Counting the Days: It Is Time to Close Guantanamo

Right now, the Jewish community is finishing up its annual marking of days, as each night we count the Omer, the 49 days between the second night of Passover and the beginning of Shavuot. Immediately after, we'll mark another set of days, one with only despair and no celebration.
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Right now, the Jewish community is finishing up its annual marking of days, as each night we count the Omer, the 49 days between the second night of Passover and the beginning of Shavuot. The time between liberation and revelation is one of spiritual preparation to receive God's word, moving us from a celebration of freedom to a celebration of covenant with God. The act of the counting of the Omer has spiritual significance, asking each us not to let these seven weeks pass by without meaning but to really focus on the reality of each day as a moment of holiness in time.

Immediately after Shavuot, we'll mark another set of days, one with only despair and no celebration. May 17 will be 100 days since an ever-increasing number of the detainees held at the prison at Guantanamo Bay have been on a hunger strike. At this point, the government has confirmed that more 100 hundred of the 166 remaining detainees are on a hunger strike. Eighty six of the men have been cleared for released, but remain because of restrictions on transfers of prisoners to Yemen and barriers put in place by Congress (and signed by the president) severely restricting what can be done to try or transfer the detainees.

In its recent report on torture and indefinite detention, the Constitution Project's bipartisan Task Force on Detainee Treatment unequivocally called the force-feeding of detainees torture. This stance is backed up by the American Medical Association, which in an April letter to Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel reiterated their opposition to force-feeding a prisoner who is mentally competent. In response, Guantanamo leadership stated their commitment to keeping the prisoners from starving to death and to treat them humanely, but to those of us on the outside, it seems that those are mutually exclusive statements.

It has been easy to forget the men languishing at Guantanamo. Out of sight, out of mind. Early in his first term, President Obama urged us all to look forward on issues like torture and indefinite detention. Most of us did, assuming that the president who on his first full day in office in 2009 signed an Executive Order to close Guantanamo might follow through with that promise.

These men have been waiting as our attention went elsewhere. In December 2008, right after President Obama was elected, two attorneys representing Guantanamo detainees spoke at a T'ruah conference, and their words have come back to haunt me with each day of the hunger strike, as the prisoners get closer to death. Thomas Wilner said that to the detainees, the worst abuse was not the physical abuse, but being stuck in Guantanamo without a hearing, without a chance to defend oneself (read his recent op-ed in the Washington Post). And Gita Gutierrez called out all Americans, herself included, on our complacency in the face of first the torture we knew was going on and now the ongoing legal quagmire. She challenged us: "We did not do enough eight years ago, we did not do enough six years ago, or four years ago, or even two years ago and the men are still imprisoned there." She reminded us that even being released did not restore to former prisoners the years that were lost or heal the physical and emotional trauma. And she asked to commit to getting those men released.

That was more than 1,600 days ago. The men are still there and now they are dying to remind us they are there.

Detainee Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel described (in an op-ed in the New York Times dictated by phone to his lawyer) both the despair of the detainees at their ever-dwindling options for release and the gruesome reality of force-feeding. He states:

I will not eat until they restore my dignity. ... I am a human being, not a passport, and I deserve to be treated like one. ... there is no end in sight to our imprisonment. Denying ourselves food and risking death every day is the choice we have made.

T'ruah's leadership are among 38 faith leaders who signed a recent letter to President Obama from the National Religious Campaign Against Torture reiterating that both torture and indefinite detention without trial -- especially for the significant number of detainees cleared for release -- violate the inherent dignity of the human being. The letter states: "As the nation's most visible and painful symbol of torture and indefinite detention, Guantanamo Bay is a constant reminder of a deep moral wound that will heal only when it is permanently closed." Sending these men home is not just a legal but also a moral obligation. While the president continues to state his commitment to closing Guantanamo, his actions tell a different story, as he continues to sign legislation that restricts his ability to transfer detainees and fails to robustly pursue other options.

After the Israelites receive the Torah, they famously declare Na'aseh v'nishmah, "We will do and we will hear" (Exodus 24:7). The odd choice of order of the commitment is understood to mean that a commitment to action must precede a full comprehension of the terms. The moral imperative to act, to receive God's word, is so great that it ends discussion. We've heard enough about and from men dying at Guantanamo. It's all been talk. As Shavuot passes and the 100th day of the hunger strike arrives, the balance of this dynamic must change to action. Recently, Thomas Wilner told me, "What is happening at Guantanamo is simply no longer tolerable. It is a terrible human tragedy, and it is also a continuing outrage to our values as Americans. These few Arab men, many of whom have long been cleared, are stranded at an island prison and ignored because they have no domestic constituency to speak on their behalf -- except for us. We must do so."

For more on the Counting of the Omer, join the HuffPost Religion virtual community by visiting the liveblog, which features inspiration and teachings for all 49 days of spiritual renewal between Passover and Shavuot.

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