If Trayvon Were Tuvia: The Orthodox (Non)response to the Zimmerman Verdict

by Chaim Saiman

A Jewish boy¬— lets call him Tuvia Mendel— is walking home one night. Maybe he is a bit drunk, maybe not. Tuvia attracts the attention of a non-Jewish neighborhood watchman who describes him as wearing a dark suit, white shirt, black hat and white strings hanging out of his pants. The watchman calls the police, who advise him to hold back. Activities ensue and Tuvia is shot by the watchman. The watchman maintains that he was acting in self-defense and the jury so finds.

Other than changing Tuvia’s name and identity, lets try and hold all the other elements of the Trayvon Martin case constant, simply replicating the debates about the facts and the inferences to be drawn from them from the real case into our own. True, the trial brought out wildly different accounts of what happened, but if it was Tuvia rather than Trayvon, is there any doubt the Orthodox community would resolve these ambiguities differently?

The response would not be monolithic. Some would say the system is outright anti-semetic, drawing a straight line from the horrors of the European past to the American present. Others would hold that this serves as proof-positive that the halakhot of mesira remain in full-force, and that cooperation with the state authorities is prohibited. Yet others would begrudgingly resolve that the judicial process must be respected, but would hope to raise awareness by questioning gun laws, the legal conception of self-defense and the “soft” anti-Semitism that pervades some quadrants of American culture. And finally some would emphasize the need to for the Orthodox community to arm and protect itself. Either way, our communal leaders would come together and pressure politicians to the denounce the verdict, engage and support civil rights and civil damages lawsuits and organize prayer and learning sessions in memory of Tuvia’s neshama.

In reality, of course, it was Trayvon rather than Tuvia that was shot. Searching the OU, RCA, IRF, and Agudah’s websites (in the case of the latter, its non-website), I found no statement or reaction to the matter. Further, what little has emerged from Orthodox leaders carefully walks around the hedges, claiming that we can’t possibly judge this case since the facts will forever remain obscured. Representative is R. Avi Shafran’s recent post to this forum, where he wrote, “[T]o proclaim our certitude about an occurrence removed from our personal experience, and about which we have been served conflicting claims, is senseless. We’re entitled (at least sometimes) to our suspicions, but suspicion is not knowledge. The truth about Trayvon? That we don’t know what transpired.” R. Shafran is surely correct that none of us know what happened. But would this have mattered under different circumstances? Diligent readers of this blog will not have too hard a time imagining what some in our community might have written if Tuvia rather than Trayvon were shot.

The most legitimate explanation for the non-response is “Yes, but.” Yes, its true that even keeping all the facts the same, our community would respond very differently. But this isn’t our issue. The Orthodox community has limited attention span and political capital. And it cannot possibly involve itself with every issue or potential injustice of the day.

To a large extent, I agree. I am no universalist who finds it immoral to make distinctions between communities. Such an approach is neither true to lived experience nor very practical, and it likely leads to a pernicious cocktail of paralysis and nihilism. Further as matter of both halakha and common sense, society works best from the inside out: from family to community, from community to klal yisrael, and from klal yisrael to kol yoshvei tevel.

For all these reasons, it would be out of whack to expect all the resources of Orthodox public activism to be placed behind this issue. In the end, Trayvon is not Tuvia, and there non-trivial arguments that based on Florida law and the facts as presented the jury’s decision is defensible, and maybe even correct. Nevertheless, surely there is room between a full-scale response and the silence of Orthodox officialdom. After all, loss of life, stereotyping and discrimination are issues we generally care and speak out about. To this effect, the ADL’s statement may offer a useful template. Though the ADL makes clear that it does not question the verdict, it notes that the case “raises serious questions about the wisdom of stand-your-ground laws and the easy access to concealed weapons permits,” noting that “had neither been in place, this tragedy may have never occurred. The ADL concludes with the hope that “the debate concerning the justice of the verdict… will inspire a continued and much-needed discussion about the lingering impact of racism in society.” I would most favor a more modest release stating that as members of a group that has historically been the subject of discrimination, we are concerned about a legal regime in which self-defense can justify escalating a confrontation that may result in death. Or perhaps an even milder expression of sadness about the loss of life that emerged from a confrontation that the law should seek to diffuse, rather than escalate. Here one could perhaps tie in to the Gemara’s apparent preference for resolving such matters through non-lethal rather than lethal force, though the complexities of nitan lehatzilo be-echad me-eivarav are probably best left for the beit midrash.

Hence the question is not why the Orthodox community is not at the forefront of the protests and public outcry, but why it does not see its role as showing even a modicum of concern? Does anyone dispute that if the facts were reversed, whatever factual doubts we may have would melt away? Would we not welcome and cultivate large coalition of social and religious groups to stand in solidarity with us? In fact, some may go so far as to charge groups who refuse to stand behind us with anti-semetic bias.

The matter however is important beyond this case, as it touches on how we approach Orthodox public advocacy more generally. Are we just another interest group that lobbies instrumentally for school vouchers, religious freedom, and Jewish sovereignty over Israel? A group that concerns itself with the justice part of the criminal justice system only when it impacts one of our own? Or about prison reform only when a frum Jew is in jail? Or, as those who bear God’s name and speak for Torah, ought we be guided by principles apart from expediency? I think it wholly legitimate to start with our own, but what lesson do we take from it? If we would be outraged if it happened to us, why do we show no concern when it happens to someone else?

I have no illusions that such a move would not be popular in certain circles— circles we might feel politically and ideologically closer to than the community surrounding Trayvon. But for exactly this reason, even a small gesture may carry great weight. It would show that while Orthodox advocacy is predominantly concerned with its own well-being, this inward focus is justified. Because in doing so, Orthodoxy creates a community that is strong enough to reach beyond its comfort zone and empathize with the Other—even when the Other is distant indeed.

Chaim Saiman teaches Jewish law at Villanova Law School and is the Gruss Professor of Talmudic Law at the University of Pennsylvania Law School. He learned at the yeshivot of Kerem B’Yavne and Har Etzion.

