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Jewish Journal

NSA and JEW

by Rob Eshman

June 19, 2013 | 11:31 am

If you ever needed a sign that Jews feel fully integrated and accepted by society, consider this: Not one major Jewish group made a peep over the revelations of National Security Agency (NSA) surveillance.

We, who throughout the modern era have been followed, spied on, singled out, labeled, rounded up, tortured and killed at the hands of the state, are officially just fine with our government tracking our every word.

It’s one thing for non-Jews to say, by way of accepting the NSA actions, “If you haven’t done anything wrong, you have nothing to worry about.” We Jews remember, say, 1932 to 1945. Deserving has nothing to do with it.

Yet even those Jews who wield power through politics or the media Mavenocracy have sided not with the outraged civil libertarians who have called on the NSA to stop mass-harvesting the phone and Internet records of every American citizen. 

“Yes, I worry about potential government abuse of privacy from a program designed to prevent another 9/11 — abuse that, so far, does not appear to have happened,” Tom Friedman wrote in his June 11 New York Times column. “But I worry even more about another 9/11.”

The Times’ David Brooks called Edward Snowden, the Booz Allen Hamilton contract employee who leaked the fact of NSA tracking, a “traitor.” Richard Cohen of The Washington Post said he’s not worried because, as he put it, “Safeguards were built in.”

Even Jeffrey Goldberg, a columnist as clearly, comfortably Jewish as Dan Savage is out, counseled mere restrained concern.

“It isn’t incompatible to argue for a culture of rigorous civil liberties and acknowledge simultaneously that terrorism poses actual and unique challenges,” Goldberg wrote in his June 12 Bloomberg View post.

It is perhaps no surprise that Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has accused Snowden of treason. But consider Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), who liberal Dems once hailed as Ralph Nader with a laugh track. He dismissed the revelations as unsurprising. In other words, as his “Saturday Night Live” Stuart Smalley character once said, “You’re only as sick as your secrets.”

The anti-Snowdenites don’t necessarily reflect the sentiment of all the Jews-on-the-street. Many people I’ve spoken with consider Snowden a hero, and they wonder how we, as Jews, can be OK with a government that can track our movements, phone calls and keystrokes, then swoop in and grab us whenever some bureaucrat decides we’re a threat.

It has happened, you’ll recall.

“Liberal Jews are completely hypocritical on this,” a friend of mine mused. “They’re not saying anything because Obama’s in charge. But what if it were Bush, or the Koch brothers?”

So why is it that we Jews, who have a healthy, history-certified paranoia and an abiding concern for the civil liberties of all, have not been marching on Washington over this latest news?

Here’s why: Much of this NSA tracking began under George W. Bush, as Feinstein pointed out. Most of us were OK with it then. The issue, then as now, is what safeguards are in place. Or, as the now well-used phrase has it: Who’s watching the watchers? It is up to us citizens to make sure those legal controls are in place, and that the bureaucracy, always addicted to overreach, is transparent and accountable.

That’s crucial, because the fact is, the technology of surveillance is only going to get cheaper and more widespread. My come-to-Moses moment on this happened three years ago, when I entered my home address on Google Maps. In a split second I had a nice view of my backyard. A four-letter word leapt from my mouth and I realized: Game Over. How much longer before technology allows a satellite to stream that image live 24/7 — or see inside my home? 

For me, it’s not too burdensome to act as if my every e-mail, text and phone conversation could be heard and assessed by an all-seeing judge — I am the son of a Jewish mother, after all. And that’s the trade-off I’m prepared to make. Give me the benefits of a digital life and I’ll live with some of the costs.

Those benefits, by the way, include the ability to monitor and watch the government as well — it cuts both ways. We need to develop and fund more groups like OpenSecrets.org — as well as support great digital journalism — to open government up like never before.

Finally, yes, we Jews also have to admit we’re not reflexively opposed to the NSA tracking, because most of the people they’re tracking are on a jihad specifically against us. The ideologies of hatred have gone from print to pixel. It’s the ideology, not the technology, we have to hold in check. On the Internet, you can find pages for “Burn a Jew Day” and “Kill a Jew Day,” which, by the way, is July 9. When it’s your kids, your community center, your shul at risk, you tend to give the good guys a longer leash.

Just make sure they stay good.


Rob Eshman is publisher and editor-in-chief of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal. E-mail him at robe@jewishjournal.com. You can follow him on Twitter @foodaism.

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