Thursday, June 26, 2008

Rabbi Dobrusin Tortures the Truth

Synopsis: Rabbi Robert Dobrusin puts on a good show of opposition to torture but, ultimately, it is clear that, in truth, he believes that torture can be "justified" as an "act of self-defense."

Have a good look at the photo at right. It is probably the only visible opposition to torture that you will ever see outside of Ann Arbor's Beth Israel Congregation (BIC). The banner is displayed by members of Jewish Witnesses for Peace and Friends (JWPF) in support of Torture Awareness Month, sponsored locally by the Interfaith Council for Peace and Justice (ICPJ).

The ICPJ is headed by none other than BIC member Ruth Kraut. All the evidence suggests that Kraut has been unable to persuade BIC members to join either the local ICPJ anti-torture campaign or the parent campaign by the National Religious Campaign Against Torture. Kraut has, apparently, been more successful in getting ICPJ to shun Sabeel's upcoming conference in Detroit. She reportedly told the ICPJ directors that "as a Jew" she felt uncomfortable with Sabeel. Indeed. In any case, none of Ann Arbor's other synagogues are on board with the anti-torture campaign, either. This is not surprising.

You see, Jews have a problem with torture--they support it. Not all of them, of course, but as Felice Gaer, director of the American Jewish Committee's Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights, puts it: "There was a shocking silence of the Jewish community on the issue of torture, and there is still a lacuna on this vital issue, to my eye." One of the world's most prominent proponents of torture is Alan Dershowitz, a Jew and an ardent defender of the Jewish state. According to a 2006 scientific poll conducted for the BBC in 25 countries, Israel led the world in public support of torture with a majority of Jewish Israelis in favor of its use. Further, Israel is the only state in the world to have legalized torture. In the US, last November, three Jews in the Senate crossed party lines to save Michael Mukasey's nomination as Attorney General. Mukasey, "a believer and devout Jew," notoriously refused to state in confirmation hearings that the form of torture known as waterboarding was illegal under US law.

However, BIC's spiritual leader, Rabbi Robert Dobrusin, has not been entirely silent on the torture issue. He gave a sermon on the subject on June 7 whence he told the congregation:
At the Board meeting last month, the board of Beth Israel Congregation voted to join a new effort in the Jewish community called K'vod Habriot, respect for human dignity. This effort, was launched by Rabbis for Human Rights - North America, and begins as part of an interfaith effort to address one particular issue, an issue which is a critical one for our nation.
He doesn't say why BIC, apparently, stayed out of the two "interfaith effort[s]" I have mentioned above. Nor does he say what "nation"--"the Jewish people ... as a nation" or America--he is speaking of but that soon becomes evident.
The position is clear: that this country should not engage in torture of prisoners in any situation and that there should be no ambiguity to this prohibition. In the past few years, several different letters against torture have been produced, one of which was signed by hundreds of Rabbis across the political and religious spectrum. This month has been designated as Torture Awareness Month ...
When Rob Dobrusin talks about torture he means the United States and he means Americans: "... the K'vod Habriot network has been formed to make a statement to our government that United States sponsored torture is wrong and must be prohibited by law." The absence of any discussion of torture in Israel in Dobrusin's sermon, except indirectly by reference to an article by Yehezkel Dror, is striking ("torture" is not mentioned in Dror's op-ed--"When Survival of the Jewish People Is at Stake, There’s No Place for Morals").

It is striking because of the centrality of the Jewish state to Beth Israel, lit. "House of Israel". BIC is part of Conservative Judaism and here is some of what Ismar Schorsch, former chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary--the flagship institution of Conservative Judaism, has to say about "The Sacred Cluster: The Core Values of Conservative Judaism":
The centrality of modern Israel heads our list of core values. For Conservative Jews, as for their ancestors, Israel is not only the birthplace of the Jewish people, but also its final destiny. Sacred texts, historical experience, and liturgical memory have conspired to make it for them, in the words of Ezekiel, "the most desirable of all lands (20:6)." Its welfare is never out of mind. Conservative Jews are the backbone of Federation leadership in North America and the major source of its annual campaign. They visit Israel, send their children over a summer or for a year, and support financially every one of its worthy institutions. Israeli accomplishments on the battlefield and in the laboratory, in literature and politics, fill them with pride. Their life is a dialectic between homeland and exile. No matter how prosperous or assimilated, they betray an existential angst about anti-Semitism that denies them a complete sense of at-homeness anywhere in the diaspora.
Dobrusin echoed these remarks when he told his congregation in a sermon delivered on the most important day of the Jewish liturgical calendar that "the two most vital places of myth" in Judaism are "the State of Israel and the synagogue." He then described the "State of Israel" as "not only a haven ... but a place of inspiration for all of us" and declared that "As Israel faces difficult times, it is essential that we rally behind her to insure her survival as a Jewish state." On January 2007, he wrote in the Ann Arbor News: "Beth Israel Congregation affirms without any hesitation or equivocation the legitimacy of the existence of the State of Israel as a Jewish state". Furthermore, BIC reportedly displays the Israeli flag in the synagogue. They dissemble to visitors about JWPF. They send their kids to Israel and pose them with Israeli soldiers with the Rabbi's blessing. And when Israel turned Lebanon into a "free-fire zone" in 2006, BIC leaders responded by publishing on their web site a photo of four Israeli flags along with a statement of support for the "people of the State of Israel at this time of crisis" and stating that "We pray for the safety of those who defend Israel …"

So, Rabbi Dobrusin and BIC are not usually shy about speaking about Israel. Why, then, the recent reticence? Perhaps to speak truthfully about torture in Israel would be a shande far di goyim--an embarrassing exposure of the false pretenses of Israeli democracy and high Jewish moral standards.

