The artwork on this note card was created by 5768 WRJ Art Calendar artist Césan d’Ornellas Levine.
Torture, while cruel and inhumane, is not something that we often hear about from mainstream media, nor is it something we have written about very recently at the Religious Action Center. The Reform Jewish position on this issue is clear: in a post-9/11 world we understand the need for enhanced national security, and yet we believe that security must be balanced with the importance of civil liberties and bodily autonomy. Experts agree that torturing prisoners or holding them in extended solitary confinement go beyond the practical needs of national security (since torture is found to be an ineffective way to obtain information) and abandon the constitutional right to due process as well as fundamental Jewish values. Nearly six years after President Obama came into office and promised to close Guantanamo Bay, the detention center stays open and the 149 individuals held there remain.
Small steps have recently been made by a judge in a US District Court in DC on a trial regarding the use of force-feeding tactics in Guantanamo. After prison guards desecrated a Qur’an in January 2002, prisoners began their first widespread hunger strike. In response to this and subsequent hunger strikes, military officials ordered restraint chairs for Guantanamo to strap in prisoners and force feed them, regardless of whether or not the prisoner resisted. A judge in the US District Court has asked that a trial about the use of force feeding in Guantanamo be public and that video of force-feeding be made available to the media. Barring appeal, we may soon have a much clearer sense of how the CIA and military officials at the detention center has treated prisoners.
The Central Conference of American Rabbis issued an official rabbinic discussion, known as a “responsum,” on the question of force-feeding prisoners during Guantanamo hunger strikes (Hunger Strike: On the Force Feeding of Prisoners (5766.3)). In the responsum, rabbis stated that force feeding prisoners in restraint chairs is a form of torture that transgresses Jewish ethical principle of refu’ah (the mitzvah of healing). Our rabbis write: “Violence against a patient, even when exercised by medical professionals convinced they are acting in the patient’s best interests, is still violence.” The responsum follows the US Federal Bureau of Prisons in stating that incidents of force-feeding must be videotaped. The rabbis conclude that videotaping force-feeding “would fulfill the spirit of the Mishnah’s dictum that it is essential to display our innocence in the sight of people as well as in the sight of God” (M. Shekalim 3:2, based upon Numbers 32:22). As this case in the US District Court continues, we should keep in mind how our Jewish values can guide us through these complicated questions. For more on this, take a look at Torture: A Jewish Perspective on the Religious Action Center website.