Prisoner Abuse, Torture, & Torah: Why It Matters

Rabbi Fred Guittman, 5/14/2004

Prisoner Abuse & Torture:
Understanding It and Why It Matters

I am sure that you have been shocked by the events in Iraq the past ten days as I have been. The pictures of Americans participating in abuse and torture of Iraqi prisoners are indeed shocking. The subsequent beheading of Nicholas Berg was to my memory unparalleled in its graphic cruelty.

And so I wondered, at this troubling time, what sort of Jewish perspectives are there concerning these incidents. I would like to share them with you briefly.

First of all, it is important to know that when we look into rabbinic literature we find that in the overwhelming majority of cases Jews are prisoners rather than jailers. Nevertheless, in the Tractate Sanhedrin 77, certain principles are laid out as far as how Jews are to treat prisoners. It goes without saying that the rabbis understood well that a prisoner, like all human beings, was created in the image of God, even though at times it is very difficult to see the image of God in a murderous terrorist.

Nevertheless, it was forbidden to do any act that may lead the death of a prisoner. It is also clear to me any sort of torture that could possibly lead to the death of a prisoner would be very much frowned upon in Jewish tradition.

When I was in the Israeli army we received a great deal of training on the subject Tohar Neshek, "Purity of arms." While in the Israeli army, I did reserve duty near refugee camps in the West Bank and before we began our service, we were given extensive instructions on how we were to treat the local civilian populations.

There was to be absolute respect not only for the Geneva Convention, but also the moral strictures of humanity as well as ethical teachings of Judaism. Earlier this year here in Greensboro, Rabbi David Forman pointed out the difficulty of this concept, especially when terrorists use civilians as human shields.

So now let us address that issue of prisoner abuse. A few points.

First, it seems that the prisoner abuse was randomly done. It was not necessarily directed at the most dangerous of terrorists

Second, like you, I looked at those pictures with a great deal of concern as to what our nation is becoming. I remembered quite well a statement by Secretary of Defense Rumsfield that the articles of the Geneva Convention would not apply to the prisoners in Cuba. I wondered whether a statement such as this, coming as it did from the top of the chain of command, could quite possibly have filtered all the way down into the level of non commissioned officers.

Third. I looked at the pictures and I asked myself, why naked Iraqi prisoners were forced to lie on top of one another in such a degrading and demeaning fashion.

I remembered a recent meeting that those of us who went on the 2004 March of the Living had with the Israeli Minister of Diaspora affairs, Natan Sharansky. We were meeting with a great hero of the Jewish people, a man who single handedly took on the Soviet power structure. As a result, most of you know, Sharansky was to spend 9 years in Soviet prison before we was released.

Sharansky told us that there had been Palestinian homosexuals, both males and females, from Ramallah in the West Bank, who had actually sought asylum in Israel. They had sought political asylum in Israel because having been "outed" as homosexuals, they were afraid that they would be murdered by Islamic society.

Once I remembered this, I began to understand the purpose of the torture was not directed at those who were being humiliated, but rather at those who might in the future be similarly humiliated.

Let me explain to you what I mean.

It is impossible for me to believe that this prisoner abuse was limited to only seven noncommissioned officers, most of whom were specialists or privates. I want to know who took these pictures and why. In my opinion, could these pictures have been staged/

For example, there is a picture of a young American woman private holding a dog leash attached to an Iraqi. What, I ask, was a dog leash doing in a prison? Who brought it there and who told her to attach it to the neck of an Iraqi prisoner?

Why were naked men forced to lie on each other?

The answer is that the humiliation implies some sort of homosexuality. By photographing them, these prisoners were put into a position wherein it would be very difficult for them to return to their homes. The disgrace and the embarrassment within Islamic society would have been simply overwhelming. A picture like this could have then been shown to a person who was about to be interrogated and the statement would have been made, "Look what will happen to you" if you dont give information to us."

These pictures were staged and most likely were part of a well organized, but misguided policy of interrogation. The responsibility therefore extends well beyond the seven people who have been charged. In my opinion, it will go up all the way to the brigade commander.

Such methods of interrogation are ineffectual according to Senator John McCain and from our perspective, should be extremely offensive to us both as Americans and Jews.

