The wide-ranging talk was the centerpiece of Hadassah's annual education day. Some 300 women from the Zionist women's group -- and a few men -- gathered at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel to hear a panel of experts, moderated by former U.S. Rep. Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky, speak on the hot-button topic.
The panel featured Larry Frankel, legislative director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Pennsylvania; Edward A. Turzanski, senior fellow with the Center for Terrorism, Counter-Terrorism and Homeland Security at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia; and Thomas F. Minton, special agent in the FBI's Fort Washington office who investigates matters concerning international terrorism.
The three staked out their ideological territory during introductory remarks, bringing up a host of issues ripe for debate.
Minton started the day by saying that he doesn't begrudge anyone with "a healthy skepticism in this day and age" of post-9/11 homeland-security measures.
Though Minton touched on a degree of wariness, Turzanski said that the rights of Americans begin with their personal security. "I have spent time and lived in places where civil liberties were denied by governments," he said, noting that a government's primary duty is the protection of its citizens. "Your very first core civil liberty is to be alive."
Frankel launched into things from a different angle, claiming that putting civil liberties and national security in opposition to one other is a troubling proposition; he does not believe that one has to be sacrificed for the other. "I don't think there's a dichotomy between national security and civil liberties," he said. "The contrast between the two is a false contrast."
He warned that when the government begins to infringe on those liberties to enhance its security measures, a problematic situation arises.
"We've seen it before," he reminded. "In times of war, the government will go as far as the public will allow."
Margolies-Mezvinsky asked questions that spurred debate among the panelists on how the country can protect itself while retaining its core freedoms.
Yet Turzanski warned that if we don't take the small steps now -- even though they may make some people uncomfortable -- it will only result in a crackdown on civil liberties if another attack occurs.
While Turzanski argued for allowing the government more freedom in its actions, Frankel reminded the audience that government initiatives like wiretapping are not the problem; rather, it's the warrantless nature of such programs. He also said that removing the court system from the equation creates a dangerous skew in the system of checks and balances that keeps democracy afloat.
Turzanski responded that the courts are an ineffectual system that slow down the work of the intelligence industry.
He insisted that professionals should be entrusted to act in an immediate fashion when intelligence presents itself, and not always be subject to judicial review when time is of the essence.
The conference ended with Ellyn Lyons, national vice president of Hadassah and chair of the Israel, Zionist and International Affairs committee, speaking about the ideals of freedom in Israel. "Like the United States, Israel's democracy is evolving -- it makes mistakes," she said, adding that the country is continually trying to correct those mistakes. She pointed to a case in the Israeli courts where the security fence was moved because it impeded a Palestinian's ability to harvest his olive crop.
'Got to Be That Balance'
The panel discussion caused some in the audience to rethink their views on whether or not they'd be willing to give up any civil liberties to remain safe.
"I almost think I'm becoming a little more conservative," admitted Rochelle Krevitz of Philadelphia. She mentioned her willingness to wait in long lines at airports if it meant a safer trip.
"I wouldn't want someone to miss something," she said of the security personnel checking on passengers.
Nevertheless, she's worried about what the implications for the future might be: "There's got to be that balance."
On the flip side, Lois Koff of Jenkintown, a past president of Hadassah of Greater Philadelphia, felt that once a government takes actions that violate the civil liberties of citizens, then it's already a victory for those who wish to harm America.
As she said: "Removing what is rightfully ours in terms of civil liberties will not help us fight those forces."