Closing Guantanamo: A Drash for Vaera, January 11, 2010
Rabbi Rachel Kahn-Troster
At the beginning of Parshat Vaera, God tries to strengthen Moses' commitment to freeing the Israelites. God instructs Moses to tell the Israelites that God spoke to their ancestors, promising them to free their descendants from slavery and bring them to their inheritance in the Promised Land. (Exodus 6:2-8) Though the message is one of hope, the Israelites are in no shape to hear it. "Their spirits crushed by cruel bondage," (6:9) they can only see the reality on the ground, that of their ongoing slavery. Is it no wonder, then, that Moses is concerned that Pharaoh will not listen to him? God's words-after generations of enslavement-have not yet been followed with concrete actions on the Israelites behalf?
The commentator Rashbam understands the Israelites disappointment that Moses' lofty talk has not changed their situation, noting: "They would not listen to him now, even though earlier "the people were convinced." (4:31) For they had expected to get some rest from their hard labor, but now the work was harder than ever." Ibn Ezra suggests that it was not that they didn't believe Moses, but after years of exile and slavery, they literally could not hear him. The message did not get through. Nahmanides responds to this in his comment to v. 12. When Moses tells God in despair "the Israelites would not listen to me," what he means is that God did not make the words ones that the Israelites-with all their pain and disappointment-could truly listen to.
Joan Baez said that "Action is the antidote to despair," and the Israelites needed to see action before their despair could lift enough for them to hear mere words. As we enter the new decade still fighting the war on terror, action is essential to American safety, but the actions we have been taking have not been the right ones to keep us safe and end despair. We have responded with restrictions on civil liberty and with violence, actions designed to show that we are serious about living our values. It is not enough to speak about freedom to the Muslim world: we must demonstrate to those who are suspicious of American intentions that we will once again be guided by our Constitution in our efforts to protect American safety. These actions will create a message that can be heard.
Closing Guantanamo is a critical action in delivering that message and winning the hearts and minds of those who doubt us. The prison there is a symbol of all that we have done wrong, including suspension of civil liberties and acts of torture. In a December 17th editorial, the New York Times declared that "It is impossible to credibly repair this nation's justice system while it operates a shameful symbol of illegality and inhumanity." And today, the National Religious Campaign Against Torture issued a statement that reads in part:
Our country faces very real security threats. As we respond to these threats, however, it is important to remember who we are and what we, as a people, believe...It is how we act in a crisis that demonstrates the quality of our character...There are many practical arguments for closing Guantanamo. Its use as a symbol has inspired extremists to commit acts of terror against American soldiers and American civilians. The techniques that were used there radicalized some inmates, and prevented the successful prosecution of others. So long as Guantanamo remains open it will be difficult for us to win hearts and minds in the Middle East and reverse the expansion of extremist groups.
People around the world rejoiced at the election of President Obama, because of the promise of his ability to restore America's moral standing on the world stage. And indeed, on his first full day in office, President Obama pledged to close Guantanamo within a year. As that deadline rapidly approaches, it is clear it will not be met. Moreover, the decision to grant civilian trials to some inmates does not detract from the fact that still others will be tried in flawed military tribunals, with evidence obtained under torture used against them, or that innocent people, who were detained at Guantanamo for years and torture, have been unable to sue the American government for their treatment. It is our responsibility as Americans to hold our President to his campaign promises and to the commitments he made during his first days in office.
It is time as a nation that we create words that can be heard, through positive actions grounded in our Constitutional values. As Shahid Buttar, Executive Director of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, blogged recently on the Huffington Post:
The strategy that could most effectively hamstring violent extremism abroad is the same one that would most effectively stop disaffected youth in America from turning to violence: applying our principles equally and with consistency. Honestly investigating our nation's record, and prosecuting those individuals responsible for international crimes, would go a long way to reassure observers that we take justice seriously. And allowing the rights and laws in which we have long taken pride to also govern the trials of those we militarily detain would relieve concerns about U.S. human rights abuses, both among international critics and domestic observers targeted by militant propagandists.
Jan. 11 marks the 9th anniversary of the arrival of the first prisoners from the War on Terror in Guantanamo. As we mark this occasion and all that has happened since, we must acknowledge our responsibility as Jews and as Americans to ensure that our actions match our words. This is truly the path to freedom and peace.
For more resources on actions you can take to close Guantanamo, including sample letters and an interfaith prayer for use in your community, click here.