Guantanamo and the National Defense Authorization Act… Again.

This week’s Torah portion – Chukat – presents Moses and the Israelites as they near the Promised Land, battle with the Emorites and struggle with the morality of being a nation at war. This biblical moment holds deep resonance with the moment the U.S. finds itself in today: as the war in Afghanistan winds down, the War on Terror continues to evolve, and new technology brings new forms of warfare into political reality, our nation continues to struggle with the moral questions that come with being a nation at war.

President Obama gave these questions a powerful spotlight in a major speech at the National Defense University last month. There he highlighted the United States’ changing military needs, discussed the growing use of drones and targeted killing, and renewed his Administration’s call to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay. Following this speech, last week the President made two major foreign policy personnel announcements, naming Susan Rice to the position of National Security Advisor and nominating Samantha Power to fill the new vacancy as U.N. Ambassador. Both this speech and these announcements contribute to the sense that we are a nation at change, a military in transition.

However, most developments will have to get approval from Congress – a feat that faces its first test as the House considers the National Defense Authorization Act. The nearly 800-page bill, which authorizes the scope and funding levels of most aspects of the United States military passed out of the House Armed Services Committee last week. Nearly 150 amendments have been submitted to the House Rules Committee, some number of which will be debated as the full House considers the bill. Over the next week or so we’ll take a look at some of the priorities of the Reform Movement and how they’ll be affected by this bill.

As June is Torture Awareness Month (check out some great materials from our partner the National Religious Campaign Against Torture), it is fitting to start with the NDAA’s provisions on the U.S. Military prison at Guantanamo Bay.

This year’s bill maintains language from the last few years that prohibit the transfer of detainees from Guantanamo to the United States for trial, and places nearly insurmountable certification requirements on the transfer of detainees to third countries. These two provisions have frequently been cited by the Administration and anti=torture advocates as the primary obstacles to closing Guantanamo in the near future.

The bill also prohibits the use of funds to build a facility within the United States to house the detainees at Guantanamo and approves $500 million toward  maintaining the prison and working to make it permanent.

Several Members of Congress have filed amendments with the Rules Committee in order to challenge these controversial provisions. The President has also filed a Statement of Administration Policy threatening to veto the bill over these (and other) sections.

The recent hunger strike of more than half of the detainees housed at Guantanamo has renewed debates about their treatment and continued detention. Whether the very existence of Guantanamo is legal or moral can be debated, certainly aspects of these detainees treatment and detention amounts to acts of torture. And torture must always be a concern for those committed to living the values taught to us through our Jewish tradition and for those committed to the pursuit of human rights. As the former President of the Union for Reform Judaism , Eric Yoffie, said in 2005, “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. We have a special obligation to speak out on these issues; if we don’t, shame on us.”

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About Benny Witkovsky

Benny Witkovsky is an Eisendrath Legislative Assistant, he is from Madison, WI, and recently graduated from Vassar College.


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