Saperstein: As Jews, we have a unique appreciation for the protections of the Geneva Conventions…Any means used to defeat those who wish us ill cannot come at the expense of the values, respect for human dignity chief among them, which have made our nation great.
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Washington DC September 15, 2006 – In a letter sent today, Rabbi David Saperstein, Director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, called on members of Congress to reject the H.R. 6054, the Military Commissions Act of 2006. The full text of the letter follows:
Dear Member of Congress:
On behalf of the Union for Reform Judaism, whose more than 900 congregations across North America encompass 1.5 million Reform Jews, and the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), whose membership includes more than 1,800 Reform rabbis, I write to share with you concerns regarding H.R. 6054, the Military Commissions Act of 2006 as well as similar legislation, S. 3861.
In the five years since the attacks of September 11, 2001, it has become clear that our nation is engaged in a struggle against individuals and groups who wish us harm and that the nature of this threat is different from that which historically occurred between nation-states. Military and policy experts, civilians and elected officials at home and abroad continue to debate the best way to address this threat, and will continue to do so for many years. What is clear, however, is that any means used to defeat those who wish us ill cannot come at the expense of the values, respect for human dignity chief among them, which have made our nation great.
The Military Commissions Act raises several significant concerns. First, it appears that the legislation would put our nation on a collision course with the generally accepted, long-standing interpretation of the Geneva Conventions’ prohibition on cruel and inhuman treatment of prisoners. Second, the bill’s definition of who constitutes an “enemy combatant” is so broad as to risk the indefinite detainment of individuals who pose no legitimate threat to our nation. Third, the legislation risks permitting inappropriate treatment of individuals held in U.S. custody, rather than ensuring that the mistreatment of prisoners results in punishment. Finally, the bill’s provisions fail to provide for adequate judicial oversight of the treatment of detainees – from capture through interrogation and detention.
As Jews, we have a unique appreciation for the protections of the Geneva Conventions. The Conventions of 1949, early versions of which have existed since the 1800s, were adopted in their present form by the nations of the world very shortly after, and in response to, the atrocities that occurred during World War II. They are one of the most sacred legacies of the victims of the Nazi atrocities, bequeathed from their suffering to the whole human race. The Geneva Conventions’ Optional Protocols state explicitly that they apply during international and non-international wars and that they apply to all individuals, no matter what role those individuals play in the conflict.
It is interesting to note that Israel since its inception has faced violent and widespread attacks on its citizens. It has also struggled with finding a balance between protecting its citizens from those who wish them harm and ensuring that it maintains its morality. In 1994, the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that torture was not an acceptable means of coercion, even in the “ticking time bomb scenario.” Israeli Supreme Court Justice Aharon Barak stated after the Court’s decision: “The war against terrorism also requires the interrogation of terrorists, which must be conducted according to the ordinary rules of interrogation. Physical force must not be used in these interrogations; specifically, the persons being interrogated must not be tortured.”
There are no easy answers to the challenges we face. We look forward to further examining the legislation proposed by Senators Warner, McCain, and Graham which appears to strike a more appropriate balance between security and justice. If we are guided by a respect for fundamental human dignity – our own as well as that of the individuals in our custody – we will prevail.
I urge you to oppose the Military Commissions Act of 2006.
The Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism is the Washington office of the Union for Reform Judaism, whose more than 900 congregations across North America encompass 1.5 million Reform Jews, and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, whose membership includes more than 1800 Reform rabbis.