From Ancient Tents of Privacy to internet Exposed: NSA 2034

Reb Arthur at anti-NSA event on Capitol Hill, 2/11/14

 This past Tuesday (February 11, 2014) -– as you can see in the photo  -– I spoke at a press conference on the NSA held on Capitol Hill. Congressman Rush Holt was the main speaker.  (He has introduced a bill to roll back many of the invasions of our civil liberties and privacy that were done in panic after 9/11 and have proved irrelevant to protecting us from terrorist attacks.)

I was invited to speak because The Shalom Center is one of 22 plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the NSA’s warrantless and unwarranted searches of phone calls of at least one hundred million Americans suspected of no crime.  Our lawsuit, filed by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (“the ACLU of the Internet”) argues that  the NSA’s behavior not only violates the Fourth Amendment but also has a chilling effect on our free speech and assembly.

My outlook on this issue goes back even before the Bill of Rights, into ancient teachings of the Rabbis. As I’ve said before, I need to say again: We can’t do this kind of transformative work, bringing the deepest wisdom of Torah to action on the questions we face today, without the money to pay for staff, email systems, travel, phones. So please give The Shalom Center a (tax-deductible) gift of spiritually rooted strength by clicking on the “Donate” button to your left.

Think of it as a Valentine’s Day gift of love – for love, justice, freedom, and healing are deeply intertwined.

Below is what I said.

Shalom, salaam, sohl; paz, peace!  –  Arthur


“I’m an historian as well as a Rabbi. Let me bring to mind four moments in historic time  – three past, one future – and what they teach us about the NSA:

“Two thousand years ago, the ancient Rabbis, living under the Roman Empire and knowing its spies and secret police were rife among them, picked up a verse from Torah. A still more ancient King, frightened of the newly liberated band of runaway slaves that had toppled Pharaoh and were journeying in the Wilderness, hired a shaman to bring curses on this free community. But he blessed them instead, saying, ‘Mah tovu ohalecha Yaakov —How wonderful are your tents, O people of Jacob!’

“The Rabbis asked –  What was so wonderful about those tents? They answered that the tents were pitched at angles to each other so that no family could peer into another’s tent, nor could the King peer into any of them. (See Num. 24: 5 and Talmud  Bavli, Baba Batra 60a.) To be a free community, not slaves of Pharaoh or a King, meant to have privacy.  A religious value bequeathed to us through many generations of struggling to be free.

“The second moment is, of course, the one that is supposed to inspire and govern all Americans today: The period of the American Revolution, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. There is a reason that in the Bill of Rights is the Fourth Amendment, providing that warrants to invade our privacy must name a specific person, must be authorized by a judge, and must be based on probable cause that the specific person named might have committed a crime.

“The reason is not mere political theory but actual lived experience:  The people who wrote the Fourth Amendment had lived under a King, the British king, who issued what were called ‘writs of assistance.’ These allowed searches of anyone for any reason. No court, no cause need be involved. The Fourth Amendment was intended to prevent ‘writs of assistance.’

“And what the NSA now does is using writs of assistance. Not in mere dozens or hundreds, like King George III. Millions, one hundred million.

“Third moment: Thirty years ago, I was one of nine Washingtonians, antiwar and anti-racist activists, who sued the FBI for its illegal penetration of our lives as part of COINTELPRO.  The FBI forged letters, stole documents, tapped phones — to undermine the movements to change America.   

 The jury decided that even though we could not prove any personal financial losses as a result of COINTELPRO, the attacks on our freedom of speech and assembly were subject to financial damages.

The US Circuit Court of Appeals upheld their verdict. (Even Antonin Scalia, then a Circuit Court judge, joined in the unanimous affirmation.)  What I did with the money was buy my first computer to do political work, and make it possible for my young-adult son and daughter to do political work with a one-year personal “fellowship.” I told them the grants were the “J. Edgar Hoover Memorial Fellowships.”

“What does this teach us? That we can win our freedom against these engines of repression. We can win in the courts, we can win in Congress, we can win in public opinion.

“The fourth historical period is twenty years from now  – 2034, exactly 50 years after 1984. Imagine a J. Edgar Hoover as head of NSA, or a Richard Nixon as President — possessed of an enormous stash of private information about our lives. We know that Hoover blackmailed Presidents and Senators, tried to blackmail Martin Luther King.  

But even aside from such malignant possible officials at the top, imagine twenty years from now, Edward Snowden’s evil twin (a brilliant image from the SuperHero / SuperVillain comic books). Imagine “Ned Superstorm” (Snowden’s name backwards) — a computer whiz who has  Snowden‘s skills but not Snowden’s conscience.  He is not committed to democracy and the public good.

Just a clever and unprincipled bureaucrat, accessing a radioactive uranium mine of your metadata, and yours, and yours.  Whom you phoned and emailed, when and where and how often  —-

“Would you, and you, and you — feel safe in that America?   The NSA says it does what it does to keep us safe. Would you feel safe?

“What do we learn? No king —no matter by what title, no matter of what political party — can be allowed to peer into the tents of a free citizenry, a free people.”

^^^^^^^^^^^
Please remember to give The Shalom Center a (tax-deductible) Valentine’s Day gift of love and strength by clicking on the “Donate” button to your left..  —
Thanks! —  Arthur

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2 Comments

RE: The Disintegration of the True American Way

Excellent speech, Rabbi! I hope you get through to a great deal of people; because, from where I sit, most "Amerikans" just don't "get" how threatening this violation of our privacy is, that it means that we are not Truly Free, and that it endangers ALL OF US extremely. Rather, they are allowing themselves to be "washed-of-(TRUE-)brains", and to rationalize and accept this madness because it supposedly doesn't involve them and would never effect them (they would never do anything wrong, causing the government to break down their door); and they think they should just sit back a shut-up, not make wakes, allow this mass-insanity to go on, and "everything will be alright". But it won't be alright. ALL OF US as Americans have the DUTY to stand up against all of this privacy-freedom-and-rights-destroying madness; and, if enough of us don't fulfill that duty, we are done for as a nation of "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness"; and a "holocaust" of far greater proportions than any that came before it will come down on the heads of all of the American people. It's already begun to do just that.

Thank you again for your True Courage, Rabbi.

RE: Correction(s)

Dearest Rabbi,

I can't edit my comment, otherwise I would do it myself, but would you please edit the word, "wakes", to be the word it is supposed to be, "waves". Thank you again, sir.

Wolf