Two years after the USA Patriot Act became law, Jewish groups are still searching for the balance between law enforcement and civil liberties.
The passage of the legislation in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks divided Jewish groups who were ambivalent about the legislation from allies in the civil-rights community that immediately sought to have the law revoked.
The central reason for the Jewish groups’ hesitancy to defend civil liberties — one of the causes Jews generally champion — is that the act’s provisions were designed to target groups viewed as hostile to Jews.
"We can’t ignore the fact that every Jewish community is threatened by terrorism," said Michael Lieberman, Washington counsel of the Anti-Defamation League.
Now, however, Jews are among those behind new legislation that would curtail some of the expanded powers the Patriot Act granted law-enforcement authorities.
On Sept. 24, Rep. Bob Filner (D-Calif.), who is Jewish, joined Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) and other lawmakers and civil-rights groups to introduce a new bill called the "Benjamin Franklin True Patriot Act," which would repeal many of the Patriot Act’s provisions.
The new legislation, Kucinich said, balances liberty and safety.
"There is a sentiment in Congress to move to challenge this idea that we have to forsake the Bill of Rights in order to be safe," said Kucinich, a Democratic candidate for president.
He is supported by many civil rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP and the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
Kucinich was also joined by the Religious Action Center for Reform Judaism, one of the first Jewish groups to speak out against the Patriot Act.
Mark Pelavin, the RAC’s associate director, said his organization does not officially endorse every provision of the proposed legislation but agrees that the bill addresses concerns the Reform movement has raised about the Patriot Act.
While Jewish law allows for the infringement of individual privacy when lives are at stake, those intrusions should be as limited as possible, Pelavin said.
"We must be vigilant in ensuring that our effort to destroy terrorism does not undermine the very liberties that make this country worth celebrating and protecting," he said.
Privately, some Jewish activists admit that had law enforcement used the tools in the original Patriot Act to target a minority other than Arabs or Muslims, Jewish opposition to the legislation might have been more pronounced.
Provisions in the bill, such as the freezing of terrorist assets and new rules for border crossing, can be used by law-enforcement authorities to protect Jews, Lieberman said.
"Every congregant who walks through a synagogue" in the Jewish holiday season "will walk past security guards and cameras," he said. "This has an impact on the analysis we do on tools we want law enforcement to have."
The law updated procedures to allow police to track new technology, such as cellular phones and e-mail. It also removed barriers that prevented information-sharing between local and national law-enforcement agencies.
Post-Sept. 11, intelligence groups said those barriers hampered cooperation that might have helped anticipate the Sept. 11 attacks. Civil libertarians say the barriers, which were in place since the 1970s, prevented spying on U.S. citizens.
Proponents of the legislation say the provisions in the Patriot Act are essential for staying ahead of present-day threats of terrorism and for updating law-enforcement tools that were crafted to fight the Mafia, not terrorist networks.
Critics say the new laws reverse traditional American notions that a suspect is innocent until proven guilty and has a right to counsel.
Rep. Filner said, "I have constituents in jail without charges, without their family officially knowing what’s going on."
Pelavin says many of his constituents in the Reform movement are unsettled by a perceived threat to civil liberties. He hopes that Kucinich’s legislation will start a dialogue about the Patriot Act and its effect on individual rights.
"I think many people are concerned that some of the provisions this bill targets do not contribute to security," he said.
Other Jewish groups are hearing the same thing. Some Jewish community-relations councils are backing referenda seeking to recall the legislation.
Some Jewish leaders support the repeal of individual provisions of the law but will not call the entire bill a failure.
"It certainly has not been our position that the USA Patriot Act is a perfect document," said Richard Foltin, legislative director of the American Jewish Committee. "If we were not in the middle of a war on terrorism, there would be different judgments made."
That led the AJCommittee to back a sunset for the bill that would force Congress to re-examine the Patriot Act after several years. They also support a bill that would repeal some specific Patriot Act provisions, such as the "sneak and peek" law, which allows delayed notification for search warrants.
Kucinich says the Patriot Act was rushed through Congress before members could take a full accounting of its implications. Jewish groups make the same argument, saying that time has allowed them to better understand the act and the way law enforcement uses the provisions.
"The impact, both emotionally and security-wise, of 9/11 was so big that America needed time and needed to be able to sort out the pieces of it," said Reva Price, Washington representative of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.
Even with such reservations, Jewish groups also are wary of Kucinich’s strident tone.
Jews may be frustrated with some actions of Attorney General John Ashcroft, but they don’t want to demonize him, because they believe he is sincere in wanting the bill purely because it is a helpful tool to guard against terrorism.
Jewish groups also are eager to examine new legislation Ashcroft wants, including his Patriot Act II, which would give law enforcement more tools for homeland security protection. Jewish leaders say the approach is piecemeal, separating what is necessary for security from what is superfluous.
What’s clear, Jewish groups say, is that such considerations are uncharted territory. While opponents compare the Patriot Act to the herding of Japanese into detention camps during World War II and other violations of civil liberties, Lieberman says the difference now is that the threat is real, not perceived.
"You have to start from the idea that terrorism is different," he said. "You are not trying to find the criminal, because the criminal may kill himself. You are trying to prevent the crime."