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46 Responses

  1. Baruch Gitlin says:

    Good article. It’s good to challenge ourselves and to at least think about what we would think if the shoe were on the other foot.

  2. Jacob Suslovich says:

    “Other than changing Tuvia’s name and identity, lets try and hold all the other elements of the Trayvon Martin case constant, . . . . True, the trial brought out wildly different accounts of what happened, but if it was Tuvia rather than Trayvon, is there any doubt the Orthodox community would resolve these ambiguities differently? “

    No doubt at all. Not to do so would be to be blind to the reality that it is less likely to be true that a Tuvia engaged in smashing the watchman’s head against the sidewalk then that a Travyon did so. Ultimately the facts of this specific case, as proven in a court of law, are what should count in the juries deliberations, without regard to likelihoods based on statistical probabilities. But your assumption that the not guilty verdict was a miscarriage of justice that ideally should be grounds for questioning the fairness of the criminal justice system is itself unjustified

  3. The truth says:

    I think you are missing a major point. If people who look like Tuvia Mendel would be known for doing lots of crimes then the orthodox community would not be able to have a strong reaction. I’m not saying that they wouldn’t react, just that they would not be in the right. In this case, if you look at statistics, trayvon fit the profile of someone likely to be doing a crime and it was reasonable to expect someone to try to check him out. It unfortunate that it is like that but that I the reality right now. To compare the two communities is just out of touch and ignoring the social dynamics that is clearly different in the said communities

  4. Raymond says:

    I do not understand why the author of the above column thinks it is necessary for the Jewish community to react to any and all news events that make the headlines. While the Trayvon Martin case should concern us as Americans, I do not see why it should concern us as Jews. It simply was not a Jewish issue.

    Furthermore, to compare his hypothetical case of some yeshiva boy experiencing what Trayvon Martin went through, is simply absurd. We Jews may have our faults, but acts of violence and intimidation are not among our weaknesses. Nobody walking down a dark alley after midnight, is scared to hear the footsteps of an Orthodox Jew coming up from behind him. Yet there was every reason in the world for George Zimmerman to be suspicious of Trayvon Martin, and as it turned out, George Zimmerman’s assessment was 100% correct. George Zimmerman acted in self-defense, which was the morally right thing to do in that case.

  5. Nachum says:

    “Either way, our communal leaders would come together and pressure politicians to the denounce the verdict”

    1. In a society ruled by justice, politicians have *no place* “denouncing,” in any way, the verdict of a jury. Those have been the basis of free societies since at least the Magna Carta, and no one- certainly not anyone who did not sit through the trial the way the jury did, hearing and examining all evidence, has the right to do so. Of course, individuals have the right to opine, and sometimes jury corruption (or racial solidarity) is quite clear, but politicians, at least, should keep their mouths shut. That many didn’t is the travesty here.

    2. I would hope that enough Jews would be sensible enough to realize that Jews, too, can be violent thugs and that just perhaps the “Zimmerman” in this case was telling the truth. Certainly in the Martin case- where the deceased *did* have a criminal record, and Zimmerman’s body bore ample evidence of an attack- there’s more than enough reason to believe the latter. But just because someone is “one of us” does not automatically entitle them to our defense. (Otherwise the criminal justice system in Israel would never function. And no, I failed to see the alleged huge miscarriages of justice for the Japanese drug mules, or Rubashkin, etc.)

    3. The ADL’s statement is nonsense as well, if only because, contrary to popular belief, “stand you ground” had *nothing* to do with this case. (Zimmerman claimed self-defense, which is entirely different.) To bring it up is to muddy the waters.

    4. There’s no need for theoreticals- there have been a number of instances in the recent past where similar things happened, except the racial makeup was different- white on white, black on black, black on white. In all cases, there was a solid case that the killer was in the right, and you heard absolutely nothing about it in the press. Why? Because American elite opinion is obsessed with finding white-on-black racism, and of course the black community- and especially its “leadership”- is all to happy to go along. It got one person elected president, and got poor George Zimmerman and his family into far more trouble than they deserved. And it seems to have sucked in some Jewish elites and blog editors as well, apparently.

  6. L. Oberstein says:

    Ner Yisrael Mechina alumnus Chaim Saiman’s comments reminded me of an incident tied to this week’s parsha. At a meeting of the Baltimore Jewish Council, they were discussing some issue of social policy, I forget which, when Rabbi Herman Neuberger asked, “What has this got to do with the Baltimore Jewish Council. It in no way concerns our community.” A young man who was affiliated with the Reform Movement responded in a very self satisfied way,”Justice, Justice shalt thou pursue, Rabbi.”
    Two takeaways from this incident. One is that Rabbi Neuberger was involved in the whole gamut of communal issues and was part of the overall community, Jewish and secular. Two, he felt that we have to not turn “Tikun Olam” into a substitute for Torah and Mitzvos. It’s a balancing act. Tragically, many in the orthodox and especially the very orthodox community are so consumed with issues facing our survival and carry a long memory of Jews being marginalized and outside the mainstream that theydo not feel that a broad world view is worth their while. A community that is very insular and feels thretened ,even if it is only a leftover from their grandparents’ world, has trouble dealing with issues except for “what’s in it for me?”. Chaim, anyone who thinks racism has nothing to do with it is just whistling Dixie”. Regards.

  7. joel rich says:

    Though the ADL makes clear that it does not question the verdict, it notes that the case “raises serious questions about the wisdom of stand-your-ground laws and the easy access to concealed weapons permits,” noting that “had neither been in place, this tragedy may have never occurred. The ADL concludes with the hope that “the debate concerning the justice of the verdict… will inspire a continued and much-needed discussion about the lingering impact of racism in society
    That’s certainly one possible approach but it’s really based on a general worldview (which may or may not be accurate), not on the anecdotal case at hand. One could also envision a release from a different perspective:
    XXX makes it clear that it does not have any opinion on this particular verdict, and notes that the issue of stand-your-ground laws and the right to carry concealed weapons should be considered in the broad context of the society and culture we call home, if neither of these had been in place, many other tragedies may have occurred. XXX hopes that the debate concerning the justice of the verdict focus on the facts of the case and the greater debate be focused on the society we seek to achieve rather than an anecdotal outlier case.


