By Larry Gordon
Why, the question is frequently posed to us, isn’t this newspaper covering in detail some of the other widely reported stories about Five Towns and other communal personalities who have run afoul of the law? There is no specific or clear answer.
The one response that plays itself over in my mind is that when there is such a widely reported event like last week’s arrest of some local school officials, what else, I think to myself, can I possibly add to the situation that has not already been reported with all its humiliating and unsavory details? Can we add something to the mix of all the reporting that will help alleviate the embarrassment or minimize the chillul Hashem these situations create?
In football, there is an penalty for “piling on.” It’s not a serious as much as it is a sensible penalty. The penalty is assessed when a runner or a receiver is tackled and is already technically down on the field when another player jumps on the pile of players. Had we reported those arrests or the situation at the Met Council earlier this year, those related to the forced get cases, or the matter when a community figure was forced to leave town, what could we have possibly said that would add some new or refreshing perspective?
Yes, I am aware that for a conventional newspaper these omissions might be glaring, so let me explore why I believe that this is the best and most productive way to proceed on these issues. Frankly, on a personal level, I feel for these people and their families. If whatever we report in these pages is going to inflict further pain and embarrassment, well, that may be the raison d’être for some media, but that is not the case here.
Nevertheless, it is difficult to ignore the lessons that we need to absorb as individuals and a community from the plethora of these cases that seem to be coming at us at breakneck speed. So, what do any of these cases really have to do with any of us as individual, upstanding, law-abiding, and taxpaying citizens? Well, unfortunately, the answer to that is that it has everything to do with us.
Take for example the case of Jonathan Pollard, who has now been in a U.S. prison for some 30 years, having pleaded guilty to spying for Israel. Granted, after all these years, this case should have little or nothing to do with us as loyal citizens of the U.S. But realistically speaking, that is not accurate. Since the Pollard affair unfolded in the late 1980s, every American Jew has on some level and to some extent been viewed in a more pronounced fashion as perhaps harboring an allegiance to Israel that is greater than to our home country, the U.S.
And don’t delude yourself; Pollard’s seemingly never-ending sentence is a constant shot across the bow at American Jews who might feel somewhere in their conscience a twinge of greater loyalty to Israel. Unlike Arab mass murderers and terrorists who enjoy international support for their release under the most deluded circumstances, there is no such sentiment or sympathy for Mr. Pollard.
And I cannot help but suspect that the long sentence of Sholom Mordechai Rubashkin a few years ago for a financial crime is very much related in some incongruous way to the Pollard case. The sad reality is that in other communities when someone commits a crime—financial or otherwise—it usually only impacts them and perhaps to a limited extent their families. But not here in this community. Here it has a ripple effect, spirals down and extends itself in every direction. Why is that?
For many of us it is a matter of the unfortunate downfall of some of our friends, and then there is the added burden and problem of the chillul Hashem that scars us all regardless of our distance and lack of involvement. This is all exacerbated by high-profile people engineering their way either wittingly or otherwise into these untenable situations. When people find themselves in difficult circumstances, it leads others to draw the sad conclusion: “If those who were otherwise thought to be responsible and capable people get involved in these situations, then everyone down the line must be the same way.”
That sentiment is not really articulated from any responsible direction but rest assured that it is out there. It was out there with Pollard and with Rubashkin, and it is out there with these latest assorted tragic cases of yarmulke-clad men being led away in handcuffs.
So the Jewish media outlets, of which these days there are plenty, seemed to handle these stories in one of several ways. To some, there is just simple moral indignation at the wantonness of not just possibly committing these awful crimes but of even allowing oneself to be inserted into this type of tainted or questionable situation.
Is it possible that the people involved thought or believed—at the start anyway—that what they were doing was good, right, or for some reason just had to be done? Yes, that is a stretch and requires some imagination, but it is possible. And it is even more likely that these situations just plain got out of hand and the easy-money dimension took on a life of its own.
A well-known Orthodox criminal-defense attorney (who preferred not to be identified because of his involvement in some of the cases) said, “Each case is different and each is embarrassing to the State of Israel and the community at large. It is hard to explain why these things happen. Sometimes it’s greed, sometimes naiveté in a highly regulated arena, and sometimes, like in the Olmert case, a sense of misguided entitlement is allowed to invade and then control an otherwise ethical mindset. Very sad.” He said it’s important to note that while these cases receive a lot of publicity, the overwhelming majority in the Orthodox community never get into any legal difficulty.
At around the same time that the local cases broke here in New York, Israel’s former prime minister Ehud Olmert was being found guilty of rampant corruption charges related to an infamous real-estate enterprise in southern Jerusalem. It’s expected that Olmert will be sentenced in July to at least six years in prison.
Israel already has a former president in jail, Moshe Katzav, who was convicted of rape while a government minister and then as president. These convictions say a lot about Israel’s transparency and commitment to justice at all levels. The judge who found Olmert guilty (there are no jury trials in Israel), David Rozen, said that in his estimation Olmert was a traitor.
It’s one thing to become legally entangled and be fighting for your freedom and your life. It is an entirely different matter when you take the entire community with you. This is not in any way about making excuses or finding a place where this type of activity can be considered excusable. It is the furthest thing from that. At the same time, several of the people involved here in New York were and are essentially good people who got caught up in something that you can rest assured they seriously and deeply regret today.
In the media, however, they are castigated as vile and unrepentant, as having stolen poverty funds or money earmarked for disabled children. It is an awful and tragic situation to be in, one that, in retrospect, is not worth all the money in the world.
It is impossible for us to put ourselves in their places. The general press has handled them as if they were refuse of some sort. So this is where we depart from other media coverage of these terrible events. They are regular, even good people, who did something wrong. For that they are paying a severe price. In addition to restitution, they may have to spend some time imprisoned, in some of these instances more than just a few years.
They will, however, endure these hardships and pressures, and hopefully, for the better good of their loved ones and those who worked with them and believed in them all along, will survive their ordeals intact. When their names drift from the headlines and we get busy with our own professional and personal distractions, they will have paid their debt to society and move on to once again enjoy some semblance of normalcy.
For now, for those who are in that unfortunate and difficult situation, it is best not to force the issue. It is probably best for all if they refrain from being in the limelight, letting others take over for them while they and all of us begin the inevitable healing process.
So, you see, we cannot cover the story the way the others do. For us, it is imperative to look beyond all the pain and damage that has been inflicted, beyond the anger, the hurt, and the grudges, and believe that there are important lessons that have been learned and that better days are ahead. v
Comments for Larry Gordon are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.