Pursuing Justice (Yes On Proposition 47)

Proposition 47, (which is being called Safe Neighborhoods and Schools), is personal for me. This is not because I will directly and personally benefit from either the reclassification of some felonies as misdemeanors, nor will I gain from the redirection of monies saved to schools and rehabilitation projects. Proposition 47 is personal because California’s judicial system in which I and all Californians are implicated is broken. In our name and by our (in)action the penal system is perpetrating injustices on a daily basis.

There are prisoners languishing in solitary confinement (Segregated Housing Unit) for decades. This, despite the fact that there is clear evidence that this causes lasting psychological damage. The situation is so bad that a class action suit has been brought on behalf of prisoners incarcerated in the Pelican Bay facility against the governor and other state officials to stop indefinite detention in solitary confinement. The lawsuit only covers inmates who have been segregated for a decade or more. However, research shows that even much shorter terms cause irreversible harm.

The Los Angeles County jails are plagued with a culture of abuse and violence according to former Sheriff’s department employees. Instead of addressing the issue, the department attempted to undermine the investigation. In August 2014, six members of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s department were convicted on charges of obstructing a probe into violence in the Los Angeles County jails..

Michelle Alexander’s recent book The New Jim Crow highlights the way that incarceration is a new form of racial control—documenting the disproportionate number of prisoners of color in the the nation’s jails and the trace effects of incarceration: loss of voting rights, loss of employment opportunities, etc. This is obviously true in California where, according to a 2012 study by the JFA Institute, black people make up a mere 9.6% of the population in Los Angeles, yet they constitute 31% of LA County jail prisoners.

Moreover, in a recent study shows that there is “a cycle of Black peoples’ limited access to mental health care leading to more severe  symptoms, greater criminal involvement, and more frequent arrest. Black people are overrepresented  among mentally ill persons who are arrested and incarcerated, suffer higher rates of diagnosed  schizophrenia, lower likelihood of receiving the latest psychiatric medications, and greater difficulty in  achieving successful community integration.”

All these issues are exacerbated by the severe overcrowding in the California prisons in general, as a result of misguided sentencing policies (such as three strikes) and the “war on drugs” which has run it course. People are being routinely sentenced for possession of small amounts of recreational drugs instead of being redirected to rehabilitative programs.

Here, to my mind, is the heart of Proposition 47:

Require misdemeanors instead of felonies for non-serious, nonviolent crimes like petty theft and drug possession, unless the defendant has prior convictions for specified violent or serious crimes.

What this means in plain English is that if one is caught shoplifting or check kiting, and the amount is less than $950, they will be charged with a misdemeanor rather than a felony. The same is true if one is caught with small amounts of controlled substances.

The effect of this is twofold. First, a person who is caught shoplifting will not have ruined their life by being incarcerated and losing the right to vote, and the ability to get a job. (Many non-governmental job applications still have a check off box for “Have you been convicted of a felony?”.) Second, and as far as public policy is concerned this is perhaps more important. We, the people will start to take responsibility in deciding what actually constitutes a “felony,” and what is only a “misdemeanor.” What transgression is a serious enough breach of the social contract to warrant the loss of liberty and all that that entails, and what transgression should be addressed with lesser punishment and education so that the transgressor will become a productive member of society.

There are certain crimes (murder, rape) which, one assumes, all will agree are sufficiently horrendous such that a person convicted of them should be deprived of liberty for a significant period of time. However, there are transgressions which are deemed horrendous crimes because of the specter of the “war on drugs” or the hobgoblin of “being soft on criminals.” These are not the calculations by which we should run our criminal justice system—a system who mission should be to rehabilitate transgressors and help repair the pain they have inflicted upon their community.

Proposition 47 is not going to solve all the problems that plague our criminal justice system. It won’t solve most of them. However, Prop 47 is a first step in reasserting our control and responsibility over the penal system. I am voting yes on Prop 47 because it is high time that we stopped using the prison system—and the lives of prisoners—to make political points.

Everything you know about creativity might just be wrong

“Creativity” is the latest buzzword in education. The most watched TED talk ever is a talk given by Sir Ken Robinson in 2006 called “How schools kill creativity.” It has had almost twenty million views.

Sir Ken’s main point (which is later joined by his second main point) is that creativity is as important in education as literacy and should be given the same status. His second main point is that children are not taught creativity, rather they are educated out of creativity. This means that all children are naturally creative and the educational system beats that creativity out of them, scaring them with the ideas that there are some things that are right and others that are wrong, and that it is important to know the difference between them.

