Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Honesty and The Jewish Community V: Well Intentioned

(continued as part of this series)

A friend sent over a video a few minutes ago, asking what I thought about it. The video is of two children at the seder, with them looking over to their father's empty seat while they say the Mah Nishtana. Where is their father? Well, an image of him standing by his chair appears, wearing the orange jumpsuit of convicted criminals. He speaks to the camera, saying "No matter if I was right - or wrong - I will make peace with my situation. (pause) But I cannot speak for them, my children." The information for a charity then comes up, detailing its services, which include basic charity work such as food and babysitting, but also includes visitation to the incarcerated and Jewish resources for prisoners.

A few people have already defended the video, saying that we must separate the children from the parent in terms of how they are viewed: They are children who are essentially orphans, and need our help, and that to not support them would be "punishing them for their parents' sins".

I find the video appalling. To separate out convicted criminals as a class of people who deserve our assistance is mind-boggling to me. I see no reason at all why there should be added sympathy for someone who has committed a crime, and I strongly feel that the knowledge of the existence of such a safety net that is specific to criminals will only placate the concerns of those who are considering committing crimes, allowing them to feel safe in the knowledge that should they be unsuccessful in or caught committing criminal activity that there is an organization to take care of their children. There is absolutely no reason to separate these families from other families who need assistance, and there are certainly better ways to allocate our charitable donations than to make up for the activities of criminals.

This well-intentioned approach to Jewish criminals is not exclusive to this charity; it strikes as a familiar mantra whenever criminal acts are committed by members of the community. The varied comments one hears when someone commits a crime are almost always dedicated to judging the criminal favorably, or even mitigating if not denying the impact of the criminal acts that were committed:
  • "But he's so nice - he gave so much charity, he helped so many people out."
  • "He created jobs for people, including people who were unemployed."
  • "He's not the first nor will he be the last... sometimes these things happen/Come on, everyone does it."
  • "Was anyone really hurt by what she did? She helped so many people through what she did. Those people/companies/governments won't miss a penny, they'd have just wasted it anyway."
  • "They probably felt pressure to succeed from their families and the success they saw their neighbors having."
  • "Living in the frum world is really, really expensive - sometimes the only way to 'make it' is to try something a little more... questionable."
  • "It's muttar to take from the government/their rules are ridiculous anyway/he didn't really do exactly what they said he did."
  • "That's just the way it is."
Some of these are worse than others, but the general theme is clear. People have well-intentioned approaches to how they view those who have committed criminal activity, often for very different reasons.

On top of these well-intentioned approaches, we have the rare individuals or groups who try to expose problems in the community, but almost never seem to manage to do so appropriately. Even when the intentions are positive, so often the methods cross all lines of human decency or harassment and worse, honesty. These methods only end up backfiring, allowing people to twist stories into discussions about the accuser(s) and/or their methods rather than the issues at hand, and the backlash they face discourages those who may be open to help solving the issues that plague our community, and they retreat for fear of the consequences they may face.

It is not enough for us as a community to be honest ourselves - though if we all did so, it would be an excellent start. While we must be sure not to allow our positive intentions in one way to let ourselves get carried away and act inappropriately, we should also not allow our other positive intentions to judge people favorably to mask the disgust we must feel at those who are dishonest and commit crimes, both within the community and outside of it. We should never be acting in a way which even implies a defense of those who commit dishonest acts - it is not just insensitive to those who have been hurt, but it's just plain wrong.

(to be continued)