Thursday, August 11, 2011

Shomrim – Kiddush HaShem or Chilul HaShem?

Back in the 70’s when I was vacationing in the Catskill Mountains I attended a lecture by Rabbi Meir Kahane. He had at the time recently formed the Jewish Defense League (JDL) as a response to rash of muggings against Jews in the changing neighborhoods of New York City. I remember having mixed feelings about that. On the one hand the Jews of those neighborhoods seemed to be under served by the police. And the kind of Jews targeted by various and eclectic muggers were the weak and the elderly. Finally a there was going to be a Charles Bronson type presence in Brooklyn.

For those too young to remember Charles Bronson was an actor that portrayed a liberal turned vigilante after the brutal beating of his wife and rape of his daughter. Of course in the movie he was a hero. But real life is not that simple.

The JDL was exactly that - Jews protecting Jews in the spirit of Charles Bronson. I sympathized with the mission and I must admit that when I first heard about them - I cheered them on, But as time went on I began to see the problem with groups like the JDL. Vigilantes are by definition people who take the law into their own hands and mete out their own version of instant justice.

A vigilante is judge, jury, and executioner. The problem is that justice is not always served. And such groups generally have an attitude of contempt for law enforcement officials. What’s worse is that vigilantes are not professionally trained in any of those capacities. Certainly not as police. And yet they act as a surrogates for them. But without proper training they may actually hinder the police. Sometimes their quick justice may end up being carried out on the wrong people. Not to mention that their lack of training may actually end up being hurt them personally.

Nonetheless Rabbi Kahane felt that the young Jews he recruited to the JDL were doing something positive for the Jewish people by protecting them. The police were never happy with the JDL. Eventually they became so violent that even Rabbi Kahane severed his ties with them.

Now a sort of kinder and gentler version of the JDL has arisen to take their place. And just like the JDL they have community support. But this time they seem to have government support as well - receiving some city funding. They are called Shomrim and are comprised of religious Jews.

The question is are they vigilantes like the JDL only a bit more savvy - or are they simply an aid to law enforcement. If they are the latter then they are a Kiddush HaShem. If they are the former they are a Chilul HaShem. In my mind that question is unresolved.

This issue has come up in a major way after the Leiby Kletsky tragedy. The Shomrim were the ones who were called to help find the lost boy. They immediately sprung into action in a massive manhunt trying to find him. But they did not immediately call the police. The fact that they waited calls into question their roles as an aid to and instead seems to place them more into the category of vigilantes.

To be fair, there is no way of knowing whether calling the police immediately would have made any difference. The police say it wouldn’t have mattered. Perhaps. But that is not the point. They should have. By not doing so they showed that they do not see themselves as merely an aid to the police but as an alternative police force better equipped to handle the problem than the police. No matter how well intended or how much community support they get, they are not the police. They do not have the training or resources that the police do.

There have been a series of articles about the Shomrim both pro and con. Predictably the pro and con breaks down along Hashkafic lines.

Those who support them tend to come from the right wing of Orthodoxy. They seem to have a knee-jerk reaction to any criticism of Frum Jews. They paint any secular media report as unreliable at best and anti Semitic at worst. They reserve special condemnation for religious Jews that bring up anything negative about fellow religious Jews. Some refer to it as simple Charedi bashing.

In one case a religious Jew that pointed out some of the problems of Shomrim was called a Moser. A Moser is considered a traitor to the Jewish people because of reporting miscreant Jews to the authorities a sinful act worthy of the death penalty in certian cases!

In my view anyone accusing someone of being a Moser in Amercia in our day is guilty of violating the dictum of whitening someone’s face – which the Gemarah characterizes as a capital offence – on a spiritual level. According to most opinions there is no Mesirah in a just society like ours. Mesirah only applies to countries that were unjust and anti-Semitic like Czarist Russia.

Instead of calling someone a traitor to the Jewish people for daring to bring up a problem they ought to be able to accept valid criticism in the spirit in which it is given.

It almost seems like whenever a Frum Jew is accused of wrongdoing the immediate response by the right wing is to label the accuser an anti-Semite or a Charedi basher. The attitude they have is that it is forbidden to believe such stories about religious Jews.

This happened here with a critique by a religious Jew of the Shomrim. Michael Lesher , a religious attorney who has worked with victims of sex abuse Jew, wrote an op-ed in the New York Post criticising them. He called them vigilantes and called into question whether they deserve to get the city dollars currently allocated to them. Here is the response he got via an e-mail from one rabbi:

“…your article may prove to be one of the most treacherous acts of messira [sic] in modern times… “My question to you as an Orthodox Jew is, what compelled you to write an article in the secular press trashing out fellow Jews?”

I have to ask. Is this how one responds to a fellow Jew? By accusing him of Mesirah! (…even though he says he didn’t mean it in the literal sense).

Instead of complaining about Mesirah – which probably does not apply in this country in our day anyway – why not see if Mr. Lesher’s comments have any merit? Maybe he has a point? Instead of always having knee jerk reactions to a Jew being accused of any wrongdoing as ‘bashing the Frum’ maybe- just maybe- there is something to it. And if there is, the far greater Chilul HaShem is to ignore it or hide it. Have we learned nothing from our inglorious recent history with miscreants and their protectors about sweeping things under the carpet? And then to top it off by calling the individual who brings it up a Moser? Is that the Torah way of doing things?