  8. Vanity says:

    Raymond: so social justice is not a Jewish issue?

    Kudos to this post; it is heartening to know that there are still Jews who see social justice as a Jewish issue. I do want to say, however, that the original poster might benefit from seeing this as not an ‘Orthodox’ issue, but more as a ‘Jewish’ one.

    Couldn’t this case also serve the purpose of Jewish outreach as much as anything else?

  9. Rebecca says:

    The jury found that George Zimmerman was acting in self-defense when he shot Trayvon Martin. So when you write that “activities ensue and Tuvia is shot by the watchman” you are ignoring the evidence from the trial. Moreover, this was never a racial issue and has nothing to do with Orthodox jewry.

  10. Bob Miller says:

    We should get involved in the sense that, if demagogues are trying to subvert the US judicial system for political gain, we should side with the judicial system against the demagogues. In the Zimmerman case, we also see new instances of well-known radicals in and out of government conniving to engender social unrest. We should oppose that, too.

  11. Eli in USA says:

    Rebecca, Raymond, Jacob:

    You are answering based on your own communities (MO or Yeshivish), and you would be correct. However, for Satmar and other Chassidus/Charaidi that blindly defend people like the Japan 3, Rubashkin and Weberman, the question should be asked. However, the letter writer should already know the answer why an insular community defends its own against outsiders (and doesn’t care about a perceived double standard regarding such outsiders. See Martin Grossman).

  12. Shlomo says:

    As someone who believes that what most probably happened was that Zimmerman was looking for trouble and found it after confronting Trayvon, I don’t see what value there would be in the Jewish community’s taking any kind of stand in such a racially-charged case.

    My guess is that the gun-drawn Zimmerman got in over his head when Trayvon challenged him in return and Zimerman had good reason to believe that in the ensuing fight, Trayvon would take away the gun and kill him, if only in reaction to what he perceived as a threat to himself.

    Seems to me that according to Jewish Law, once the confrontation began, Trayvon had the right to consider Zimmerman a rodef and had the right ot stop him, while Zimmerman at that point (and not before) had the right to do the same.

    Now what would be gained by saying this, given that this matter was not subject to jewsih Law and and Jewish opinion would not change either the past or the future?

  13. Eliezer C. Abrahamson says:

    Perhaps you have forgotten the case of Gideon Busch, an Orthodox Jew who was shot to death by the police in Brooklyn. While some Orthodox Jews were angered (mainly because Busch was obviously emotionally disturbed), the dominant opinion in the Orthodox world was that the police had been justified in shooting him. There was little, if any, actual controversy about the case.

    Unless one is completely blinded by political correctness, the Trayvon Martin shooting was a clear case of self-defense. While the argument could certainly be made that Zimmerman made some bad decisions (I suspect he would agree), in the final analysis he shot Martin only after Martin violently assaulted him. As we now know, Martin was the furthest thing from an innocent child, and Zimmerman almost certainly would have been either killed or severely injured that night if he had not shot Martin in self-defense.

    While the Orthodox community is certainly not immune from identity politics, I have a hard time imagining the Orthodox world as a whole taking the position that an (ostensibly) Orthodox young man, with a known record for anti-social and illegal behavior, who was shot to death in the course of a violent assault on a non-Jewish community watchman was a victim of anti-Semitism.

  14. Hoffa Fingerbergstein says:

    Lets’ be frank: in real life, there is very slim possibility that this would even involve a “Tuvia” given both the out of proportion rates of black crime stats and the fear and stereotyping that goes with it. So your theoretical may just be that: a theoretical with no basis in real life. Further, many Orthodox Jews, who still lives in mixed areas with higher rates of crime ie. Williamsburg, Crown Heights, etc. and did not flee these areas as other white (secular) Jews did, sympathize with Zimmerman because they understand what he went through. Specifically, Orthodox Jews in many instances are on the frontlines of racial tensions and are accused many times with being racist against African-Americans.

    Frankly, do you want to be seen siding with a family that has joined forces with Al Sharpton? I don’t.

  15. Ariel says:

    Good article – brings up valid points that should be considered by all Jewish advocay agencies.

    1. “acts of violence and intimidation are not among our weaknesses”
    Except when a woman sits in front of a bus, when a parking lot opens on shabbat, when people are praying in a way we don’t approve of, when we see a religious soldier, when we vilify those who report abusers, whem we are the abusers, and the list goes on and on…

    2. “George Zimmerman’s assessment was 100% correct.”
    No, it was not. The trial does not change that fact. His initial assessment that Trayvon was acting shady was completely wrong: buying Skittles and returning to your dad’s house is not “suspicious activity” and thus he had no reason to seek out an altercation in the first place. Zimmerman started the fight, not Trayvon. He was only acting in self defense because his stalking eventually lead to an altercation he was losing spectacularly.

    3. “Nobody walking down a dark alley after midnight, is scared to hear the footsteps of an Orthodox Jew coming up from behind him”
    Trayvon was not walking behind anybody. Zimmerman was in a car!

  16. Toby Katz says:

    “After all, loss of life, stereotyping and discrimination are issues we generally care and speak out about. To this effect, the ADL’s statement may offer a useful template. Though the ADL makes clear that it does not question the verdict, it notes that the case ‘raises serious questions about the wisdom of stand-your-ground laws and the easy access to concealed weapons permits,’ noting that “had neither been in place, this tragedy may have never occurred.”

    [1]Stereotyping and discrimination had nothing to do with this case except insofar as the media initially stereotyped Zimmerman as a white redneck and assumed he was a racist — which he was not. He had dated a black woman and had tutored black kids. Speaking of stereotyping and discrimination, did you know that several hundred blacks were gunned down in Chicago last year? Oh but they were killed by fellow blacks so that’s alright then — don’t waste your tears on them. That’s what the liberal media do seem to be saying, by their silence.

    [2] As for Florida gun laws, they saved Zimmerman’s life. The sidewalk is just as deadly as a gun if your head is being smashed against it.