The other fifteen minutes or so of the talk is filled with anecdotes, quotes, bashing of academics and schools (delivering the necessary truism that our educational system “came into being to meet the needs of industrialism”), and pithy good humor (the talk is definitely worth a listen for the jokes). The climactic anecdote is about the dancer and choreographer Gillian Lynne. Gillian Lynne, who went on to become very accomplished and famous was having a hard time in school in the 1930s. She was characterized as not being able to sit still or concentrate. She might have been diagnosed today as having ADHD. Who knows. In any event, here is the turning point—she was sent to a doctor who listened to her mum’s complaints and then walked out of the room with her mum and left her by herself with some music. She then starting moving, dancing, jumping, etc. The doctor told the mother (according to Robinson): “Gillian isn’t sick she’s a dancer. Take her to a dance school.” And her mother did. Continue reading

Some bad news, some good news (Labor Day)

There seems to be more bad news than good news on the labor front as we celebrate Labor Day 2014. While the latest Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers are from 2013, they demonstrate that union membership remained steady at 11.3 percent—the same as 2012. However, union membership has decreased since 1983 (the first year these numbers were available) by about 9 percent. Given that the BLS report also confirms that union members earned about $200 more a week than nonunion laborers, this is a significant loss for workers.

Perhaps the worst news this year is out of Wisconsin where the State Supreme Court upheld Act 10, which significantly limits collective bargaining rights for state workers. This is sure to deplete union membership even more as collective bargaining is one of most attractive and powerful tools that unions offer workers. Continue reading

Statement on a Week of Police Violence in Los Angeles, CA and Ferguson, MO

CLUE-LA and the Black Jewish Justice Alliance released the following statement last week about the oficer involved shooting deaths in Ferguson, MO and in Los Angeles. (I’m on the board of CLUE-LA and am a member of the BJJA and had a hand in crafting this statement.)

“The faithful city

That was filled with justice,

Where righteousness dwelt—

But now murderers.”   –Isaiah 1:21

The Black Jewish Justice Alliance, an effort by Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice (CLUE-LA) to build a collaborative voice for justice with both African American and Jewish leaders, is extremely concerned about the recent tragic killing of a young unarmed black man, Ezell Ford, in Los Angeles. This shooting happened while the country was still grappling with the shooting of Michael Brown, another unarmed young black man by a police officer in Ferguson, MO.  While all the details of the incident are not yet certain, the shooting of Ford is the latest of many “officer involved shootings” in our city and within our country in which the victim was an unarmed black man.

America suffers from an epidemic of gun violence—some 30,000 people are killed in gun-related incidents every year. Young African-American men are disproportionally represented among intentional shooting victims.[*]  When the shooter is a police officer, who is expected to be the symbol of safety and security in the city and to be trained to limit the use of force—our mourning and concern are deepened and demand justice.

Those whom society gives license to wield violence must be held to the highest standards and the closest scrutiny. Violence must be deployed only as the absolutely last measure after all other avenues have been exhausted. When these guidelines are abrogated, swift punishment must be meted out so that the community does not labor long under the impression that there are “differing weights” and “differing measures,” nor be given to think that African American lives are worth less than others.

We demand that a full and transparent investigation of this incident be carried out and that the LAPD clearly articulate the steps that it is taking to prevent this type of incident from recurring. The Black/Jewish Justice Alliance is ready and willing to engage the LAPD in dialogue to further the recent trend toward more community policing and less violence. We would embrace being a constructive partner so that we can move forward together toward a more peaceful, just city.

–CLUE-LA Black/Jewish Justice Alliance

 

[*] See e.g. Moore DC, Yoneda ZT, Powell M, Howard DL, Jahangir AA, Archer KR, Ehrenfeld JM, Obremskey WT, Sethi MK. Gunshot victims at a major level I trauma center: a study of 343,866 emergency department visits. The Journal of emergency medicine. 2013 Mar 3;44(3). 585-91.

This is Our Desert, This is Our Promised Land

This morning I was honored to be asked to give the invocation at the 11th Annual CLUE-LA Giants of Justice Breakfast. These are my remarks.

