Gilad Shalit. Jonathan Pollard. Shalom Rubashkin. Each imprisoned, and each the focus of exhaustive efforts to secure their release. Many in the Jewish community are quick to point to the mitzvah of pidyon shevuyim (redeeming Jewish captives) as a call to action, but often no distinction is made between the three prisoners.
Few would argue the point with respect to Shalit — an innocent teenager ruthlessly abducted in a daring cross-border raid and held incommunicado for more than four years. Many, but certainly not all, would concede the argument with respect to Pollard, who has spent more than 20 years in jail for espionage when last month a group of putative Russian spies were deported after a few days in jail. But Rubashkin? He was convicted on 86 counts of financial fraud, including money-laundering and bank, mail, and wire fraud. During the course of the trial and sentencing, the trial judge found Rubashkin to be dishonest and deceptive — even in statements to the court. Earlier this summer, Eliyahu Ben Haim, a Lakewood “rabbi,” pleaded guilty to money-laundering after being caught on tape cautioning his partners that “this is illegal, what we are doing.” Austrian Rabbi Moshe Chaim Strulovics fled to Lakewood in 1998 after being charged with a massive $20 million fraud. He was caught and extradited back to Austria last year, and eventually pleaded guilty to masterminding the fraudulent scheme. Thanks in large part to the intervention of prominent rabbis, he was sentenced to 30 months in prison and was granted release after 10 months served. He was promptly returned to Lakewood and greeted as a hero. And let’s not forget Bernard Madoff and Solomon Dwek.
There are many, I among them, who cringe each time another financial scandal rocks the Jewish community. I take no solace in statistics that prove that instances of financial crimes are less common among Jews than any other group. The day after media reports of a new Jewish scandal, I instinctively want to take off my kippah in public. But, even without a kippah, I know that many non-Jews are shaking their heads at me in confirmation of every negative stereotype they ever heard about my people. Suddenly, I am critically aware of centuries of anti-Semitism, and I cannot help wondering to what degree these types of “Jewish” criminals contribute to the animus.
Put aside the absolute and fundamental commandment of “Dinah de’malchutah Dinah” [compliance with civil law carries the weight of Torah law]. Put aside the scores of mitzvot that prohibit theft, fraud, and deception. Put aside the devastation wrecked upon innocent victims who, more often than not, are fellow Jews. And that is precisely the problem. All too often we are quick to put those things aside. It is our willingness to overlook and subordinate these fundamental concepts that breeds the bad apples inherent in every culture. There is nothing that can be said about the criminals themselves; they will always exist. But there is much to be said about those who would excuse, condone, or ignore the perpetrators of these unconscionable acts.
If you search the Internet for stories relating to Rabbi Strulovics, you will find a wide array of coverage. Anti-Semites point to the story as evidence of the greed of the Jewish people. Secular media offer a cautionary tale and a humbling lesson. Many Orthodox outlets, and a majority of haredi blogs, consider Strulovics’ guilty plea the equivalent of an acquittal. They happily rejoice in his suspended sentence and fall over themselves praising as heroes those who sought and secured his release. The fact that Strulovics admitted to stealing tens of millions of dollars from scores of innocent people seems to be irrelevant.
It gets worse. In some communities, anyone who tries to stop a Jew from committing his crimes is quickly labeled a moser and viscously attacked. During talmudic times, civil authorities persecuted the Jewish people, often for no reason and usually to prevent the study of Torah. Reporting a fellow Jew to civilian authorities, for any reason, was a virtual death sentence and was prohibited. In an unabashed distortion of that halacha, many today cite the prohibition as an absolute ban on cooperating with modern civil authorities — even when such cooperation would prevent the destruction of lives. Because Jewish courts do not have the power to imprison, prosecute, or enforce judgments, they are mostly powerless to prevent or respond to crimes perpetrated by Jews. They do have the power of excommunication, but somehow I doubt the fear of not getting called up to the Torah would deter someone willing to steal millions from his fellow Jews.
Instinctively, most of us try to look away. We excuse such behavior as an aberration and quickly point out that the criminal is a deviant acting in violation of Jewish law. We are uncomfortable with the subject and refuse to extrapolate any broader message. But in doing so, whom are we helping? In a way, those who are silent are as guilty as those who defend the misconduct.
As a community, we have limited resources. Free Gilad. He is still alive and his suffering is a consequence of nothing more than his being an Israeli and offering his life for the Jewish people. Free Rubashkin? Maybe his sentence was harsh. Maybe he was mistreated. But his suffering is a direct consequence of his own actions and his own transgressions of the Torah. Anyone who puts Gilad Shalit and Rubashkin in the same sentence, anyone who celebrates the guilty plea of a criminal, anyone who would excuse a flagrant violation of civil law/halacha, just because the criminal is a Jew, should carefully reflect this High Holiday season and consider whether some of our exile is not self-imposed.