    [3] There WAS a Jewish angle to this case, however, and here it is: when the tragic incident first took place, initially there was no public outcry. The public outcry and the howling calls to crucify Zimmerman only started a few weeks after Trayvon Marin’s death, when race hustlers Jesse Jackson and Louis Farrakhan got involved and sicced the media dogs on Zimmerman.

    The reason they got involved is that their organizations depend on a perception that racism is a serious and ongoing problem in America. But because race relations have actually greatly improved over the decades — Baruch Hashem — they are having trouble keeping up their extortion game and fund-raising. They need racists the way the ADL needs anti-Semites, it’s their lifeblood. And if they can’t find enough, they invent some.

    And Zimmerman was more than just another white racist they could use for their game — he was a two-fer — he was, they thought, a much bigger prize — A JEW!!

    THAT’S why they went after him. They thought he was not only a white racist thug but oh glory, a white racist JEW-thug, the ultimate scapegoat, the prize of prizes for race baiters and genuine anti-Semites like Jackson and Farrakhan.

    [4] Too bad for them, it turned out that Zimmerman wasn’t white — no more white than Barack Obama — and also wasn’t Jewish, not even half. Daddy Zimmerman is of German Lutheran stock.

    What, you mean Zimmerman isn’t always a Jewish name? It’s a German name too? What rotten luck for Jesee and Louis!

    [5] But the media ran with the story that Zimmerman was a white racist, and it made such good copy that they just kept it up, for a year and a half, knowing all along it was false — both parts — not white, and not racist. It was just too juicy a story to abandon.

    [6] Here among us Jews we need to keep our eyes on one frightening ball and that is: the media have anointed Jesse and Louis as the “real” blacks — ignoring deep, intellectual black writers and thinkers like Thomas Sowell and Allen West — despite the fact that Jesse and Louis are avowed, open anti-Semites. The liberal elite don’t think there’s anything wrong with black “leaders” being anti-Semites, in fact, on the left, they think anti-Semitism is the natural, normal and expected response of black people who are oppressed by rich Jews.

    Even the ADL buys into this, spending much more time and money going after a tiny threat — white anti-Semitic neo-Nazi groups — and almost entirely ignoring the widespread anti-Semitism of the left, which is couched in terms of economic egalitarianism and anti-Zionism.

    They went after Zimmerman because they thought he was a Jew. In black circles it is axiomatic that Jews and blacks are enemies. They believe this despite the hordes of leftist Jews weeping in their soup over the plight of the poor black folks like Trayvon Zimmerman, whose only crime was to buy candy, wear a hoodie, deal drugs and store stolen ladies’ jewelry in his high school locker.

    [7] When Jackson and Farrakhan started this whole mess, a month after Trayvon Martin’s death, they thought Zimmerman was a Jew. They thought he was a Jew. They thought he was a Jew. So they made his life hell. And even though he is not a Jew, his life is now in danger and always will be. Watch out, Jews. Jesse and Louis are out there, prowling.

  17. Vanity says:

    The idea that this isn’t a racial issue is peculiar, Rebecca. Do you deny that NO ONE probably would have been shot if Zimmerman had simply stayed in his car as was suggested to him by the police? Do you deny that the reason Martin was determined to be suspicious by Zimmerman was because he was a black teen wearing a hooded sweatshirt? It’s sad that Jews were pivotal in the civil rights movement only half a century ago and now relations between Jews and blacks are at an all time low, and a large segment of Jews (whether Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform) seem to have an idea that their sole and chief responsibility is only to people exactly like them.

  18. DF says:

    I dont quite understand the point the author is trying to make. In the first place I certainly do dispute his claim that “no one disputes that if the facts were reversed, the doubts would have melted away.” To the contrary, from the Grossman capital murder case to the bachurim in Japan, many orthodox writers, in comments and in blogs, expressed unease at rallying to their cause simply because they were Jewish, without regard to charachter. So it is simply false to claim that orthodox Jews would have rushed to defend “Tuvia” just because he was orthodox. It’s actually insulting to imply that orthodox Jews would be so shallow.

    But beyond that, what is the author trying to say? That we orthodox Jews SHOULD learn from the NAACP to engage in such identify politics – and thus, by extension, white Americans, Chrristians, etc, should do the same? Surely he cannot believe any such thing. Perhaps he is suggesting that orthodox Jews get involved in issues beyond that 4 cubits of narrow Jewish interests? But then you politicize the cause, and besides, other groups, like the AFL-CIO or AIPAC have had great success over the decades precisely by avoiding issues that dont impact their own particular constituency. In the end the author seems to say orthodox groups should have put out some sort of “mild expression” to the effect of “we value life” – a meaningless platitude that would only anger [as the ADL statement does] those who respect both the jury vote and the right of self-defense, who “value life” no less than those wearing Trayvon stickers.

    In short, I would ask the author to clarify precisely the point he was trying to make.

  19. Esq. says:

    Perhaps Prof. Saiman needs to come down from the ivory tower every once in a while. In the real world, it was clear to most rational observers, lawyers and non-lawyers alike, that the Zimmerman case was one of self-defense. Recall that the police initially did not even bring charges because there was insufficient evidence for anything other than self-defense. Only when the case became a media firestorm did political pressure lead to what frankly were trumped-up charges. The jury, full of educated individuals, made more than a “defensible” and “maybe correct” decision as Saiman grudgingly acknowledges. They made the only reasonable decision given the facts presented.

    Beyond this, I take issue with the Professor’s very premise. I understand all too well that law professors are fond of hypotheticals. But this one is faulty. The Jewish community, to the extent it even has the capacity to respond with anything approaching uniformity, would not react in the hysterical and fact-ignorant way that the Black community reacted.

  20. Chaim Saiman says:

    First, I’d like to thank RYA and CC for posting this. The goal was to put it in a place where it would generate intelligent conversation about how we act/react as a community. The comments indicate that CC is indeed the right place, and I thank the editors and commentators for it. I have already learned quite a bit.

