Ray Rice / Getty Images
“Justice, justice, shall you pursue,” we are taught — and what could be more just than punishing a man shown, on video, punching and knocking out his wife in what seems like a brutal, cruel attack?
Thus have we seen, in the last 72 hours, a cascade of condemnations of (now former) Ravens running back Ray Rice, suspended from the NFL and facing criminal charges. Perhaps most articulately, my friend Jodi Kantor wrote movingly in the New York Times about how Janae Rice, who has defended her husband, shows all the signs of a trapped, coerced and battered wife.
The only trouble is — all this is guesswork.
In fact, the public judgment of Ray Rice is a rush to judgment, and a uniquely 21st century combination of the surveillance state, ruthless corporate capitalism and celebrity culture. It makes a scapegoat out of Rice and lets us all cluck our tongues while the gladiator sport that is professional football can continue to entertain us.
For this week’s story about the cases of accused molester Baruch Lebovits and accused extortionist Sam Kellner, the Forward was provided with a trove of secretly-recorded conversations.
Among the recordings is a conversation Sam Kellner had with the family of a man who had already pled guilty to abuse charges.
Over the course of 80 minutes, Kellner counsels the family that the man could avoid jail by getting ultra-Orthodox rabbis to pressure Brooklyn district attorney Charles Hynes and by bribing prosecutors. (A spokesman for the DA’s office said assertions of possible wrongdoing are “ludicrous.”)
The Forward made a commitment to protect the identity of the family involved, therefore we have provided two excerpts from the recording. Passages where people other than Kellner talk have been bleeped out.
The lede, as we call it in the journalism biz, sat there silently on the computer screen, like an IED waiting to explode:
“… or as he put it, ‘a shvartze,’” it said at the end.
The phrase reported accurately the word Rabbi Hershel Schachter used to describe the reason he resisted the idea of rabbis reporting cases of child sexual abuse within the Jewish community to the police. It was not, he said, that reporting such cases — after some rabbis judge them genuine — violated Talmudic strictures against turning a Jew over to secular authorities. But even if the accused Jew is guilty, said Schachter, he could end up in jail with a black man — “a shvartze.”
Forward staff reporter Paul Berger and I knew what kind of outrage would ensue once Forward web editor Dave Goldiner pressed the button sending this story out into the Internet. And we’d already been arguing over the wording of that lede sentence for something like an hour. It was getting late. We both had to go home. But as the Forward’s news editor, I knew that in its compression of the full quotation given in the story, this lede was missing something, and I couldn’t put my finger on what.
As a college student in the early 1970’s, I had lived for a year in Mississippi working for civil rights organizations. I learned a lot about racism then. I knew it came in many different flavors, even there. While arguing with Paul, I thought about how a few years before I arrived in Jackson, there were gargantuan battles there over the integration of municipal swimming pools. This was the fear of black people as contagion.
Jews are image conscious. A quick Google search of “embarrassed to be Jewish” will turn up two main hits—Jews ashamed of the state of Israel, and Jews ashamed of the behavior of certain “Hareidim” — tremblers, the Hebrew term for the ultra-Orthodox — in the Israeli town of Beit Shemesh. I should amend that statement: this Google search will turn up results for Jews with access to the media who have image consciousness about these two issues. As we all know, these are not the only kind of Jews. But let me first address these.
Jews on the left, politically and religiously, are often embarrassed by Israel’s behavior, especially when it fails to conform to a secular path. In 2011, Gary Rosenblatt, editor of the New York Jewish Week, enumerated the Gaza flotilla debacle, the chief Rabbanite, and its crackdown on non-governmental organizations as examples of “When Israel Becomes a Source of Embarrassment.”
Left-leaning Jews imagine that the outside world lumps them together with the values they see portrayed by the occupation, or perhaps by Israeli police brutality. Under the imagined gaze of the secular and gentile world, these Jews imagine that their own image will be tarnished by osmosis, by a proximity of blood, however diluted, to their Israeli brethren, especially those wielding guns or sitting in the Knesset. The burden of the imagined gaze of non-Jews rests heavily upon them.
But image-consciousness is not the sole property of Jews on the left. It is part of the tradition, any rabbi will tell you. Already in the Talmud, the term chillul hashem — profaning God’s name — begins to refer less to a verbal utterance and more to a public display, for example, “If I take meat from the butcher and do not pay him at once, Rav said” (Yoma, 86a).