Jewish leaders join other clergy in petition for torture probe

'Our entire tradition is one that if you've done something wrong, you have to repent.'

Guantanamo bay 248.88 (photo credit: AP [file])
Guantanamo bay 248.88
(photo credit: AP [file])
Jews must stand up against torture because of their values and history of oppression, declared Rabbi Steve Gutow at a rally this week pushing for a commission of inquiry into US-sponsored acts of torture to be established. "We in the Jewish community bear a special witness to torture. Our people were slaughtered and maimed all throughout history," said Gutow, president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. Persecution stretching from slavery in Egypt through the Holocaust has "imprinted on our souls a profound recognition that torture and cruelty and unmentionable pain must be recorded, acknowledged, regretted, concluded." He was speaking at a National Religious Campaign Against Torture rally Thursday, an interfaith gathering organized to press US President Barack Obama to set up a commission of inquiry. Though Obama banned torture on his second day in office, he has resisted creating an independent, non-partisan group to investigate the issue. Obama has come under fire from groups, mainly on the Left, who want to see him take action to hold those involved accountable and prevent such measures from being used again. Others, largely on the Right, have argued that a commission of inquiry could punish American public servants who believed they were following the law and that further punishment could hurt intelligence service morale and be damaging to America's image abroad. Gutow, a Reconstructionist rabbi, joined fellow clergymen at the rally and then later at the White House with senior administration officials. The energized crowd of many religious leaders and torture opponents gathered in front of the White House for an hour ahead of the meeting to listen to clergy speak, tell stories, read poems and pray. The many posters and banners expressed not only an opposition to torture, but also the belief that only a full, honest investigation of past torture could let the US move on and establish safeguards to prevent torture from happening again. "Our entire tradition is one that if you've done something wrong, you have to repent," Gutow told The Jerusalem Post. "I think if we have done something as a country, it's paramount that we find out what it is we did." At a press conference preceding the rally, Rev. John Thomas, president of the United Church of Christ, stressed that "torture is a moral issue. Its particular form of cruelty is an affront to those of us who believe that each person, even the one who seeks to do us harm, bears the imprint of the image of God." The rally organizers, who represent over 250 religious organizations, also wrote an open letter to Obama, in which they told him, "You have expressed your desire to look forward, not backward. We agree we must look forward - forward to a future where torture will never happen again. But we believe that the only avenue to, and guarantee of, such a future is a commission of inquiry." While the Union for Reform Judaism, the American Jewish Committee's Blaustein Institute, the JCPA and Rabbis for Human Rights have supported this cause, not all Jewish organizations have signed on the effort. "The Jewish community was not overly involved in this issue," according to Rabbi Charles Feinberg of Rabbis for Human Rights. "This has been a core issue for us, but I would say it's been an uphill battle for us in the Jewish community." Gutow also joined with Rev. Michael Kinnamon, general secretary of the National Council of Churches, to write a letter to several newspapers on the issue. "The greater danger is to be silent," said Kinnamon, quoting the letter. "History has shown us that truth is an essential step towards ridding ourselves of past evils."