    To the substance: This is a case about competing narratives. At one extreme this was a totally justified act of self-defense (see conservative media) at the other, a modern day lynching (see African-American media), and obviously, there are many views in the middle. The goal is not to argue for which narrative is correct, but to reflect on how we as a community come to adopt the narratives we do. In order for this thought experiment to work, we cant “cheat” by first adopting one narrative and then using that as a justification for why we believe that— ba-zeh anu danim. Instead, we have to try as hard as possible (and it *is* hard) to start with only the agreed upon facts and then analyze how and why we come to one narrative over the other.

    To those who responded that Zimmerman was acting in justified self-defense because Martin bashed his head into the ground, and the like, I think you have already picked one side and are using that as proof that this side is correct. There was also evidence at trial to the contrary. The point in positing Trayvon as Tuvia was to think about whether, if the identities where otherwise, would we be inclined to adopt the self-defense narrative or would we rally around a different one.

    The second, more challenging, line of response is that the Tuvia as Trayvon analogy fails, since whatever our faults, burglary and street crimes are not among them. The same cannot be said regarding young black men, especially in light of the break-ins in that community.

    I think this touches on exactly what makes this case vexing: Does race matter, and should it? On the one hand we are trained to think that a democracy should judge people for what they do and not for what they look like. I don’t think we should want to live in a country where “walking while black” is a crime or even a reason for investigation.

    On the other hand, one has to be particularly naïve to assume that the reality is equal in this regard. People who look like Trayvon are more likely to break into a house than people who look like Tuvia. The hard part is disentangling the justified from unjustified bias, especially since the line itself is so unclear.

    In light of this, two reactions.

    First, we should honestly assess whether the increased suspicion and fear is commensurate with the increased risk. I don’t think it is a question that can be answered empirically, but asking the question itself has value.

    The second is to think through it empathically.

    Suppose the IRS starts investigating yeshivos, gemachim and shtielbels for tax evasion and fraud. This means that most people will be harassed (forced to hire expensive accountants and lawyers etc) for no good reason, though some will be caught in wrongdoing. When confronted, the IRS notes a higher than average concentration of fraud in these institutions such that it’s the most effective use of their limited enforcement resources.

    Would the innocent gmach perceive this as anti-semitic, or as an effective use of enforcement resources? Suppose that in the course of the investigation the basically innocent gmach got caught up in some ancillary obstruction of justice charges. How would we see it? How would we want others to see it?

    Finally, Yes Rabbi Oberstein, I am a proud alumnus of Mechinas Ner Yisroel.

  21. DF says:

    Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, and sometimes (most times) overthinking leads to poor thinking. The Martin case was not “vexing”, as the professor asserts in his comment. It was a simple case of self-defense, a common law standard as old as the law itself. It was black racism and the few-but-loud white-guilt laden liberals who tried to make this a racial matter, as they always do. The overwhelming majority of reaonable men, as represented perfectly by the jury, understood and understand this. Yes, it is really that simple.

    As for the hypothetical about the IRS investigating yeshivos, etc. – again, what is the point of this? Of course individuals personally involved in a matter see things from a skewed perspective. That is why a lawyer who defends himself has a fool for a client, and it is also why we can understand if Trayvon Martin’s parents wish to believe their son was an angel and the jury was a bunch of closet racists. What bearing does this have on anything? [If the professor is suggesting that ALL orthodox Jews would view ourselves as “personally” targeted, in the example he gives, I suggest he conduct a quick reality check. We are not quite so monolithic.]

    A final thought. The very fact that Professor Saiman juxtaposes “conservative media” vs “african-american media”, and avoids the more appropriate, “liberal media”, is pretty much a dead giveaway of his poltiical views, and it certainly shows.

  22. hindy frishman says:

    If Tuvia was walking in an area where lots of burglaries had been committed by tzitzit-wearers…
    If the police had found drugs in his system…
    If Tuvia had a history of fighting, being thrown out of school, being thrown out of his home…
    If witnesses had reported Tuvia on top of Zimmerman, beating him in mixed-martial-arts style…
    Yeah, I’d be pretty surprised if the Jewish community came out defending him.
    Just as I’d be surprised if Jews defended Jonathon Pollard (and they didn’t when he was first convicted, because he spied for several countries for money, and was not just betraying America because of concern for Israel)and I’d be surprised if they defended Madoff, and I was surprised to see Jews defending Weberman, who admitted to defrauding donors to charity and a host of inappropriate behaviors, though he denied the charges against him.
    Many whites are murdered by blacks every year, only a very few blacks are killed by whites. Zimmerman was half-white and half-Hispanic. If one race should be angry about getting killed by another, it shouldn’t be blacks.
    The Jews, in short, should stay out of this.

  23. Yossie Abramson says:

    Look up Christopher Cervini, a white teenager shot to death by a black man. The black man claimed self defense and around one week after the Zimmerman verdict an all white jury found the defendant not guilty of murder.

    Should we also say besides Tuvia we are also Chaim? The fact is that the only reason we know of Trayvon and not of Christopher is because of the media. The only ones making race an issue is the media. So the only point to take out from this case is to vary your sources of information.

  24. Steve Brizel says:

    Take a look at Shelby Steele’s recent article in the WSJ. Only the self proclaimed leaders of the civil rights movement who are ignoring the facts that most inner city crime is committed by inner city residents and that far too many inner city children are born out of wedlock, viewed the incident as undeniably the product of white racism, and the fact that the victim had drugs in his back pocket. The real issue that the liberal media missed was the prosecution’s obviously PC decision to try Zimmerman for murder, when, at most, the evidence supported an indictment for manslaughter.

  25. yehuda ray says:

    Wow,what an infuriating and scary article!!When politicaly correct thinking and lack of common sense makes inroads amongst orthodox jews we are in trouble,big trouble.I think based on both cold hard stats and real life experiences(ie.crimes almost all of us in the usa frum community have experienced at the hands of a certain demographic )for one to protest this verdict is the intelectual equivilent of blaming Israel for the palastinians plight.College campus sensibilties and mindless pursuits of social justice are certainly not issues that any orthodox organization should involve themselves in except if the coming to vigoruosly oppose.

