For the past nine years, Felice Gaer has experienced something rare in the nation’s capital: serving on a federal board that usually reaches bipartisan agreement on major international issues — and without rancor.
Gaer, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Jacob Blaustein Institute for the Advancement of Human Rights, is a member of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.
Created by Congress in 1998, the commission designates gross abusers of religious freedom each year and empowers the State Department to list countries that are of particular concern.
She is the only Jew among nine commissioners, who include one liberal and one conservative Baptist minister, a vice president of the conservative Federalist Society, a university chancellor, a professor of international relations, and a Muslim cleric.
“We have huge differences in our approaches and views of American politics, even on issues of separation of state and religion in the U.S.,” she told NJ Jewish News in a phone interview from her New York office. “But when it comes to protecting people against severe violations of religious freedom, there is a high degree of consensus on most issues.”
Last month, the Paramus resident was reappointed to the commission by President Barack Obama. She has served since her initial appointment by former House Democratic leader Dick Gephardt in 2001.
The commission sits at the nexus of two competing priorities in Washington: the administration’s diplomatic outreach to foreign players, and the religious communities’ desire to assure religious freedoms around the world. Those two goals are not always compatible.
In fact, its mission has been questioned by Thomas Farr, a former State Department official and a commission staff member from 1999 to 2003.
Quoted last month in the Washington Post’s “On Faith” weblog, Farr asserted that the Obama administration has less interest in religious freedom as a basic human right than it does in its diplomatic outreach, especially in the Muslim world.
“There is no evidence that President Obama is less interested in religious freedom,” she said. “He is very interested. Every statement he has made has referenced religious freedom, sometimes more than human rights.”
There are also clashing values when it comes to members’ religious and political convictions.
When the issue of the religious targeting of gays in Iraq arose, so did discomfort among conservatives on the commission.
“Discussing the issue was questioned very intensely by Republican members of the commission and defended very intensely by the Democrats. No surprise there,” Gaer said.
“I pointed out that these people are being targeted for who they are; they are being targeted by religious extremists who are declaring they should be killed and who are killing them by issuing fatwas for their deaths.
“We are not defending one religion or another’s belief or system of action in any way,” she said. “We are protesting severe violations of religious freedom in ways that destroy people’s rights.”
The commission was established after a major push by influential evangelical Christians, who felt too little was being done to address religious rights around the world, especially abuses against Christian communities.
“They looked at the Soviet Jewry movement’s success and asked, ‘Why can’t we do the same thing for Christians around the world?’ So Jewish groups were supportive because we are universalists and we believe they helped us, so we should help them,” said Gaer.
‘A little awareness’
In addition to concerns about discrimination against Christians in many parts of the world, as well as against smaller persecuted minorities — such as Tibetan Buddhists, Iranian Baha’is, or Chinese Falun Gong — the commissioners also focus on the harassment and victimization of Jews, Gaer said.
“In China, for example, Judaism is not an official religion and it can be practiced only in hotels, in private, and by expatriates. Those rabbis who have gone to China are forbidden by the government to talk to anybody who is interested in conversion or understanding their religion better. The rabbis can’t do it,” she said.
“We raised the issue that Judaism is not an approved religion, and we were told by their committee on religious affairs that it might become one. It is now five years later, and that hasn’t happened. We were told Jews were allowed to conduct services and have minyans in foreign hotels. So what’s the problem? It’s about not having your own community and having the freedom and trust to conduct your own community. We asked for these things, and they blew us off.”
One issue Gaer raised shortly after joining the commission was violations against women. “There was a nervousness on the commission,” she recalled.
A Catholic clergyman who was a commissioner at the time asked Gaer whether she had in mind advocating the ordination of Catholic women as priests.
“I said, ‘I am talking about women’s equal right to religious freedom,’ and he said, ‘I’m for all that.’ And everybody smiled. Therefore, women’s equal rights is a subject of the commission’s concern now. It takes a little bit of advocacy. It takes a little bit of awareness of human rights and how you defend it,” she said.
As a commissioner, Gaer is required to attend monthly meetings in Washington and occasionally travel overseas to countries under scrutiny. Her recent trips have included visits to Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, and to Saudi Arabia.
Gaer, who was born in Englewood and raised in Teaneck, lives with her husband, Henryk Baran, a professor of Russian literature at the University at Albany-SUNY. Their younger son just graduated from Yale University. Their older son is a freelance writer and graduate of New York University’s Film School.
“Working to prevent human rights violations around the world is a tremendous struggle, and just when you feel you’re making progress, something happens and you feel the stone rolling back to the bottom of the hill,” Gaer said. “Do I enjoy this work? I am committed to it, I am good at it, and I want to make sure nobody suffers the way Jews suffered because of who they were.
“And the flip side of that is that Jews will only be protected when everyone is protected.”