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Jewish Journal

Torture, Genocide and Jewish Silence

by James D. Besser

February 17, 2005 | 7:00 pm

 

Jews around the world have worked hard to give life to the slogan "never again," but there are painfully abundant signs the world isn't listening. And, worse, a number of our own organizations have been reluctant to speak out on some of the moral rationalizations that contribute to the genocidal mindset.

An example: America's bland refusal to bar torture in our treatment of foreign prisoners, while hardly a call for genocide, is a troubling endorsement of an "anything is justified at a time of war" perspective that is the excuse used by every perpetrator of genocide. But few Jewish groups have spoken out as the torture controversy continues.

The message of the Holocaust -- indeed, the barest facts about it -- have gotten lost in the clamor of world events.

A recent BBC survey in Great Britain revealed that 45 percent of adults in that country had never heard of Auschwitz. The number went up to 60 percent among those younger than 35.

In a study by the International Society for Sephardic Progress, 63 percent of Americans questioned hadn't a clue about that ultimate death factory; again, ignorance was higher among younger respondents.

So should we be surprised that each new instance of genocide, from Cambodia to Rwanda to Darfur, is met with indifference -- especially if the victims are non-Europeans?

In this country, some religious groups have demanded stronger action to end the current genocide in Darfur, but there's been no hue and cry from the public for their government to do more, despite extensive newspaper coverage of the killings. An outstanding new film, "Hotel Rwanda," was produced with the hope of generating that kind of mass response, but it will be seen by a miniscule proportion of the population.

The idea that genocide is going on today is a matter of indifference to most Americans, or just one more in a long series of lamentable disasters around the world.

This nation's political leaders have failed to make preventing or stopping genocide a priority in U.S. foreign policy.

The United Nations, so quick to condemn even the inadvertent shooting of a Gaza child by an Israeli soldier, couldn't care less about the many thousands of Sudanese massacred under their noses. The recent report of its special commission on Darfur, which under Arab pressure concluded there was no genocide, should be regarded as a war crime in itself.

The Jewish community has been more vocal about Darfur than most; the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum's Committee on Conscience has used its enormous credibility to try to generate concern about Darfur and some Jewish groups have spoken out forcefully.

The communal response has been much more tepid in response to Washington's decision to carve out big exceptions in our national morality for reasons of "security" when it comes to the treatment of foreign prisoners.

During recent hearings on the confirmation of Alberto Gonzales as attorney general, the issue of torture in U.S. prisons in places like Guantanamo Bay, Cuba and Abu Grahb prison was front and center because of the nominee's memo suggesting that the Geneva conventions are "quaint" and our own laws against torture do not apply offshore.

The torture-genocide connection should be obvious: countries that justify torture are, at least indirectly and maybe directly, endorsing a world view suggesting that threats to their nations, real or imagined, justify any act, as long as it can be classified a matter of national security.

In the case of America, the threat of terrorism is real -- unlike the threat that Adolf Hitler claimed was posed by the Jews he tortured and murdered.

But tolerating torture undermines civilization and weakens the restraints that prevent genocide; it helps legitimize the ideas that genocidal leaders and tyrants always use to justify their actions.

"The torture of prisoners, or issues of what is the appropriate conduct of soldiers, are issues that should have special resonance for Jews, given our experience in the 20th Century," said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of Reform Judaism (URJ). "We have a special obligation to speak out on these issues; if we don't, shame on us."

But few, aside from URJ, have.

Perhaps some Jewish leaders were concerned that any criticism might reflect badly on Israel, which has had its own controversies on torture. Ironically, that country -- under a much more immediate terror threat -- has acted responsibly, thanks to a ruling by its Supreme Court.

Again, make no mistake; America is threatened and the need for a strong and effective response to the terrorists is undeniable.

But few experts believe torture is a useful interrogation technique, or effective enough to justify the heavy moral costs or the boost our actions will give to those who use the mantra of "security" as justification for murder on a mass scale.

Jewish leaders should look at the worldwide indifference to Darfur, at the appalling lack of Holocaust knowledge in the Western nations and at America's own casual endorsement of torture when it suits our interest -- and see a real connection. Maybe then their silence might be replaced by outrage and genuine leadership.

 

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