Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Restrained Outrage

I’ve had 24 hours to digest yesterday’s announcement of Shalom Rubashkin’s harsh sentence. I still find it a merciless one that by just about all accounts shocked everyone. But it should not be lost on anyone that he was found guilty of an outrageous bank fraud. This was not a blood libel. It was a verdict of ‘guilty’ found by a jury of peers upon a guilty person.

The problem of course as everyone now seems to agree is not about whether he is guilty - but about the grossly out of proportion sentence he received for his crimes. Even some of Rubashkin’s biggest critics feel that way. The Chicago Tribune – certainly no partisan to Jewish causes - made note of this in its lead editorial this morning. Here is an excerpt:

Rubashkin was more culpable than his co-defendant Yomtov “Toby” Bensasson, but was Rubashkin eight times more culpable, as his sentence would suggest? And what about the year-and-a-day prison term imposed recently on a Missouri mortgage executive whose fraud cost his financial company roughly the same amount as bankers lost in the Rubashkin case?

Earlier this year, a West Coast federal appeals court affirmed a 25-year sentence for a $40 million fraud, while an East Coast defendant got five years in a $1 billion fraud.

Lawyers often speak of a “trial penalty,” and there’s no doubt Rubashkin paid a high price for testifying in his own defense. He must have known it was coming when prosecutors obtained a 163-count indictment against him: Clearly, the government was throwing the book at him.

I think the Tribune probably reflects the thinking of those six former Attorney Generals who said the prosecutors sentencing recommendations were out of line as well. The Trib’s primary point was that sentences meted out for white collar criminals show wide disparity among prosecutors and judges. And that is an inherent flaw in the justice system which they feel needs to be changed.

I believe they are absolutely correct. But this will not help Mr. Rubashkin. For his part he seemed to react calmly to the news. He said it’s all in God’s hands anyway.

The reaction by the religious Jewish community so far has been pretty strong in expressing outrage about this sentence. Last night there was a gathering in Brooklyn called by Agudah to talk about this new development. I don’t know what was said there but my hope is that it was calming rather than inciting.

It would be all too easy to become so enraged by rhetoric that it might lead to a Chilul HaShem. If one reads the reactions in some of the Charedi websites by some of the commenters one would think they are prepared to overthrow the government – violently - if need be. I’m sure no one would actually try and do anything like that. But some of the rhetoric expressed that kind of anger and resolve.

At this point I’m not sure that any kind of rally will be of any benefit to Rubashkin’s cause. It will certainly not affect today’s sentence about to be handed down by Judge Reade.

What I fear is that a rally where too much outrage is expressed may result in some overly zealous people doing some pretty desperate things – like sending Judge Reade death threats or harassing her in other ways. That would not only be wrong but a Chilul HaShem that out-weighs anything Mr. Rubashkin did.

My fears are not out of the blue. This is exactly the kind of thing that happened in the appeal to save Martin Grossman from being executed for the brutal murder of a young female park ranger in Florida. The victim’s mother was called a Nazi by an overzealous proponent of sparing Grossman’s life!

I would hate to see any of that repeated here. It would serve no positive purpose. Only a very negative one. I think it behooves Agudah, Chabad, the Young Israel, the OU, and every other major Orthodox organization to strongly caution their public to refrain from these kinds of activities. They have all expressed their outrage at the sentence – as I have. But they need to do what I am doing now. Preach restraint.

This does not mean we can’t have a mass demonstration to show our concerns and feeling about how unjust we feel the sentence was. We probably should. But it has to be done in ways that will draw respect and admiration rather than anger and anti-Semitism. Large numbers will have an impact. But angry rhetoric that can incite some of the people in the crowd toward a major Chilul HaShem will do the opposite and can lead to an even greater tragedy. God Forbid. I cannot emphasize enough the need for some calming rhetoric on the part of all those organizations right now.

I would personally like to see a mass rally at some point. But not of only religious Jews. I would prefer to see one that had many public figures like those Attorneys General speak and express their own outrage. If I were organizing a mass rally I would recruit as many non Jewish public figures as I could from as wide a political philosophy as I could. I would even ask Christian ministers and Catholic priests to speak. That would show that support for the view that this sentence was overly harsh and devoid of any mercy - is not ethnically motivated. If any outside influences can impact an appeals court to reduce the sentence - that would.

In the meantime my heart goes out to the Rubashkin family. If the sentence is not somehow ultimately reduced - they will suffer along with Shalom for the next 27 years.