Friday, April 25, 2014

Jewish Vigilantism

Taj Patterson (Forward)
It was the summer of 69. I was vacationing at the now defunct Homowack Resort. The Homowack was heavily populated by celebrity columnists from the Jewish Press – including its editor, Rabbi Sholom Klass.

The columnists were advertised as guest speakers. One of them was Rabbi Meir Kahane, who at the time had just founded the JDL (Jewish Defense League). I will never forget it.  

He was an inspiring speaker; a true Ohaiv Yisroel a man who loved his people.  A do’er, not just a talker. He said at the time that he had enough of elderly Jews being mugged by gang members. So he founded an organization that would protect their neighborhoods. Curtis Sliwa founded the Guardian Angels - a similar group a decade later. for the same purpose in dangerous non Jewish neighborhoods. I suppose you might say that he modeled it after the JDL.

This had never been done before. Jews tend not to be confrontational. Rabbi Kahane said that his purpose was twofold. It was primarily about protecting the Jewish public. But his secondary purpose was to find Jewish Shkotzim. (Shkotzim is the plural of Sheigetz – a derogatory term for gentiles usually applied to hooligans). His point was that this was a way to get non religious young Jews active in a decidedly Jewish thing – protecting fellow Jews from harm. He felt that this would also serve as a form of Kiruv for them.

I remember thinking what a great service this was for a community where its vulnerable are so easily targeted and the police are often too late to do anything about it. At the same time, I also wondered about the repercussions of an unofficial vigilante group that was working outside the law.

Rabbi Kahane is long deceased. He was murdered by precisely the kind of hooligan his JDL was designed to protect against. (I should add that I did not agree with Rabbi Kahane’s views with respect to the Arab Israeli conflict and strongly opposed his tactics - even as I agreed with his assessment of the situation there. But that is beyond the scope of this essay)

I suppose that the JDL was a precursor to what is now called Shomrim. Shomrim are a watchdog group that patrols Jewish neighborhoods and defends its residents against muggings and other violent attacks. As I understand it, this group has at least the tacit – if not official – approval of the police. What they are supposed to do when they see anyone suspicious is to report it immediately to the police while keeping their eye on him until they arrive - if danger is not imminent. If it is they can act with the minimum necessary force to subdue an attacker.

I don’t know how much training they get. But I do know that in most cases, Shomrim are people dedicated to helping their fellow Jews in distress. I have heard from many people who have been spared violence as Shomrim came to their aid.

So far so good. I am not opposed to watchdog groups who patrol neighborhoods for the purpose of keeping residents safe. There is nothing wrong and everything right with aiding the police in that way.

There is another group of Shomrim in Chasidic neighborhoods like Williamsburg. They do more than just watch.

I recall that many years ago there was a group called ‘Chaptzem’. Chapztem is the Yiddish word for ‘capture him’.  My understanding of this sort of ad hoc group of large and very strong Chasidic men is that they were far more proactive. They were a real vigilante group that took the law into their own hands. When they saw a suspicious character in their neighborhoods that was about to do - or had done harm to a fellow Jew, one of them would yell ‘Chaptzem!’ …and chase after him. They would catch him and beat the living daylights out of him. There was no reporting to the police that I am aware of. The Shomrim of Williamsburg are probably the same type of people that used to be Chaptzem.

There is a sense of satisfaction when a perpetrator is basically caught in the act and ‘taken care of’ on the spot. I don’t think anyone can argue with that feeling. I am reminded of the movie ‘Death Wish’ where actor Charles Bronson portrayed a liberal turned vigilante after his wife was brutally raped and beaten by a street gang. The audience cheered him on every time he randomly killed another hooligan.

But that is not real life. Sometimes that kind of quick justice can be anything but justice. Which brings me to the story in the Forward:
Five haredi Orthodox Jewish men were indicted for attacking a gay black man in Brooklyn.
The five were charged Wednesday in New York state Supreme Court in Brooklyn with gang assault and other counts for the December attack, but not for hate crimes, WABC-TV reported.They were associated with a civilian neighborhood watch group, the Williamsburg Safety Patrol Unit, or Shomrim.

Taj Patterson, a 22-year-old student at the New York City College of Technology, said he was walking through the heavily Orthodox neighborhood of Williamsburg on his way home to a nearby neighborhood when more than 12 Hasidic men attacked him while shouting anti-gay slurs. He said he suffered a broken eye socket, torn retina, blood clotting, and cuts and bruises to his knees and ankles.
First the disclaimer. These men are presumed innocent until proven guilty. But frankly, I don’t see how anyone can justify ganging up on another human being and doing what they did to Taj Patterson while shouting anti gay slurs.

I don’t know what really happened. I suspect that the victim did nothing except look suspicious.  But even if he was somehow perceived to be a threat and those men thought they were protecting the public, why the ‘overkill’?  If he indeed was a danger to anyone, the 12 men involved could have easily subdued one individual until the police arrived.

From my prospective it appears that what they did was a moral outrage to humanity and a major Chilul Hashem.  If they are guilty, they ought to have the book thrown at them.  I just hope there isn’t anyone trying to ‘explain things away with apologetics. Or worse - their community calling for fundraising accompanied by outcries about ‘innocent Jews once again being persecuted by the Goyim’. But… I’m sure there will be.