Thursday, April 29, 2010

Rubashkin, Anti-Semitism, and Pidyon Shevuyim

It looks like the sentencing phase of the Rubashkin trial will be delayed for several weeks. I have no clue what that means for him. I suppose the judge, Linda Reade, does not want to be accused of rushing to judgment. So she is taking time to consider all the testimony during the penalty phase and determine what will be seen as a reasoned and just punishment.

I have heard that she is a tough judge with a penchant for meting out maximum sentences. It is also true that in the post Enron judicial climate, white collar crimes like this have been treated a lot more severely than they used to be. This does not bode well for Shalom Rubashkin.

At this point, I really feel sorry for the guy. Yes, he was a scoundrel. He was found guilty of bank fraud – and was probably guilty of a lot more. No reasonable individual would dispute that. And no reasonable critic took a harsher view about Mr. Rubashkin than I did when all of this broke. Nor was I particularly thrilled with the reaction of his supporters. In fact I was almost more upset by some of them than I was with Rubashkin himself.

But at this point, there is no longer any point to my anger and disappointment. My feelings are only sorrow for what he has endured, is still going through and may yet endure through a possible life sentence in prison. My heart goes out to his family, his wife, and his ten children - one of whom suffers from autism.

There has been much media coverage of him both pro and con - and a sympathetic side to the man has emerged. He was not purely evil. He was from all accounts a decent husband, a good father and a gracious host to all in need. And from all accounts he was a generous philanthropist too. Unfortunately for him – his other side was not so sympathetic. I’m not going to go into all that now. It is all on the record – published many times over.

I am absolutely in favor of doing everything we can to try and get a fair sentence for him as long as – and this is paramount - it is done in the right way. What ‘a fair sentence’ is may be a matter of debate among us. But even his harshest critics would agree that the sentencing recommendations by the prosecution are grossly out of line with even remotely being fair.

But there are some very troubling things about the way this is being pursued by some of his supporters. One of those is the idea that this should be seen as a case of Pidyon Shevuyim.

Pidyon Shevuyim is a Halacha requiring the Jewish community to do whatever it can redeem Jewish captives from captivity. Historically that meant buying freedom for captives by paying ransom demands - or bribing corrupt officials to let them out. Throughout Jewish history Jews were often held captive by anti Semitic governments. Charges were often trumped up and Jews put in jails for no reason. Often under threat of execution!

I am not going to go into what technically is or isn’t Pidyon Shevuyim. That is a matter of Halachic dispute. But to publicly call this Pidyon Shevuyim is both wrong and counterproductive – in many ways. It can harm any chance of mercy. It strongly suggests that Jews think that we live under a government that is as anti Semitic as those of the past I described above - that a Jew is being held captive for no other reason than his being is a Jew. That description of the American government is completely wrong.

The government is not holding a Jew captive for ransom. They have not trumped up charges. Mr. Rubashkin was found guilty of a white collar crime and is awaiting punishment under the legal guidelines that apply to all - Jew or non Jew. There is absolutely no evidence of anti Semitism. And yet I keep hearing that this is nothing but anti Semitism!

The question is, why? Why are there such strong opinions in that regard? Why do so many people feel this way?

Well if you look at the pictures of a bearded Jew in handcuffs and see the harshness being applied, seemingly more than in other similar cases or worse - it is an understandable conclusion. But it is not the right one. I doubt that anti Semitism had any real part in it.

In my view this treatment would have been the same for anyone who committed a bank fraud to the tune of 27 million dollars. The reason is not anti-Semitism. It is just prosecutorial zealotry in a post Enron climate. The government wants to throw the book at all white collar criminals now whether Jew or non Jew.

There may be an element of scape-goating here. The government may in fact want to make an example out of him to anyone who wants to try something like this in the future. If a non violent religious Jew who is basically a good person in his private life gets a long term prison sentence, then the average person will think twice about scamming the government.

Is that anti Semitism? I don’t think so. It’s just a realistic way of looking at things now. If Mr. Rubashkin would have been a Presbyterian minister, a politician, or a celebrity - the outcome would very likely be the same. The higher the profile, the more likely it is that a stiff sentence will be handed down.

Calling this Pidyon Shevuyim makes us look bad. It makes us look like we think the government is an anti Semitic one holding a Jew hostage with a threat of execution hanging over his head. That is the furthest thing from the truth. Calling Mr. Rubashkin a captive does not increase the chance he will receive a merciful sentence from the court.

What it does do however is incite many from the masses to shout epithets against US government institutions like the justice system - calling its practitioners anti Semites publicly. That was the first comment in one of the major secular papers I saw yesterday that had an article about this. Does anyone think the Judge doesn’t read the paper – or won’t be told about it?

It may be too late but I would urge every organization and every plea that is either published or even just verbalized to excise the term Pidyon Shevuyim from their lexicon. It can do nothing but harm at this point. And Mr. Rubashkin doesn’t need any more of that right now.