  26. Steve Brizel says:

    I think that the author needs to take a look at the mainstream media and secular Jewish reaction to the pogroms in Crown Heights, where there was a strong tendency to engage in moral equivalency, etc between the perpetrators and victims.

  27. Ben-tzion says:

    I don’t agree, for two reasons.

    1. I think that our lobby groups should be specifically and exclusively used for issues that impact our community directly. I think that retaining that exclusivity prevents us turning away any listener who might not agree with us on ancillary issues.

    2. It also dilutes support from within for our communal institutions when they take political positions that will invariably conflict with some in the community.

    For example, suppose the OU had issued a statement celebrating that the rule of law triumphed over the rule of mob in the Zimmerman trial. Might that not come back to bite us when we lobby to politicians or to civil servants who feel very strongly that Zimmerman was a racist murderer? And might it not turn away some of us from the OU?

    When Mothers Against Drunk Drivers or the American Cancer Society issues a statement about the Zimmerman trial, I’ll reconsider.

  28. b. schwebel says:

    Cross Currents is a great site as its allows self introspection and debate surrounding vital improvements needed in orthodox jewry.This post highlights a potential pitfall of such a forum.There should be some issues that we can confidently feel are above reproach .No one would here would argue that we need to do away with certain mitzvos or ideals for the sake of political expediency.However,this post which asks us to abandon our common sense and ignore facts inorder to placate a certain group is not so far removed that more dangerous suggeestion.

  29. cvmay says:

    There should be an increase in activism, concern and taking a stand when the issues are essential to our community. In my opinion the majority of religious American Jews are passive and non-motivated in most cases. The days of Manhattan rallies for Soviet Jewry, to free Iranian Jews or against Arafat speaking in the UN are a relic of the past!!!

  30. YEA says:

    I believe you left out another Orthodox group: Those who would speculate that perhaps Tuvia was not so innocent and was in fact slamming his shooter’s head against the concrete, justifying the shooter’s act of self-defense. Just as one example, if you google “Turbulence At JFK Ralph Silverman,” you will find a Five Towns Jewish Times story by Larry Gordon about an Orthodox Jew who was racially profiled at JFK Airport, told by a guard “I know you people. I know the tricks you people pull.” Mr. Gordon writes:

    “I posted a synopsis of Dr. Ralph Silverman’s experience with the traffic officer/security guard at JFK. The reaction was intense, with over 35,000 people reading the post on Monday alone, hundreds liking it on Facebook, and dozens commenting upon the experience.

    The reaction, as can be expected, was split. Some thought that the guard should be fired for profiling Dr. Silverman. Others felt that Silverman may have caused a chillul Hashem and that if an authority figure says to move your car then you just pay heed and do so. Still others felt, perhaps unlike any other minority in a similar situation, that if the guard was profiling Dr. Silverman as the typical person feigning busyness with his car in front of the airline terminal, then other Orthodox Jews probably gave the security person plenty of legitimate reasons to feel that way. You can rest assured that there is no other group anywhere that feels that others are justified in ethnically or racially profiling them.”

  31. yf says:

    There is a fundamental difference between tuvia and trayvon. there is a mitzva of b’tzedek tishpot es amisecha that applies to tuvia, not to trayvon. therefore, assuming tuvia is a member in good standing of the community, then of course the community is required to stand up for him. however, trayvon was not blessed to be a member of our community and thus it would be foolish to take a stand, when nobody really knows what happened.
    THere is another big problem with this article. klal yisroel is a “family” and we have a responsibility to look out for one another. therefore, without getting involved with technical issues, how can anyone suggest trayvon=tuvia. Tuvia is our brother, and thus tuvia > trayvon as far as we are concerned. we have a responsibility to tuvia, not to trayvon. It is not possible, nor intelligent to take a stand on every issue that arises. therefore, the whole premise of this article has no basis in judaism, logic or common sense.
    I have a different experiment. Say Zimmerman were JEwish and the evidence against him was as shoddy as it was. Are you confident he would have gotten off? I’m not. This is a much greater concern.

  32. Nachum says:

    “The goal is not to argue for which narrative is correct”

    And therein lies the root of the rot that lies at the base of our elite institutions. “Narrative” is fancy academic-speak for “facts,” and, yes, facts are very, very important. What are the facts should be *the* goal. Once you’ve determined that, you can talk about other matters. And a jury determined it.

    (I understand, of course, that entry to the ranks of those elite institutions requires a certain acquiescence to group-think, especially in racial matters. But that makes this sad, not right.)

    Also, in the IRS theoretical, I’d take it as a cheshbon nefesh: “The IRS says Orthodox Jews are more corrupt? Well, maybe we should work on that!” That some Jews would shout “anti-Semitism!” does not make similar reactions from the black community correct.

  33. Aaron Ross says:

    This article reminds me of Jesse Jackson’s eloquent call to African-Americans to consider what they would do if Jonathan Pollard was instead Jerome. Oh, wait…

  34. Ariel says:

    To all those talking of self defense and saying there was no racism, not a one has responded to this point:

    First, I will concede that once Zimmerman ended up with his head on the sidewalk, then yes, things became self-defense.

    HOWEVER – WHAT led to him being in that postion in the first place? If not for his inherent racism and Trayvon “walking while black”?

    Or are you claiming that Trayvon walked up to Zimmerman’s car unprovoked, yanked him out of there, and started bashing his head into the sidewalk for no reason?

    That’s simply not what happened. Zimmerman saw a black male with nothing else suspicious about him (if wearing a hoodie is suspicious then maybe the police should be tracking me every single rainy day), and after calling the police, decided to take matters into his own hands. It’s his own damn fault for deciding to take on someone who overpowered him.

    I don’t care if he had zero intent to murder and that thus he technically was just defending himself – he brought this entire thing upon himself so I don’t feel sorry for him at all if his life is now a living hell. Saying so is not “Ivory Towers and Political Correctness” – it’s the facts, as borne by the evidence in the trial.

  35. Joe Hill says:

    Mr. Saiman:

    You are completely wrong for a multitude of reasons.

