What Ancient Tents of the Israelites Teach us About Modern Privacy Issues

April 8, 2015
Components of the USA Patriot Act are set to expire next month, giving us an important opportunity to consider contemporary issues of privacy and national security going forward. The Patriot Act, signed into law in 2001 by President Bush and extended in 2011 by President Obama, is a highly controversial piece of legislation that significantly expanded government surveillance of American citizens. The bill was drafted in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks that took place on September 11, 2001and was intended to be an anti-terrorism measure. Many, including the American Civil Liberties Union and the Constitution Project, opposed the bill on the grounds that it restricted civil liberties and privacy rights. Today, issues surrounding the extent of the National Security Agency’s surveillance remain at the forefront of privacy and security conversations. Companies including Apple, Google, Microsoft, Twitter and Facebook are vocally opposing the extension of the Patriot Act. The Patriot Act created further tension for the already challenging balance between national security and civil liberties. As Reform Jews,  look to our tradition for guidance on these questions. The Talmud tells us that among the children of Israel "the entrances to their tents were not directly opposite each other, so that one family did not visually intrude on the privacy of the other" (Talmud Bavli, Baba Batra 2b-3a). Our sacred texts distinguish privacy as an individual right that extends to the sharing of information, rather than as only a right of property. In 2003, the Union of Reform Judaism passed a resolution called “Civil Liberties and National Security: Striking the Proper Balance.” In the resolution they recognize the importance of national security to combat terrorism and protect innocent civilians, while at the same time upholding the individual’s right to privacy and civil liberties. The resolution reads:
Some of the policies enacted by Congress and adopted by the Administration since September 11th have treated our Constitutional freedoms as weaknesses and have failed to strike an acceptable balance between individual rights and the needs of law enforcement.
The Union of Reform Judaism resolved to oppose wire-tapping, the investigation of citizens and non-citizens on the basis of race, religion, ethnicity, or constitutionally protected speech or association and to oppose data-mining technologies, among other issues in the Patriot Act and beyond that undermined privacy rights. If you’re interested in reading more about Judaism and civil liberties, check out the Religious Action Center’s Civil Liberties and Privacy issue page here for background information, Jewish values, and other resources.

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