11/09 Haaretz: When politics trumps integrity

When politics trumps integrity

By Jacob Victor

During Michael B. Mukasey's 18 years as a federal judge, his legal decisions were characterized by a nuanced, responsible approach to the law. He was tough on white-collar crime and terrorism, yet still demonstrated empathy for new immigrants and minors. Perhaps Judge Mukasey's strong sense of ethical resolve stems from his Judaism and perhaps not, but either way, many American Jews were proud when he was nominated for the post of United States Attorney General. After the corruption that characterized the reign of Alberto Gonzales, Judge Mukasey seemed like the ideal candidate to restore the reputation of the Justice Department.

Therefore, it was especially disheartening when Judge Mukasey refused to explicitly declare the form of torture known as waterboarding as illegal, after being repeatedly asked to do so during his confirmation hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee over the last few weeks.

Waterboarding involves simulating the feeling of drowning by holding a person on an incline, covering his face with a rag, and dousing his head with water. Almost all experts and many politicians at both ends of the political spectrum agree that the practice is a form of torture, which would make it illegal under the U.N. Convention Against Torture, to which the United States is a signatory. Furthermore, the United States has prosecuted for waterboarding in the past. In 1947, a Japanese military officer was sent to jail for 15 years for using the practice on a U.S. civilian.

Judge Mukasey surely knows these things; he was even willing to describe the practice as "repugnant." Why, then, would a person of his ethical conviction refuse to unequivocally condemn waterboarding and declare it illegal?

The answer is politics. According to some legal experts, if Judge Mukasey had explicitly denounced waterboarding during his confirmation hearings, he would have paved the way for criminal prosecution of U.S. soldiers and intelligence agents, not to mention higher-ups in the Bush administration, who have used or condoned the practice in recent years.

Mukasey seems to have recognized this sticky situation. Sadly, he seems willing to compromise ethical values in order to protect his new political associates.

Judge Mukasey is apparently the latest victim of the malaise currently afflicting American Jewish leadership. While Jewish leaders have often been known for their moral fortitude, many of today's Jewish public figures seem all too willing to compromise their values for the sake of political maneuvering. Jewish moral resolve has been replaced by expediency.

Another recent casualty of this sad state of affairs is Abe Foxman, the director of the Anti-Defamation League, who has long been a tireless opponent of anti-Semitism, racism and other forms of bigotry. Many were shocked when Foxman and the ADL recently opposed congressional legislation condemning the Armenian genocide, out of fear of alienating Turkey, which is one of Israel's most important allies. While Foxman acknowledged that the massacre of as many as 1.5 million Armenians by Turkey between 1915 and 1923 was "tantamount to genocide," he still refused to support the legislation. Turkey's relationship with Israel is indeed valuable, but on the subject of genocide there should be no room for equivocation, particularly from an organization claiming to represent Jewish values.

All this is not to say that American Jewish public figures should embrace blind idealism irrespective of the political consequences. On the contrary, responsible political leadership requires carefully considered compromise. But when political expediency trumps fundamental moral principles, or turns on its head undisputed historical events, the integrity of Jewish moral leadership begins to erode. The American Jewish community has long been known - with exceptions, of course - for producing leaders who could be counted on to defend their moral convictions to the very end. Leaders like Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis, who paved the way for labor reform in America, and Rabbi Abraham J. Heschel, who devoted himself to the civil rights movement, understood that the preservation of moral principles was an essential component of the struggle for justice and equality.

Michael Mukasey and Abe Foxman are both good people; their records attest to that. But if they and other American Jewish public figures do not re-embrace a commitment to maintaining moral integrity, even at the expense of obtaining short-term political advantages, they risk undermining everything that Jewish leaders have long stood for.

Jacob Victor is a third-year student at Harvard College. He is the managing editor of New Society: The Harvard College Middle East Journal, and a member of the editorial board of the Harvard Crimson.

Source: http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/922235.html