    Trayvon initiated a physical altercation with George. The jury found this to be the fact and it is apparent from the injuries George suffered at the hand of Trayvon. Furthermore, even if you doubt this fact, the burden of proof to prove otherwise was on the prosecution (as it would have been under Halacha) and the prosecution utterly failed to prove that Trayvon didn’t initiate the physical altercation with George. (As they couldn’t possibly have.) Your description of “Activities ensue” is utterly incorrect as those activities, crucially, is Travyon starting a fight.

    George, as a watchman, following Travyon is not illegal in any way. Even getting out of his vehicle to follow him on foot in entirely legal. Your characterization of “The watchman calls the police, who advise him to hold back” is entirely incorrect. It was a 911 dispatcher, NOT police, who suggested he not follow Travyon. (The dispatcher’s language was “we don’t need you to do that.”) George was under no obligation to follow that suggestion. (And the 911 dispatcher had no legal authority to order a caller to take or not take any such action.)

    Furthermore, there are literally tens of thousands of murders every single year in the United States. Should Jewish organizations comment on each and every one? Of course not. Why is this different? Only because the media blew it up due to the race issue. As a matter of course this killing should have been treated by us no differently than the thousands of others.

  36. Yaakov Menken says:

    Here is proof that Cross-Currents is edited by a team of people, each of whom make independent decisions. Personally, I don’t think this discussion should even be happening, as it is based upon assumptions which appear to me to run contrary to reality. The author is quite certain that were Trayvon Martin a Jewish teen, we would have responded differently — I do not know upon what factual grounds he bases his certainty. Given that rather gaping hole in his argument, a constructive discussion of our real flaws does not begin with an untenable comparison to the Zimmerman-Martin case.

    Inside the city limits of Baltimore, MD, most of our non-Jewish neighbors are African-American. We had our very own Jewish Zimmerman case, in the person of Eli Werdesheim — and we did not circle the wagons. Werdesheim had no previous history. The young man he confronted was suspected of involvement in recent theft and — whether for offensive or defensive purposes is still debated — was armed with a two by four. With nails sticking out of it.

    Nonetheless, a great deal of talk within the Orthodox community surrounded Baltimore Shomrim and whether they had overstepped. Much of that was governed by comparison with our Northwest Citizens Patrol, which collaborates nightly with a police liaison and has a strict policy under which volunteers may never leave their cars to follow or confront a suspect. Even if he was innocent of the crime, we said, Werdesheim should not have gotten himself into that situation. Zimmerman claims that he was surprised by Martin and could not avoid a conflict. Werdesheim could have — and should have — backed off.

    I should point out that the Hispanic community, as well, did not circle the wagons to instinctively defend Zimmerman. There were those within that community, unaware of the fact that he had taken a black girl to the prom, tutored black children and confronted police because the son of a white police officer had beaten a black homeless man, simply assumed he was a racist.

    Do we similarly ignore the evidence and assert that Jonathan Pollard was innocent? No, we say that by the standard of similar cases, he did not receive fair treatment. Do we claim that Rubashkin was totally honest with his bank? Even without firm knowledge, most everyone feels that he probably did something wrong — just not something that warrants a quarter century in jail. And much as a certain segment of our community did “circle the wagons” with regards to a recent abuse case in New York, many rabbis were among those urging the girl to come forward and testify.

    Similarly, we are very happy to vote for non-Jewish candidates whom we feel better represent our interests. This happened recently in Brooklyn, where the Orthodox community was credited with tipping the balance in favor of the non-Jewish candidate. Joe Lieberman in 2000 did not get nearly the level of support from the Orthodox community that Barack Obama received from the black community in both of the past elections, and not simply because Orthodox Jews are more likely to be Republicans.

    For what it’s worth, I do agree with those who have commented that this was a clear case of self-defense. Not only did the evidence not prove beyond reasonable doubt that Zimmerman was guilty of a crime, but even by the preponderance of the evidence standard of civil cases, I can’t see how a jury would decide against him. Ariel is wrong — Zimmerman, when asked, said on the 911 tapes that he thinks Martin is black, but in a way that indicated that’s not why he’s suspicious of him. But that is not why I think this discussion is flawed from its root.

    I sympathize with the black community, because I know that America’s racist history has left a very strong lingering fear, which race-baiters like Jackson and Sharpton are anxious to leverage. Despite our own terrible history, we have never regarded America the same way, and on the contrary feel it is a Medinah Shel Chesed, a nation of kindness [towards us], in which we generally feel we will get a fair shake.

    I don’t think any community is truly parallel to the African-American community in this regard, certainly not ourselves. And so as I said at the outset, I don’t really think this helps us discuss real flaws and how to correct them.

  37. Rachel W says:

    Just want to correct an idea I keep seeing pop up in the comments: The jury did NOT find it as a fact that Zimmerman was acting in self-defense, rather they found that the People did not prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt. Meaning the jury found that the People did not prove that Zimmerman was not acting in self-defense. That does not mean that the jury believed that Zimmerman was acting in self-defense, rather they found that it was POSSIBLE he was acting in self-defense and the People failed to prove otherwise.
    This does NOT mean that the jury found Zimmerman innocent. This means that there was not enough evidence to find that he was guilty according to our laws.
    So it is erroneous to spout that the fact that Zimmerman was not found guilty is absolute evidence that he is innocent in the matter. It is only evidence that there was a possibility that he was innocent.

  38. Hoffa Fingerbergstein says:

    Rachel W – as a lawyer (practising law in Canada), I can tell you that the standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt” is the standard that the prosecution’s case has to meet in all criminal proceedings. Therefore, a defence lawyer in any criminal trial will never be able to and will never have to prove complete innocence. At law, that is sufficient. However, that does not mean that he is actually not innocent. He very well could be. With respect, your point adds nothing to this discussion other than to muddy the waters and somehow use a point of law as proof that he is not totally innocent.

  39. SLZ says:

    Why the necessity, in Ellul no less, of naming and shaming Eli Werdesheim (whose actions seemed reasonable, under the circumstances)? What happened to al tadin et chavercha ad she’tagia limkomo? Similarly, what gives us the right to criticize Pollard, etc?