This week in the Jewish cycle of Bible reading, we are in between Leviticus and Numbers. This past Shabbat, we finished the book of Leviticus, and in two days we will start the book of Numbers. The name of the book of Leviticus in Hebrew, according to the Rabbinic tradition is Va-yikra, literally “and God called.” Leviticus is a book of Divine calling—the Tabernacle is built, the rules for the sacrifices are set, the law is spelled out. Toward the end of the book, God replays the scene on the top of Mt. Sinai. In Leviticus 25 we read:

The Lord spoke to Moses on Mount Sinai: Speak to the Israelite people and say to them…

So… what was it that was spoken on the top of the mountain? We’re all thinking of the Ten Commandments now. However, Leviticus tells us something else: God spoke of justice. First you must declare a Sabbatical year. A year when the land lies fallow and all debts are forgiven. Next support for the poor, and finally justice for the resident alien, the undocumented immigrant. Continue reading

Matzah, teachers, and labor unions (On the Perelman Jewish Day School Decision)

The story is told of a very prominent rabbi in Europe before World War II who was approached by a freshly minted colleague who had just been hired to supervise the baking of matzohs for Passover. The younger rabbi asked: “There are many, many laws governing the baking of matzah for Passover. Is there any one which I should be especially strict about?” The elder rabbi looked at him intently and said: “Make sure the women who roll the dough get paid a decent wage. This is probably a good deal of their income and they have many mouths to feed. If the matzah bakers are not paid well, the matzah cannot be kosher.”

It should not be surprising that there is such concern placed on the dignity and well-being of workers in the run-up to the holiday which celebrates freedom from slavery. The Babylonian Talmud itself quotes the fourth century Sage Raba as grounding a worker’s freedom to break a work contract in the idea of the Exodus from Egypt, the freedom from slavery.

It is distressing then, that in the weeks before Passover the Perelman Jewish Day School (PJDS) has unilaterally decided to cease recognizing the union that has represented its teachers for decades. (Stories here, here, here, and here) In a letter to parents, the board president wrote that the board had “voted to transition the management of our faculty from a union model governed by a collective bargaining agreement to an independent model guided by our school administrators under a new Faculty Handbook.” Continue reading

The King and the Ring (On Purim and Violence)

The question, twenty years after Baruch Goldstein slaughtered 29 Palestinians at prayer, wounding tens more, is this: How can we celebrate Purim? Goldstein, heard the reading of the Megillah on Purim night, heard (for the fortieth time?) that the Jews took vengeance on their enemies, slaughtered thousands of men, women, and children. Twice. Goldstein, a medical doctor, then rose early in the morning, went to the Tomb of the Patriarchs and shot his M16 until he was overpowered and killed, having killed or wounded tens of praying innocents. How do we read this tale of revenge when we know that that revenge, the Purim revenge, the revenge of “the Jews got their enemies in their power” (Esther 9:1) has been wreaked?
For centuries we were safe from the bloodletting that we fantasized about, because we were powerless on the whole, and our blood was being let. The fantasy of turning the tables—on the very day that the decree was to be carried out “the opposite happened”—was a fantasy of comfort. Someday our oppression will end.
Now, however, our oppression has—in most parts of the world—ended. The State of Israel is powerful, armed, mighty. Yet, we continue to read and celebrate the fantasies of revenge. On Yom Yerushalayim, yeshivah students dance through the Muslim Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem singing ki lashem hamluchah umoshel bagoyim/״for kingship is the Lord’s and He rules the nations״ (Psalms 22:29) while banging on the shutters of the closed Palestinian shops. (Meticulously not repeating the name of God, but rather singing hashem over and over again, according to the precepts of the pious, while striking fear and humiliation in the hearts of other human beings.) Continue reading

A Time for Righteous Rage (on Martin Luther King Day)

(Here is my latest post published on Zeek.)

Any Sage who is not vengeful or does not hold a grudge is not a Sage. –Yoma 22b-23a

On the official anniversary of the birth of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr, one might think that I could have found a more appropriate epigram than the one that graces this essay. Yet, this is the statement that comes to mind, and I think it appropriate.

“But wait!” you might object along with the anonymous editorial voice of the Babylonian Talmud, “Doesn’t Torah say ‘You shall not take vengeance, and you shall not harbor a grudge?!’” “This is true,” that same anonymous sage answers, “but it only applies to monetary matters or business dealings or interpersonal relations around material things.” If I ask to borrow your shovel and you refuse, I may not tomorrow refuse to lend you my hose saying: “You did not lend me your shovel.” Nor may I lend you my hose and say: “I am not like you. I lent you my hose even though you refused to lend me your shovel.” In these instances, vengeance is forbidden and grudge-holding is prohibited.

