I had a much longer post I was moments away from publishing when my computer crashed and I lost it, so I'll make this do-over post more concise.
I've been working on a deal that would allow me to work on anti-poverty issues and today, after about a year of trying, that deal came to fruition. That means I'll be leaving FailedMessiah.com, the website I founded almost 12 years ago.
So let me thank all of you who read, commented and debated here, those of you who agreed with me and even those of you who did not, and those of you who sent me stories, tips and pashkvils.
I'd like to encourage all of you to work to stop child sex abuse and to work to stop those who enable it or cover it up. I'd also like to encourage you to do what you can to bring some light to the haredi world which is, sadly, still shrouded in some intense darkness. No kid should go to 13 years of school and leave without a valid high school diploma, proficiency in the language of the country, and extensive knowledge of math, science, history and civics, even if their religious community's elders claim it is their religious right to deprive them of this much-needed education. Please continue to fight for those kids.
I'd also like to ask you work to equalize and humanize the US Sentencing Guidelines. With very few exceptions, nonviolent criminals should not be incarcerated for decades. Prison should not primarily be a place of punishment. Instead, it should be a place where combined with loss of freedom, inmates also get good regular mental health care and are trained in skills (or given education) that can earn them gainful employment on release. In the long run, it is far cheaper for society to work help inmates than it is to punish them. It is also far better for society because the recidivism rate for inmates who are well treated rather than abandoned and abused is lower. That means fewer victims and fewer losses for all of us.
Similarly, just as the seller of crack cocaine should not be treated more harshly than the seller of powder cocaine, poor criminals should not be treated more harshly than rich criminals. Criminals who are true sociopaths should be treated as such, but the justice and penal systems should not through their dysfunction take average criminals and push them right to the edge of sociopathy. Sadly, as it now stands, both often do so.
The Jewish community should, I believe, work for these reforms, not just for its own criminals like Agriprocessors’ Sholom Rubashkin, but for all of America’s criminals, save the most dangerous and evil. Arguably, it was Rubashkin supporters’ refusal to be, for want of a better term, ecumenical during their battle to get Rubashkin – who I believe was guilty as sin – a lighter sentence that drove many good people away from them.
Since I’ve mentioned him, Rubashkin presided over abuse of poor undocumented workers and of animals, crimes I would argue are far greater than the financial fraud charges he was convicted of.
I believe the federal government should have prosecuted Rubashkin for these crimes after it won conviction on 86 counts of financial fraud. It did not do so in part because trials cost lots of money and eat up lots of time, and the return for doing so was, in the government’s eyes, too minimal.
As the US Sentencing Guidelines are now constructed, all that abuse and mistreatment might have added a only a few months, maybe a year or two, to Rubashkin’s 27-year sentence. So why spend the money and the time?
In fact, the government only charged and considered prosecuting the immigration crimes linked to Rubashkin. The abuse of those undocumented workers and the abuse of the animals were issues that really were not on the government’s radar.
So when Rubashkin wanted those immigration charges severed from the financial fraud charges and tried separately, the government agreed. And then it prosecuted the financial charges because they were the most serious and carried the larges penalties. And when it won conviction of all 86 of them, it declined to prosecute Rubashkin on anything else. After all, why waste the money and the time?
The answer, of course, is that human life and animal lives matter, perhaps not equally or in exactly the same ways, but both matter far more than dollars. Yet the government’s decision taught the opposite lesson.
So Rubashkin sits in prison, serving a much-too-long 27-year sentence (25 years for the fraud charges – exactly at the middle of draconian the US Sentencing Guidelines – and 2 years for perjury). The lesson taught is don’t steal from rich people and banks, and through association don’t employ undocumented workers because you could get caught and punished for something worse.
The lesson really should have been different: do not exploit poor workers, do not abuse animals (in the name of religion or otherwise), care about all life and protect it. But it wasn’t. It was a national teaching moment lost.
Lastly, I’d like to say a word about the current religious freedom situation in Israel and the general tenor of the government.
Let me start by saying that, agree with his politics or not, Menachem Begin was generally a mentch, a surprising down to earth person who truly cared about people. I don’t think that same statement can honestly be made about Benjamin Netanyahu and it certainly cannot be made about many of the other political leaders in the coalition government, including its haredim. As a person who spent close to three decades as a person of the right, one of the things that drove me away – perhaps the thing that most drove me away – is that lack of mentchlikeit.
My criticism comes out of that and from the clear empirical evidence that Israel is no longer led by a a government or by leaders who cherish truth. I saw this first when Yitzhak Shamir led Israel in the 1980s, but I brushed it off. My ideology – or, I should say, Chabad’s theology and Rabbi Meir Kahane’s ideology – were more important. I could look the other way while Shamir parsed and lied if those untruths protected Israel. But I was wrong to do so then and I refuse to make the same mistake today.
For Israel to truly thrive, it needs to separate religion and state. There should not be a state-funded chief rabbinate or a mandate that citizens marry and divorce through any officially sanctioned religious outlet. If a couple wants a religious marriage ceremony, let them hire whatever clergy is meaningful to them. If a Jew wants to marry a non-Jew, it should not be the job of a state apparatus to stop the couple from marrying. If a couple wants a totally secular ceremony, let a justice of the piece do the honors. Schools that teach Israel’s core curriculum should be funded by the state. Schools which refuse to do so should not.
Religion should ply its wares through good example and honest reasoning, not through state-supported coercion and deceit.
Netanyahu is willing to inflict coercive religion on Israelis in exchange for power, just as he is willing to abandon haredi children to substandard schools as long as their parents vote for parties which support him. Indeed, he’s even willing to allow most haredim to avoid the draft in perpetuity as long as those haredi votes stay with him. Secular Israelis disproportionately bear the burden of Israel’s defense and its economy while Netanyahu laughs all the way to the prime minister’s office, and this must stop. Perhaps one day soon it will. We can only hope.
I don’t approach this as a Reform Jew or as a Conservative Jew or as a Reconstructionist or Renewal Jew. I approach this now as a proud secular Jew, as a post-religions Jew who has far greater affinity for Baruch Spinoza or Theodore Herzl than for any rabbi or religious leader.
As for me, I’ll keep you posted on my anti-poverty work and other issues I’m working on or interested in if you follow me on Twitter (www.twitter.com/Shmarya) and on Facebook (www.facebook.com/shmarya).
And with that, I thank you all again. This blog and its people have become like a second family to me. I will miss it and miss you all more than you will ever know.