That being said, let us make no mistake concerning the nature of the enemy. The brutal beheading of Nicholas Berg, an American Jew who for no matter what reason, certainly did not deserve to die in such a way, is indeed extremely disturbing. Our hearts go out to him and his family and as well as to the families of all the soldiers who died in Iraq this week. It is my intention until this war is over that we at Temple Emanuel will begin to recall the sacrifice of the American soldiers in Iraq on a weekly basis.

As disturbing as the beheading incident was, equally disturbing is that there has been little or no coverage within the Arab media. Al Jazera barely mentioned it, as did the newspaper in Saudi Arabia and Egypt. It is time for the US government to understand that the moral sensibilities of our friends, the Saudis and the Egyptians, are indeed very different from ours. It is also time for us to understand the presentation in the Arab media of our actions and motives in the Middle East is very different from what we intend for them to be.

But let us also maintain some perspective here. Had Nicholas Berg had an Iraqi woman tie a leash around his neck and hold him, and take a picture of him naked, he would still be alive. His parents would have gladly welcomed him back into their homes. Americans would have gladly welcomed him back into our society.

There is no parallel therefore, between the terrible humiliation of Iraqi prisoners, and the brutal murder of Nicholas Berg. We need to say this to the world quite loudly. The American government needs to make this point very strongly to our so called "friends" in the Arab world.

We as American Jews need to also make sure that no attempt is made to curry Arab favor by pressuring Israel to make unwarranted concessions to the Palestinians. These two issues, despite the fact that the Arab world wants us to believe that they are connected, are really not related to one another. Concessions to the Palestinians will not cause Muktata al Sadr or Abu Mussa Al Zarqawi to stop his calls for random killings of American soldiers and civilians in Iraq.

The events of the past week are extremely significant to us both as Americans and Jews. They do matter.

Two weeks ago we read in the Torah: "You shall each revere his mother and his father, and keep My sabbaths:" (Leviticus 19:3) The rabbis tell us that the connection between keeping the Sabbath and revering your parents is as follows. We are to revere our parents in almost all instances. However, if our parents were to tell us we are not to obey the Sabbath, then we are not bound to obey and revere our parents.

From this we can learn that an order given to us by our parents or for that matter a military officer which goes against established legal codes is not to be obeyed, according to the rabbinic interpretation of this verse. Torah and the rule of law will always trump the orders of parents, politicians and military officers. So therefore from a Jewish point of view, a person who says "I was just merely following orders" is not innocent and bares a significant measure of guilt.

The apparent usage of dogs to intimidate and frighten Iraqi prisoners calls to mind too many historical memories for most Jews. Most especially, what comes to my mind the memory of the bath master of Treblinka, Ivan The Terrible, who used his German Shepherd dog to terrify Jews on their way to the gas chamber.

The events of the past week matter to us greatly as American Jews for an additional reason. In two weeks, we will read in the Torah that when the spies come back from checking out the land, they tell Moses: All the people that we saw in it are men of great size . and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them." (Numbers 13:32-33) Rabbinic tradition is very critical of this report because it seems to focus more on how others perceive us than on how we perceive ourselves.

The message here to us as American Jews is that we should be more concerned about how we as Americans perceive ourselves than how we are perceived within the Arab world. It is extremely important for us as Americans not to become like "them." We have to demand from our military, from our politicians and from ourselves the highest standards of moral decency in the fight against terror. The Geneva Convention must be upheld. American law must be strictly adhered to. Moral authority must be preserved at all costs and no matter what the difficulty. American soldiers, like Israeli soldiers, need to be given instruction and taught to act according to "Purity of arms."

The American people need to be educated as to how important it is to adhere to the ethical and moral principles upon which this county was founded. This past week I have heard too many people on radio talk shows try to justify the humiliation of these prisoners.

Friends. If our goal here is to bring freedom and democracy and human decency to the world, then we must as Americans live by and operate by the very values that we seek to inculcate in others.

Tonight more than ever we need as American and as Jews to affirm the following prayer from the great 18th century Hassidic rabbi, Rabbi Nachman of Bratlislav.

"O Lord may I learn your Torah of loving kindness and may I learn that holiness means bringing love to fellow students, love of them and love of You. May I in reverence of You, keep far from sin and wrongdoing and may I be a vehicle of grace and loving-kindness. Guide my tongue when I speak with my fellow human beings that my words may by filled with grace and beauty and that my actions may be of goodness and health before you and before all people."