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Jewish Journal

Patriot Act: Does Security Trump Rights?

by Marc Ballon

October 7, 2004 | 8:00 pm

American Jews have long been among the staunchest supporters of civil and immigrant rights. Jews stood at the forefront of the civil rights movement and continue to account for a disproportionate share of American Civil Liberties Union members.

Given their traditional liberalism, Jews could be expected to flee President Bush in droves with the passage of the U.S.A. Patriot Act and other national security laws that have greatly expanded government's surveillance powers, including the right to demand library records.

In its zeal to prosecute terrorists, the Bush administration has repeatedly employed harsh and legally questionable policies that have undermined America's tradition as a beacon of civil rights, critics said. It has held "enemy combatants," including American citizens, without filing charges or giving access to attorneys. Hundreds of mostly Middle Eastern immigrants have been jailed over the past three years and branded threats to national security, only to be later deported for minor visa infractions.

For many Jews, those policies -- coupled with the controversial war in Iraq, a ballooning budget deficit, a sluggish economy and Jews' Democratic leanings -- have put them squarely in Sen. John F. Kerry's camp. Kerry is expected to win the lion's share of the Jewish vote in November, continuing a historical trend in which no Republican candidate has won a plurality of the Jewish vote since 1920.

Despite the visceral dislike many Jews feel for Bush, a greater percentage of them are expected to vote for him this time around. A new poll by the American Jewish Committee found 24 percent of American Jews planned to vote for the president, up from 19 percent four years ago. Some analysts think Bush could capture up to 30 percent, which could tilt the balance in his favor in such hotly contested swing states as Florida, Pennsylvania and Ohio.

Bush's support among Jews reflects an attitudinal shift among some of them in the post-Sept. 11 world. Simply put, the war on terror, both internally and externally, has trumped civil rights as the most pressing issue, said Sheldon Sloan, a Republican activist. In radical Islam, the United States and Israel face an implacable foe, and Americans will "give up certain rights and civil liberties" to guard against the threat, he said.

With foreign policy the front-burner issue for the first time since the Vietnam War, some Jews plan to stand behind pro-Israel Bush, even though they might disagree with some of his positions, said Republican political consultant Allan Hoffenblum. "It's the old saw that you buy what you know, rather than what you don't know in times of crisis," he said.

The question of balancing civil rights with national security was the focus of an Oct. 4 symposium at Sinai Temple titled, "Pursuing Justice and the War on Terrorism." The Bet Tzedek-sponsored event, which attracted a crowd of 350, featured Viet Dinh, author of the Patriot Act, 9/11 Commissioner Jamie Gorelick and Rabbi Elliot Dorff of the University of Judaism.

Gorelick said the president had yet to prove the effectiveness of the Patriot Act and other controversial national security legislation. The Bush administration, she said, has also failed to show that there exists proper checks and balances to curb its expanded powers.

Dorff, an expert on Jewish ethics, attacked the administration on several fronts. Viewed through the prism of halacha, or Jewish law, the war in Iraq lacked justification. That's because preemptive war is permissible only if a country knows it is about to be attacked and its very survival is at stake. In the absence of weapons of mass destruction, Iraq appeared not to present such a clear and present danger to the United States, he said.

A lifelong Democrat, Dorff said Jewish tradition places a high premium on privacy, exemplified by shrouding the Torah in a protective ark. He added that God is only partly revealed and remains mysterious; similarly, we who are created in God's image, should remain partially unknown to others. The Patriot Act, he said, makes it too easy for government officials to snoop on citizens and violate Judaism's sacred right of privacy.

In an interview before the symposium, Dorff said he thought Kerry's positions on the Patriot Act, war in Iraq, the environment and stem-cell research better reflected Jewish values than Bush's stands.

Dinh, now a Georgetown University law professor, said the Patriot Act might not be perfect but has helped make the country safer. In the three years since Sept. 11, he said, terrorists have failed to successfully strike again in the United States, despite repeated attempts. Luck and the Patriot Act, among other factors, Dinh said, are the reason why.

"I think there's a lot of misperceptions and misconceptions out there about the Patriot Act that are only heightened in the political season," Dinh said. "I think with more understanding, there would be more acceptance, if not acquiescence, with what the government's trying to do to protect us."

Many Jews reject Dinh's position, arguing that the administration circumscription of civil rights in the name of fighting terror has weakened the country. Carmen Warschaw, former Southern California chair of the Democratic Party, said she found the Patriot Act and similar legislation "dangerous" and antithetical to American values.

Mitchell Kamin, Bet Tzedek executive director, said Bush had gone too far.

"I think Jewish tradition and American legal tradition places a heavy burden on all of us to ensure our core values and institutions aren't damaged beyond repair in times like these," he said.

Daniel Sokatch, executive director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA), said the Patriot Act and related legislation were "detrimental to the foundation of the country." He said the Bush administration had cynically manipulated the threat of terror to pass draconian legislation, including the requirement that male immigrants from mostly Muslim countries register with U.S. authorities.

Sokatch said the administration jailed scores of Southland immigrants for minor violations of immigration laws when they registered. The government denied most of those detained access to an attorney and released many of them days later without charges, Sokatch said. To prevent a recurrence of such abuses, Sokatch said PJA and other human rights organizations served as local monitors during the second round of mandatory registrations in January.

"I think anyone concerned about civil rights and civil liberties, as well as the Bill of Rights and the Constitution, is concerned about the road we're heading down," Sokatch said. "We haven't seen anything like this since the McCarthy era."

Dr. Joel Strom also invoked the McCarthy era but to make an entirely different point. The president of the Republican Jewish Coalition of Los Angeles said there has been "no uptick in government harassment" since the passage of the Patriot Act. To compare it to McCarthyism, Watergate or the illegal internment of Japanese Americans during World War II is way off mark, he said.

In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, "more Jews are aware of the real danger of being naive, lax or not taking every precaution possible to avoid more terrorism on our soil," Strom said. "I think [the Patriot Act] is a minimal invasion of our privacy."

Still, Strom and other Jewish supporters said they didn't oppose fine tuning security laws, where needed.

Echoing Strom, Republican political strategist Arnold Steinberg said Jews and other Americans understood the need to give up some rights to better protect national security. Fears about the Patriot Act, which Congress nearly passed unanimously, are overblown, he said.

Los Angeles Councilman Jack Weiss, a Jewish Democrat, said the Patriot Act had much to recommend about it. A former U.S. attorney, Weiss said provisions allowing grand juries and the intelligence community to share information would help in the fight against terrorism and other crimes.

As important as civil liberties are to many Jews, national security and Israel might even rank higher, experts said. Although Bush's and Kerry's records on Israel are nearly identical, the president is seen by some Jews as a stronger friend to the Jewish state. Kerry's talk of relying more on the United Nations -- a body that once passed a resolution equating Zionism with racism -- has scared some in the community.

Michael Cohen, a Century City attorney, said he had never voted for a Republican presidential candidate. He might now. The president's emphasis on fighting terror, combined with his pro-Israel policies, have impressed Cohen.

"Israel benefits from the Bush administration, and many Israelis agree with that," he said.

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