Broken Silence

June 1, 2008
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Andrew Silow-Carroll

Last year the New York Times ran a despairing series of articles on how hard it was becoming to prosecute street crimes because of witness intimidation. Cooperating with the prosecution could mean a death sentence for a witness, or her family. If this weren’t bad enough, a perverse “no snitching” ethic began to pervade hip-hop culture, in part fueled by minority communities’ sometimes justified mistrust of the police. A mainstream rapper named Cam’ron told “60 Minutes” he wouldn’t go to the police even if he knew a serial killer were living next door.

Cam’ron was posturing, but community activists and anti-violence advocates noted that a gangsters code had become, as one put it, “a cultural norm.”

Earlier this year, members of the Spinka Hasidic movement, including one of its grand rabbis, were indicted on (and pleaded not guilty to) a series of federal indictments for conspiracy, mail fraud, and money laundering. Some in the Hasidic community were scandalized — in part because the case was said to be based on tips from a Spinka insider. “People are very shell-shocked about the whole thing on many levels,” a representative of the Orthodox Union told the Forward. “Number one, that our neighbors and friends are implicated, and number two, that an act of mesira on this level was perpetrated by one of our own.”

In Jewish law, mesira is the prohibition against turning over a fellow Jew to the civil (presumably non-Jewish) authorities. It reflects the reality in which Jews lived for centuries, when secular cops and courts were hostile to Jews, and prisons worse. The Shulchan Aruch, the code of Jewish law, treats a “ moser,” or informer, as an akum — someone outside the Jewish community.

There are exceptions, important ones. A public menace can be handed over to the authorities, as can someone who is physically or even psychologically abusing another.

The last point is central to a topic most likely to set off debates over mesira: the sexual abuse of children and other vulnerable people. A spate of highly publicized abuse cases has exposed a rift between communal leaders who would prefer that such cases be handled “internally,” and victims and their advocates who insist that invoking mesira has become a way to protect the reputations of the accused and their employers.

Some rabbis have heeded this frustration and issued opinions reminding their followers that it is permitted to inform authorities in such cases. Victims’ rights advocates say that’s not enough — “permitted” is nowhere near as strong as “required.”

While schools, organizations, and religious authorities wrestle with the question, some enterprising journalists have investigated and exposed instances of abuse that may never have reached the authorities. The New York Jewish Week and the Baltimore Jewish Times have done important work in this regard, giving voice to victims. The reports are inevitably met with outrage. Members of the community have accused the papers of character assassination and worse. Just as inevitably, these same communities undertake a process of soul-searching and recognize that victims need to be encouraged to speak out, and abusers brought to justice.

Mesira has its function in Jewish law and culture, and the security we currently enjoy as American citizens doesn’t erase a long history of persecution by civil authorities — nor prevent its return. But when the laws of mesira clash with the pursuit of tzedek, justice, the choice seems clear.

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