    After 120 years, we will be able to, or rather compelled to, answer these questions.

    [I apologize if anything I said in my comment appeared to “shame” Eli Werdesheim. On the contrary, he followed the policy of his organization, and perhaps should have backed off, but that’s not shameful. All else is a matter of clear public record, as is the Pollard case. — Y Menken]

  40. shaya says:

    Excellent article. I agree completely. Is being a light unto the nations just about following the Torah in inward-focused communities only concerned with their own problems? After all, one of the Noahide mitzvos incumbent upon all humankind is to establish courts of justice.

    Logically, part of fulfilling that mitzvah (and encouraging the nations to fulfill it) involves ensuring that courts (and the associated legal and security apparatus, including the police and prisons) are fair and unbiased (and of course, fully funded, operational and free from corruption — unlike in much of the developing world — and reasonably proportional — unlike in the US, which incarcerates a larger percentage of its people than any country in the world, despite having less crime than many other countries.)

    Whatever the merits of the Trayvon/Zimmerman case, the message of the article is right on — that we as a community need to be actively involved in justice for all, whether that means working for reasonable reforms of government institutions or combating racism or other factors in the culture that affect state institutions.

  41. Dan says:

    This article demonstrates everything that is wrong with law professors.

    The article takes a scenario where little fact is available, and assumes the narrative that suggests a social problem. Then it assumes all of us accept that narrative. Then based on those faulty assumptions, it challenges us to why we don’t protest.

    When commenters defend that they in fact to not assume that narrative, especially in the context of a criminal trial with its burdens of proof, the writer tells us that the reason we do not assume his narrative as truthful is that we are racist.

    To back this up, he asserts that some of us are too sure that our side of the narrative is correct. He misreads our actually just being sure that the not-guilty verdict was justified.

    We are not racist. Alan Dershowitz who thinks the prosecutors should be indicted for this case is not a racist (I took his legal ethics class at HLS). There was simply not enough credible evidence to think that Zimmerman did not act in self-defense, and absolutely no evidence that it was race based (especially when accounting for Zimmerman’s excellent history with the black community).

    And it isn’t remotely relevant what we would think if he were from our community and we therefore could not be objective. I will readily admit I would not be objective if I were Trayvon’s father. Your attempt to paint that as racial is wrong and just silly. If you wish to try the racial thought experiment, ask how we’d think if Martin were a white kid and Zimmerman were black.

  42. David Friedman says:

    Chaim Saimen’s piece here really seems out of order. Yaakov Menken, DF and Eliezer A. among others make excellent points. There really is no debate here–this young thug Trayvon essentially committed suicide and it is easy to conclude that if it was not with George Zimmerman–it would have been in another context.

    Perhaps the worst comment I have heard is where the author pleads that if we assess the fact that Zimmerman had his head smashed to the ground while some kid on drugs and with more than two chips on his shoulder was punching him martial arts style–we have already made up our minds!!! So, in the eyes of this author, we must ignore the facts so to side with Martin or some kind of mellow ambiguity??

    Zimmerman had a fine role as a volunteer community watch person–he is on the side of civility and the rule of law–something all Jews should support. Zimmerman did not overstep his bounds–he was merely doing his job. A young kid with the wrong attitude can always turn a simple story into a tragedy. Short of shooting–one can see how this plays out all the time. This is why one must stay cool in front of authority in nations with legitimate rule of law. To turn violent will likely bring violence upon oneself and duh–if a young Yeshiva boy did this kind of thing–I might imagine our community would be the first to denounce him and not champion his “cause” of beating up an authority figure.

    Trayvon Martin wanted to express his rage at being followed by someone from his own racist point of view was a creepy white guy. “Do you have a problem? ” was rhetorical. His response: “Now you do!” became a nightmare and Zimmerman lived to go on trial only because he was lucky enough to bear a weapon of self-defense to thwart an attack CAUSED only by a faulty and violent attitude on the part of Martin.

  43. Yehoshua Kahan says:

    In the counterfactual world where the dead young man was a yeshiva bochur (or at least an Orthodox Jew), but all other facts were identical, we would have to posit that the yeshiva bochur in question was of known criminal history, involved with drugs, and credibly accused of pinning Mr. Zimmerman to the ground and bashing his head to the ground at the time that Mr. Zimmerman shot him. Under those circumstances, I, for one, would have the same reaction that I have in the world as it is. Namely, this was a tragedy, but based on the facts as we know them, Mr. Zimmerman may have been unwise that night in following Trayvon Martin in the first place, but he did not commit murder.

    Incidentally, as has been often noted in the past, Florida’s Stand Your Ground laws were irrelevant to the case, and were not raised by Mr. Zimmerman’s defense counsel. The reason is simple; SYG laws discuss to what extent a potential murder victim must retreat before resorting to lethal force in defence of their life. In the Zimmerman/Martin case, Mr. Zimmerman could not retreat, because Martin had him pinned to the ground, as I mentioned above.

    Let’s be serious; there was a tragedy that night, no doubt–but based on what we know now, it seems that the only crime committed was Trayvon Martin’s attempted murder of George Zimmerman.

  44. zadok says:

    The frum community actually has the opposite interest then this post suggests. After white flight (liberals included) the frum community due to difficulty in moving infrastructure and other reasons usually ends up remaining in deteriorated neighborhoods. Therefore they has most to lose from self defense being perceived as racially motivated attacks and such forms of political correctness

  45. Crazykanoiy says:

    Great article. Just to add to your point. The Orthodox community was up in arms over the Martin Grossman death sentence. However his ultimate execution did not lead to any communal response or activitiy in trying to lobby or limit capital punishment in the general population.

    Perhaps the Trayvon Martin case should give us pause before yelling and charging anti-semitism or racism. Sometimes the application of the law does not seem fair, however that does not mean that its application or lack of was racially motivated.

  46. Bob Miller says:

    Crazykanoiy wrote, “The Orthodox community was up in arms over the Martin Grossman death sentence”

    This was an example of our susceptibility to mis/disinformation campaigns to win our sympathy.

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