Tellingly, the gist of Dobrusin's argument with Dror is not that he is entirely wrong in his premise: "When Survival of the Jewish People Is at Stake, There’s No Place for Morals." And he certainly does not object anywhere to Dror's manifest Jewish exceptionalism. Dobrusin's argument is that you can't or shouldn't openly commit to Dror's position in advance.

Dobrusin writes:
Professor Dror later says that: "... human history refutes the idealistic claim that in order to exist for long, a state, a society or people has to be moral." This, also regrettably, may be true. Unfortunately, it is not always clear that survival goes along with moral behavior for a nation or an individual.

But what his entire article misses is the difference in Jewish Law between lichatcheela and bidayavad, decisions we make "before the fact," intentional actions, and those which we must take in a given circumstance to face difficult realities.
He later says (emphasis added):
Some might ask: Doesn't making torture illegal tie the hands of our military in the event that an act of torture might possibly save thousands of Americans? Think about how we would respond if, God forbid, our family members were in danger. We would do what we thought we had to do, and then would seek to defend ourselves as having committed a justified act of self-defense. But we don't go into situations saying that morals don't matter in how we live our lives.
The implicit answer to the question Dobrusin poses is: No, "making torture illegal" does not "tie the hands of our military ..." It's obvious that he believes that torture can be "a justified act of self-defense." His beef with torture is not with torture per se but with the failure to maintain the pretense of morality--always say you're against it but torture if you have to. Not unlike the contortions of UM Regent Andrea Fischer Newman et al. this is simply a sleight of hand employed to dishonestly claim the high ground.

Not coincidentally, this is also the position the Israeli Supreme Court took when they ruled on torture in 1999 in The Public Committee Against Torture in Israel vs. The Government of Israel et al. To quote Alan Dershowitz, "the Supreme Court left open the possibility that a member of the security service who honestly believed that rough interrogation was the only means available to save lives in imminent danger could raise this [necessity] defense." This is exactly what Dobrusin has done--he has left open an ex post facto or bidayavad exception for torture.

As he explained elsewhere:
... there is a distinction in Jewish law between lichatcheela and bidayavad. Lichatcheela refers to something which is intended from the beginning. That is to say, can we plan to do a certain thing or is it prohibited? Bidayavad refers to something which is already done. Can we benefit in a certain way from something we have done for another purpose or something which we have done not knowing it was prohibited? Often times, actions which are prohibited lichacheela in Jewish law are permitted if it is in a bidayavad situation.
Torture to Dobrusin's mind is "prohibited lichacheela [sic]" but not necessarily "in a bidayavad situation" i.e., after it has already occurred. Thus, he cannot bring himself to clearly and consistently speak against torture anytime, anywhere, or for any reason. It would have been a simple matter to do so but he did not.

So, how does Dobrusin stand with respect to the "international law" he mentions? Where the Rabbi allows for torture as a "justified act of self-defense," the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment is unequivocal: "No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political in stability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture" Art. 2, Para. 2.

Rabbi Dobrusin's sermon is not a complete loss, though. After all is said and done, he arguably provides us with a fine example of the "art of moral anguish" that Barack Obama claims to have "learned ... from Jews" and that is surely worth something.

I'll close now with an aside about Yehezkel Dror's article. Much of the global Jewish community is claiming that Iran represents an existential threat to Israel. It is interesting then to read Dror saying (emphasis added):
When the requirements of existence conflict with other values, therefore, realpolitik should be given priority. From the threat of a disastrous conflict with Islamist actors such as Iran, to the necessity of maintaining distinctions between "us" and "others" in order to limit assimilation, this imperative ought to guide policymakers.
Dror just likened the "threat" posed by Iran to the "threat" of assimilation. Now, bear in mind that the title of his article is "When Survival of the Jewish People Is at Stake, There's No Place for Morals." So, how far is Dror prepared to go? He further writes:
... a people that has been regularly persecuted for 2,000 years is entitled morally, in terms of distributive justice, to be very tough in taking care of its existence, including the moral right and even duty to kill and be killed if this is essential for assuring existence — even at the cost of other values and to other people.
It requires no great leap in logic to justify killing to prevent assimilation per Dror's argument. You would kill to stop "The Holocaust," wouldn't you? Well, the "silent Holocaust"--assimilation--is "killing America's Jews," according to an op-ed by Ephraim Buchwald and published in the LA Times. But, Dror is just an isolated nut, right? Here's what his bio in the Jewish Daily Forward says:
Yehezkel Dror, the founding president of the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, is a professor emeritus of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. A recipient of the Israel Prize, he served as a member of the Winograd commission of inquiry into Israel's war with Hezbollah in 2006.
In my next post I plan to analyze the "Rabbinic Letter on Torture" signed by Rabbi Dobrusin and the "Jewish Statement Against Torture."

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