the most insistent are Jewish organizations. I didn’t realize the extent and intensity of the organized Jewish commitment until I saw a front-page article in the June 15, 2006, Jewish Week by James Besser, citing, among many others, Rabbi Saul Berman, leader of the progressive Orthodox group Edah:

“[Rabbi Berman] said the religious community is slowly rising to the challenge. The community-wide response to the genocide in Darfur, he said, bespoke a shift in which our capacity to reach out on humanitarian issues far beyond the confines of the Jewish community is growing.”

Until now, I had been very remiss in not knowing about Rabbis for Human Rights — North America, founded in January, 2002. The organization was begun, it says, “by a group of American rabbis inspired by the work of Rabbis for Human Rights in Israel [which] lobbies for economic justice in Israel, and protects Palestinian homes slated for demolition for administrative reasons.”

Worth noting is that a year before the letter on torture to Bush from Rabbis for Human Rights — North America, more than 500 American rabbis released a public letter against the Israeli government’s demolition of Palestinian homes.

Its present Jewish Campaign Against Torture is part of a goal “to build our organization as an effective national rabbinic voice in the North American Jewish community devoted to education and advocacy for human rights in Israel and North America.”

Accordingly, in this action against torture, Rabbis for Human Rights is enlisting not only rabbis but also as many individual members of the Jewish community as it can. As its director, Brian Walt, says, “We are urging Jews to sign statements opposing torture,” and to join, through its websites, Rabbis for Human Rights.

“Urge Congress to establish a bipartisan Independent Commission to investigate U.S. policies on interrogation and detention,” reads the organization’s brochure. “Write letters to the editor of your Jewish and local newspapers. Organize a program in your synagogue about Jewish responses to torture.”

My own deficient education in Jewish law — though I went, after each day in public school, to cheder (Jewish elementary school) — has been greatly enhanced by Rabbi Melissa Weintraub of Rabbis for Human Rights, who has sent to rabbis around the country her extensive scholarship on Jewish law and torture. One of her illuminations is: “The prohibition against self-incrimination is in Jewish law — Judaism’s version of the Fifth Amendment — but much more stringent… In Jewish law, a confession is inadmissible evidence.

“Many scholars believe,” she continues, “that prohibition, which arose under the Romans at a time when many Jews were being tortured, was meant to ensure that Jews never inflict torture in interrogation.”

And, in that packet to American rabbis — which she also sent to me — Rabbi Weintraub points out: “When torture is explicitly named in Jewish texts, it is from the vantage point of the victim. From the Roman Empire to the Crusades to the Holocaust, Jews have been the victims of torture and religious persecution. (Emphasis added.)

“The Geneva Conventions — which ban torture as a war crime — were drafted and adapted by the nations of the world in response to the atrocities of Nazi Germany. As Jews, we have a special sensitivity to the immorality and costs of torture.”

And now, on June 29, the Supreme Court, led by Justice John Paul Stevens, instructed the president and his chief adviser on the Constitution, Dick Cheney, that they were dead wrong in ordering that the Geneva Conventions do not apply to the prisoners in Guantánamo.

However, this administration and the Republican-controlled Congress may find a way to significantly undermine this Supreme Court decision.

So, there is much more for Rabbis for Human Rights — and other religious organizations — to do to rescue the Constitution. The president is a man of faith, isn’t he?

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