Rabbi Shai Held, rosh yeshiva of Mechon Hadar, said he had an epiphany of sorts while he sat on Broadway, protesting a Staten Island grand jury’s decision last week not to indict a white police officer in the choking death of Eric Garner, a 43-year-old black man who allegedly had been selling individual cigarettes last July. Rabbi Held, who was among several rabbis arrested for their sit-in, said that as the crowd around him shouted “black lives matter,” an identifiably black Jewish man nearby fervently yelled “louder,” over and over again. “I saw in that moment how deeply African American men feel their lives devalued,” the rabbi said in a radio interview, adding that the negative perceptions among many whites about black men “run so deep that it should penetrate our souls.”
Rabbi Held and other Jewish leaders involved in the protests fittingly cited the Torah, and its insistence on equality, for their actions. “Do not stand idly by while the blood of your neighbor is shed,” the passage from Leviticus (19:6), was noted in Rabbi Ayelet Cohen’s opinion essay on the Garner death and its aftermath. She also quoted Leviticus 24:22: “There shall be one law for all of you.”
All those who have doubts about the need for our society to re-examine its attitudes and actions regarding racism, police procedures and concepts key to Jewish ethics and American law — that we are all created in God’s image, and equal under the law — should force themselves to watch the video of Eric Garner’s death. It’s a sickening, tragic scene, and so unnecessary.
Confronted over the alleged illegal sale of individual cigarettes, Garner, angry but not violent or resistant, asks an officer to leave him alone. Suddenly he is jumped by a group of officers, one of whom places him in a chokehold as they wrestle him to the ground, on his stomach. Eleven times he calls out “I can’t breathe.” And then he is still. As subsequent videos show, even then the policemen show no sense of urgency in attending to the stricken man.
As we now know, this was not an isolated incident. In the wake of 18-year-old Michael Brown’s shooting death at the hands of a policeman in Ferguson, Mo., we have become increasingly and disturbingly aware of unarmed black men, and boys, killed by white police officers. The fact that several of these incidents did not lead to an indictment only underscores the sense among minorities in our society that they are treated as less than equal citizens. The circumstances may differ but the facts remain.
This is not to criticize police officers in general; the great majority of them perform their difficult tasks with restraint and professionalism. And this is not to justify illegal actions that sometimes prompt these deadly encounters. Rather, this is about a subtler, pervasive racism that persists in this country despite the great strides that have been made to address them, and the need for reform — in terms of law, police practices and societal behavior. As the Anti-Defamation League noted in a statement last week, the Staten Island grand jury decision “reminds us that the problems we face as a nation transcend Garner and Ferguson,” and that American citizens “must all come together to address the persistence of racial bias.”
Once again it is the Torah that reminds us of a mandate that applies in every generation: “Justice, justice shalt thou pursue.” (Deuteronomy 16:20) That is the work required of the mayor, the NYPD and each of us. Let that work, and the healing, begin so that we can all breathe the air of a just society.