Police State

You shall appoint judges and police officers at all your gates that the Lord your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice.
— Deutoronomy 16:18

The number of incidents involving police violence and then subsequent public protest in the past many months has been heartbreaking. In New York and Baltimore, Ferguson and North Charleston tensions are high. Only last week the violence traveled to Israel as thousands of Ethiopian Israelis protested unfair treatment by police following the video-taping of a police officer caught on security camera beating a uniformed Ethiopian-Israeli soldier in the city of Holon for no apparent reason. In a New York Times column this past week, Guy Ben Porat, an associate professor at Ben-Gurion University who has spent years researching how Israeli police manage different sectors of society, concluded that many Ethiopian-Israelis, especially males, see themselves the victims of over-policing and racial profiling.

There is the response of justice: who committed what crime, and what is the fairest way to adjudicate the problem? There is the response of pain: what are the underlying racial tensions and assumptions about authority that live underneath the brutality on both sides that must be named? And then there is the response of the spirit: how do we go about healing the immense fracture of trust that has taken place to shift perceptions, to change in visible ways the treatment of victims on both sides and to quell the anarchy that is rocking pockets of the world?

If you look at the verse above from Deuteronomy 16:18 you find a commitment - even before we entered the land of Israel - to prepare a judiciary and to create a body of officials to enforce the laws. The German nineteenth century commentator, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, emphasizes two aspects of this commandment: the commitment to have judges and police all over and that this be the appointment of the entire nation. Everyone must be committed to the system for it to take effect. In his words, "...here it is a question of making it a duty for the nation to appoint judges for the first time throughout the whole land...The representatives of the whole united nation are to appoint judges and executive officers throughout the land and in making these appointments be guided solely by the purpose that justice and true justice only becomes achieved through these appointments." We all have to commit and accept authority or else there will be a breakdown in governance. 

Interestingly, the next verse states: 'You shall not judge unfairly; you shall show no partiality..." One modern commentator writes that this entire passage is directed not at judges but at every member of a community who must not only ensure that an objective governance structure is in place but that we not judge our judges and officials unfairly, making negative assumptions about those in power who have given their lives to public service.

Last week's riots in Baltimore - which resulted in looting and the destruction of many homes and stores, dozens of cars and public buildings - also could have damaged something much more fundamental: that the belief in authority and the belief in humanity can coincide - even if they do so in a healthy tension. Nothing was healthy about what happened, and we have every reason to believe that unless a real diagnosis is made and named, this problem of police brutality and the resultant anarchy will persist.

In the verse above, we are commanded to place judges in every gate - gates that the Lord, our God gave us. In other words, at every point where people can enter and exit, the vulnerable spaces, we must strengthen a commitment to law and bolster a sense of order. But what happens when it is no longer the places that are vulnerable, but the people who man those places? Good people will not enter public service when they have to fear continuously for their lives. What happens to the collective psyche of people who feel vulnerable not because of their acts but because of their color? 

God gave us those gates. We don't own them. God merely trusted us as stewards of those gates, and we have broken the partnership by not being trustworthy stewards and protecting and enshrining justice. It's time to clean up.

Shabbat Shalom