‘The challenges of eradicating torture’

‘The challenges of eradicating torture’

On either side of the pulpit in my synagogue are two flags. To my right is the American flag and to the left is the Israeli flag. I have always taken the position that I can be critical of the flag to my right because I choose to live in this country where I vote, and pay taxes. I cannot be critical of the flag to my left because until I am willing to move to Israel, fight in its wars, vote in its elections, I have no right to have a say in Israeli politics and policies. I do, however, take pride in the State of Israel because I have lived there, tilled holy soil in Ofrah, and have children, grandchildren, and relatives who live all over the Holy Land. I am proud of their commitment and respect their right to support or contest the decisions of their government through the democratic process which they entitle themselves to by fulfilling the mitzvah of living in eretz Yisrael.

This does not mean that I am without an opinion on Israeli politics and policies. It simply means that the opinions that count are the voices of those who are willing to work, live, and sacrifice in a way in which I am not ready. I respect and love those individuals and the concept of the State of Israel. That respect and love came into direct conflict with the very fiber of my being when I listened to the expert testimony of a government witness during the deportation hearing in Newark of Imam Mohammad Qatanani, the spiritual leader at the Islamic Center of Passaic County in Paterson. U.S. immigration authorities say he failed to disclose, on his application for a green card, an arrest and conviction in Israel for being a member of Hamas. The imam says he has not belonged to Hamas, that he was detained, not arrested, in Israel, and was abused while under detention.

The government expert was a retired Israel Defense Forces military court judge, Amos Guiora, who is now a law professor at the University of Utah. On cross-examination, Mr. Guiora testified that the "torture" described by Imam Qatanani was in fact standard interrogation practice employed by the IDF in 1993. Mr. Guiora firmly maintained that the practices of the IDF military court were sound and identical to those of the United States legal system. When challenged for a parallel within the U.S. legal system, Mr. Guiora pointed to Guantanamo Bay.

As a Jew who loves the State of Israel, I felt my stomach turn. This was not a witness for the defense. This was a government witness who was affirming that the State of Israel had acted in a manner inconsistent with Torah values. Until the moment of his confirmation, I did not completely accept the veracity of the allegations regarding the torture that the imam experienced during his 1993 detention. How could I possibly believe that such things can happen at the hands of the IDF? How could torture inconsistent with Torah values exist within the Jewish state?

As I was sitting in the courtroom, Judge Alberto J. Reifkohl reconciled my internal conflict when he confronted Mr. Guiora with the following question: Didn’t the Israeli Supreme Court ban these behaviors as torture in 1999? Mr. Guiora simply responded, "I do not agree with the Israel Supreme Court decision." It was then that a light went on in my mind. Mr. Guiora is not a representative of the Israeli government. It is interesting to note that while the Israeli government has a consulate in New York and multiple experts in Israeli law all over the metropolitan area, the government had to seek out a retired Israeli military court judge from Utah to testify. Israel’s cooperation in this case has been limited to a few mimeographed sheets obtained through the Justice Department through international treaties. Perhaps our brothers in Israel have little interest in a case that finds it origins in less than our shining moments. Perhaps in their silence our Israeli brothers are making a statement.

Since I firmly believe that as a Jew living in America I forfeit my right to participate in the affairs of the Israeli government and respect the right of those who choose to live in the Holy Land to determine the fate and direction of the State of Israel, I will quote the words of the Israeli Supreme Court (1999): "Even in the face of the harsh reality of continual terror unleashed against Israel civilians, torture or cruel inhumane treatment have no place in a democratic state, and must be prohibited."

Is it possible that the IDF employed interrogation practices that are in reality torture? It is not only possible, it is a sad matter of record, as established by the Israeli Supreme Court. This does not make the State of Israel horrible. It makes the State of Israel human. The fact that the Israeli Supreme Court in 1999 had the understanding and sense of justice to unanimously rule that these practices have no place within a democratic society is a credit to the State of Israel. Unfortunately, the decision cannot undo the reality that in 1993 the IDF employed interrogation practices that were cruel and inhumane. I am comforted by the fact that Israel has since outlawed these practices.

A system of law capable of preserving human rights in the face of daily terror honors the values and promises that are the core of freedom. While I am saddened that Mr. Guiora does not understand the wisdom of the Israeli Supreme Court’s decision, I cannot judge him because I have not lived with the daily reality of terrorism and I cannot understand how that reality might cloud one’s judgment and perception of human rights. I pray that our government will follow the example of the Israeli Supreme Court as we face the challenges of eradicating torture and preserving human rights.