American Jews Face the Issue of Torture (or Don't)

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, 6/3/2004

For the last two years, I have been increasingly troubled by the actions of large parts of the "official" mainstream Jewish community in regard to the Iraq war and its consequences.

I have understood the concern of many Jewish leaders who felt torn between their own ethical stance, which might well have opposed the war as a violation of international law; their own fears for America, when they like some others were half-convinced by the Administration that Iraq had dreadful weapons; and their own concerns for Israel — where almost all political strands supported a US War against Iraq. I understood, though I thought these Jewish leaders were profoundly mistaken.

But it seems to me the emergence of strong evidence that torture was used as an instrument of policy by the US military in Afghanistan, Guantanamo, and Iraq demands an unequivocal, vigorous condemnation by the American Jewish community — all of it.

Yet The Forward, the newspaper with the nearest claim to being a national Jewish paper, has published an article that said almost all Jewish orgainizations were being silent about torture.

That I can't bear. I neither understand nor accept nor can swallow it as an acceptable version of Judaism.

**Silence in the face of torture is a crime, for Jews perhaps even more than other communities.**

I wrote the following letter to the Forward, which they have now published:

To the Editor:

The Forward of May 16 ("Prisoner Abuse Controversy Rages, Most Groups Keep Quiet") quoted Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents, concerning the use of torture by US soldiers against prisoners in Iraq.

He said: "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."

Jews have no "consensus," no "precedent" about torture? Tell it to Torquemada. He'd be pleased.

Nothing could have made clearer the moral bankruptcy of almost all the official Jewish "leadership" in the US than this statement and the silence of the Jewish Council on Public Affairs. ** I have since learned that after The Forward went to press, and probably in response to its reporter's inquiry as to whether it had taken a position, JCPA did condemn the use of torture.**

Long ago our Torah taught what to expect from the unbridled use of power. We called it "Pharaoh," "Antiochus." For millennia before Lord Action, we knew that "Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely."

The US Army put absolute power over prisoners in the hands of "guards" in Abu Ghraib. Of course! — since the present government of the United States claimed absolute power to lie to the American people and the world in order to kill hundreds of Americans and thousands of Iraqis; to violate international law, the UN Charter, and the Geneva Conventions; to arrest US citizens on US soil and hold them for years incommunicado.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, when the official Jewish leadership a generation ago was cravenly refusing to speak out against the Vietnam War, said: "In a free society, some are guilty; all are responsible."

Almost the entire American Jewish leadership has shown it is irresponsible. We must start at the grass roots to create a Jewish community that is responsible to God, Torah, the Jewish people, and the world.

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, Director
The Shalom Center

Additional note: The Forward has a tight limit of 300 words on letters to the editor, so I could not add a few more comments: If I could have, I would have noted that two mainstream Jewish groups did take a stand: the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism — but notice, not the Reform movement as a whole — and the National Council of Jewish Women. I applaud them both. Although The Shalom Center condemned the use of torture two days after the initial revelations, and though we send our statements to The Forward, its article did not name us as one of the protesting organizations.

More important — WHAT DOES I T MEAN TO BEGIN ORGANIZING A T THE GRASS ROOTS an American Jewish community committed to support international law, condemn aggressive war, and demand the full punishment of the whole line of command and policy that ordered and condoned the use of torture?

What do YOU think that means? What should The Shalom Center be doing to advance that goal? We welcome your comments and suggestions.

Shalom, Arthur


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