However, there is an obligation and a place for righteous rage. The mishnaic Hebrew word for it istar‘omet, which has the same root as thunder. The Sage who witnesses an injustice and does not burn with righteous rage is not a Sage. The Sage who does not carry the memory of unjust treatment, and does not rage against it is not a Sage.

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Standing before God (On Hillel and Open Hillel)

In a powerful display of moral imagination The fourth century Babylonian Sage Rava (in Tractate Shabbat of the Babylonian Talmud 31a) claims that when a person is ushered into their final judgement before the Heavenly court, the person is asked six questions. 1. Did you conduct your business dealing justly? 2. Did you study Torah regularly? 3. Did you have children? 4. Did you yearn for redemption? 5. Did you engage in learned discussions of matters of wisdom? 6. Did you derive understanding by analogy? Rava then concludes by saying that even if the person answered yes to all these, his fate is decided by whether or not he feared God.

This exercise in imagination is a powerful one. The most interesting thing about this specific example of the exercise is that Rava, one of the greatest of the Babylonian Sages, starts his list with just business dealings. He mentions Torah study as the second question but only gets to the heart of his life’s mission at question five. Even then, all this is overridden, for Rava, by the fear of God.

This piece of wisdom came to mind as I was thinking of the brouhaha stirred up by the Open Hillel movement’s challenge to the Israel guidelines set by Hillel International, and Eric Fingerhut’s strong reaction to Open Hillel .

As John Judis reports in the New Republic Hillel’s evolving stand on Israel has now moved it into partnership with AIPAC. Further, towing the AIPAC line has become, for Hillel International the meaning of being Jewish.

Rava’s intellectual and spiritual honesty made him realize that despite the fact that his life’s work was in the study hall, deriving mountains of law from the crowns upon the letters in the Torah scroll, still and all, what was most important was whether or not he dealt justly with others. In Hillel International’s guidelines for who might be allowed to use the Hillel name, the only criterion is that a person pledge fealty to the State of Israel “as a Jewish and democratic state with secure and recognized borders as a member of the family of nations.” Those who don’t sign the pledge are not able to partner with Hillel.

One might have thought that Hillel, which has somewhere in its portfolio the mission to be a home to Jewish life on campus, would have articulated something about its ethical commitments. Something along the lines of: “Hillel does not accept donations from anybody who has not been faithfully honest in their business, who has not done their utmost to ensure that they were just to their workers.” Perhaps “Hillel will not partner with an organization that uses religion to oppress others, or whose religious practices give religion a bad name.” Unfortunately, none of this is on Hillel’s website. The only guidelines, as far as I could tell, are in regards to one’s Zionist fidelity.

This is the difference between a Sage and a politician. When the values of the Jewish people are articulated by a politician, they ignore ethics and go straight to politics. You are Jewish if you will go to the AIPAC convention. You are not Jewish if you “hold Israel to a double standard.” The Sage realizes that the core values are beyond the realpolitik of the current moment.

How can we bear the guilt? (On the first anniversary of Newtown)

This week’s Torah portion includes Jacob’s blessings—first of his grandsons and then of his sons. Jacob’s blessing of his grandsons Ephraim and Menashe (Joseph’s children) read as we would expect—summoning God’s blessing on these children and their progeny. However, when Jacob blesses his children, the blessings come out as a review and critique of their lives. Our Rabbis tell us that Jacob had intended to foretell for his progeny “the end of days” (Genesis 49:1) but that his prophetic vision was blocked. Instead he takes account of what his children have wrought.

In blessing his second and third born sons, Shimon and Levi, Jacob must come to account with one of the most disturbing events in Genesis—the slaughter of the Shechemites following the rape of Jacob’s daughter Dinah. In the event, it was Shimon and Levi who orchestrated the well wrought response. They demanded that the Shechemites circumcise themselves on the pretext that then Jacob’s clan would intermarry and trade with them. Once the Schechemites were weakened from the circumcision, the brothers proceeded to slaughter the Shechemite males. (Genesis 34) Jacob in his “blessing” says the following:

Simeon and Levi are a pair; Their weapons are tools of lawlessness.

This is the newer Jewish Publication Society Translation. The word which poses a problem is me’chayrotetayhem which is translated here as “tools of lawlessness.” The Old (1917) Jewish Publication Society translation, renders the phrase “Weapons of violence their kinship,” while the King James version has “instruments of cruelty are in their habitations.” This should give one a sense of the difficulty in figuring out what the word me’chayrotetayhem means. Continue reading