From Ancient Tents of Privacy to internet Exposed: NSA 2034

Reb Arthur at anti-NSA event on Capitol Hill, 2/11/14

 This past Tuesday (February 11, 2014) -– as you can see in the photo  -– I spoke at a press conference on the NSA held on Capitol Hill. Congressman Rush Holt was the main speaker.  (He has introduced a bill to roll back many of the invasions of our civil liberties and privacy that were done in panic after 9/11 and have proved irrelevant to protecting us from terrorist attacks.)

I was invited to speak because The Shalom Center is one of 22 plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the NSA’s warrantless and unwarranted searches of phone calls of at least one hundred million Americans suspected of no crime.  Our lawsuit, filed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (“the ACLU of the Internet”) argues that  the NSA’s behavior not only violates the Fourth Amendment but also has a chilling effect on our free speech and assembly.

My outlook on this issue goes back even before the Bill of Rights, into ancient teachings of the Rabbis. As I’ve said before, I need to say again: We can’t do this kind of transformative work, bringing the deepest wisdom of Torah to action on the questions we face today, without the money to pay for staff, email systems, travel, phones. So please give The Shalom Center a (tax-deductible) gift of spiritually rooted strength by clicking on the "Donate" button to your left.

Think of it as a Valentine’s Day gift of love – for love, justice, freedom, and healing are deeply intert

Below is what I said.

Shalom, salaam, sohl; paz, peace!  –  Arthur

“I’m an historian as well as a Rabbi. Let me bring to mind four moments in historic time  – three past, one future – and what they teach us abou
t the NSA:

“Two thousand years ago, the ancient Rabbis, living under the Roman Empire and knowing its spies and secret police were rife among them, picked up a verse from Torah. A still more ancient King, frightened of the newly liberated band of runaway slaves that had toppled Pharaoh and were journeying in the Wilderness, hired a shaman to bring curses on this free community. But he blessed them instead, saying, ‘Mah tovu ohalecha Yaakov --How wonderful are your tents, O people of Jacob!’

“The Rabbis asked –  What was so wonderful about those tents? They answered that the tents were pitched at angles to each other so that no family could peer into another’s tent, nor could the King peer into any of them. (See Num. 24: 5 and Talmud  Bavli, Baba Batra 60a.) To be a free community, not slaves of Pharaoh or a King, meant to have privacy.  A religious value bequeathed to us through many generations of struggling to be free.

“The second moment is, of course, the one that is supposed to inspire and govern all Americans today: The period of the American Revolution, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. There is a reason that in the Bill of Rights is the Fourth Amendment, providing that warrants to invade our privacy must name a specific person, must be authorized by a judge, and must be based on probable cause that the specific person named might have committed a crime.

“The reason is not mere political theory but actual lived experience:  The people who wrote the Fourth Amendment had lived under a King, the British king, who issued what were called ‘writs of assistance.’ These allowed searches of anyone for any reason. No court, no cause need be involved. The Fourth Amendment was intended to prevent ‘writs of assistance.’

“And what the NSA now does is using writs of assistance. Not in mere dozens or hundreds, like King George III. Millions, one hundred million.

“Third moment: Thirty years ago, I was one of nine Washingtonians, antiwar and anti-racist activists, who sued the FBI for its illegal penetration of our lives as part of COINTELPRO.  The FBI forged letters, stole documents, tapped phones — to undermine the movements to change America.   

 The jury decided that even though we could not prove any personal financial losses as a result of COINTELPRO, the attacks on our freedom of speech and assembly were subject to financial damages.

The US Circuit Court of Appeals upheld their verdict. (Even Antonin Scalia, then a Circuit Court judge, joined in the unanimous affirmation.)  What I did with the money was buy my first computer to do political work, and make it possible for my young-adult son and daughter to do political work with a one-year personal “fellowship.” I told them the grants were the “J. Edgar Hoover Memorial Fellowships.”

“What does this teach us? That we can win our freedom against these engines of repression. We can win in the courts, we can win in Congress, we can win in public opinion.

“The fourth historical period is twenty years from now  – 2034, exactly 50 years after 1984. Imagine a J. Edgar Hoover as head of NSA, or a Richard Nixon as President — possessed of an enormous stash of private

Privacy, Torah, Constitution, & Us -- vs. NSA

Imagine Edward Snowden’s Evil Twin --
And then Join me at US Capitol tomorrow
Urging Constitutional Control over NSA

At noon tomorrow (Tuesday), I will be joining others at the “House Triangle,” a press-conference venue on the House of Representatives side of the US Capitol,  to call for Congress to place the NSA under tight Constitutional control.  Congressman Rush Holt will be the lead speaker.
I invite you to join us there – and whether you can or not, to join in a day-long campaign to renew the Constitutional controls over the NSA, by calling your members of Congress. (Details below.)
Imagine a comic-book Super-Villain story:
Five Supreme Court justices --  the five more-or-less liberals --  resign simultaneously!
Journalists reveal that Edward Snowden’s evil twin, Ned SuperStorm, blackmailed them all

Privacy from Rulers: Tents of Ancient Israel, Cell-phones of Today

What does the arrangement of tents in an ancient Israelite encampment have to do with the ultramodern question of whether the US government should be peering into the ultramodern phone and Internet records of hundreds of millions of Americans?

Or to put it another way, are there any spiritual and religious roots to the notion of personal and household privacy?

To start from Torah: Many Jewish prayer services begin with a quotation from a non-Jewish shaman, himself quoted in the Torah (Num 24: 5; this passage of Torah will be read two weeks from now, on June 22, 2013).    King Balak had hired an expert curse-maker, Balaam, to curse the People of Israel who were swarming across the wilderness after their liberation from slavery under Pharaoh. But Balaam tuned in to a spirit-channel that insisted: the Israelites, in their commitment to YyyyHhhhWwwwHhhh, the Breath of Life, must be blessed rather than cursed.

So as Balaam gazed down upon the Jewish encampment, he proclaimed, "Mah Tovu Ohalecha Yaakov --- How goodly are your tents, O Jacob!" When the Rabbis of Talmud (Baba Batra 60a) read this story, they asked what was so “goodly” about the tents, and answered that the doors of the individual tents did not face each other. So no family could see into another family’s tent. Each household protected its own privacy and that of all the others.

The ancient Rabbis lived under the boot of the Roman Empire, which had a  spy system to penetrate any possible bands of troublesome dissidents. So perhaps the Rabbis also saw that King Balak was disturbed precisely by this household privacy: How dare these people keep secrets from the king?!

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