In 1974, an authentic crime book by Vincent Bugliosi and Curt Gentry was published, titled Helter Skelter. Bugliosi had served as the prosecutor in the 1970 trial of Charles Manson, and the book presents his firsthand account of the investigation, arrest, and prosecution of Charles Manson and his followers for the notorious 1969 murders of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca, actress Sharon Tate, and several others.
The book takes its title from the apocalyptic race war that Manson believed would occur, which in turn took its name from “Helter Skelter” a song by The Beatles, actually named after an amusement park’s twisting slide and having no particular symbolic meaning at all, according to Paul McCartney, just a proto-metallic musical experiment. But the twisted scheme of Manson, to ignite a race war by framing a mass murder of white prominent people as a racial hate crime, never came to fruition. But if you look around today, in cities like Baltimore or Ferguson, it seems that smoldering tensions need only a little wind to burst into flame. Not that police brutality should ever be called out as anything less than abhorrent behavior: bad for the police and bad for the people. It has also been bad for people of color in Israel, our Holy Land. You can see that video for yourself of Damas Pakada, the Ethiopian uniformed IDF soldier, being brutalized by the police on April 29, 2015 in Holon, for no apparent reason. “This is not news” commented Danny Admasu, former Executive Director of the Israel Agency for Ethiopian Jewry. “The only news is that this time we caught them [on video].” And this time the demonstrations in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem turned violent. This time, the demonstrators were predominantly sabras, the new generation of Ethiopians who were born in Israel, and raised in a system in which they found themselves in segregated communities for the poor, schooled there, and when they got to tzofim, the youth training that prepares teens for the IDF, they found themselves, after testing, in a special program for Ethiopians only. MK Pnina Tamanu-Shata (Yesh Atid) was quoted in The Times of Israel as calling these segregated courses “an embarrassment and a disgrace and a certificate of poverty.” She said that the mandatory attendance for soldiers who tested poorly means “that you put the weak with the weak and everyone gets weaker.” “There has been a process going on for years of marking the Ethiopian immigrants as a target for special treatment,” said Chen Bram, Ph.D anthropologist and expert on multicultural policy and diversity management at the Hebrew University. Although the intentions were good, the result of these social policies have kept the Ethiopian community on the fringe of society, marking them as a weak subset in need of special treatment. There is a law in the Torah which commands us to leave the corners of the field for the poor to harvest, called peah. This was necessary to ensure that those whose crop did not come in, or were landless, were still able to eat. However, those beneficiaries do not want to remain at that social status. They do not want to remain on the fringe and dependent on others. They want to have a field of their own.
When the riots broke out in Ferguson last summer after the shooting death of Michael Brown by a white policeman, an article appeared in Time Magazine by Kareem Abdul Jabbar, , the former LA Laker center, in which he advised us to steer the national discussion away from racism: The Coming Race War Won’t Be About Race, it will be about class. Kareem contends that while the middle class is shrinking and the poor remain poor, the elite 1% influence the lawmakers to retain the status quo. So he calls upon all of us to stop fighting our allies and avoid deliberate distractions, but join together across racial lines for the social change our nation needs to survive. There is an echo from the 60’s in his message, but one that we have not made much progress on since then, much less since last summer.
After the demonstrations in Tel Aviv, Prime Minister Netanyahu met with Damas Pakada, embraced him before the cameras, and announced: “The ministerial committee that I will chair will advance plans to resolve problems in education, housing, culture, religion, employment and in other areas.” Admasu characterized this as Kish Kush, rhetoric to appease the emotions in the moment. There is work to be done beyond the talk, and that is what we call Avodat HaShem, being in service to the Lord, to walk the talk. A little further on past the commandment of Peah, leaving the corners of the field, is the mitzvah of Shmita and Yovel, the sabbatical and the jubilee year, the observance of which include the cancellation of debts, the return of ancestral land and the release of the indentured servant. These laws were meant to ensure upward economic mobility for the individual who fell on hard times, so that individuals should not remain in poverty. In such a small country like Israel, the job opportunities are limited among a population that is the second most educated country in the world. However, education still is the necessity for upward mobility. Reforms have been made in the educational system in Israel, including increased salaries for teachers and curriculum development. NGO’s have been focusing on fostering educational advancement through tutoring and parent mentoring. Organizations like IAEJ are working for systemic change that will facilitate integration and provide assistance for job opportunities, and the JDC has many arms that try to assist the immediate needs of the Ethiopian community. However, there is some other grass roots work that can be done, to undo the status quo: in the name of Yehoshua ben P’rachya, acquire yourself a friend (Avot 1:6). Just imagine that every Ethiopian Israeli had a friend from the main stream, to help bring them from the four corners of society into the middle of the field? All too often we take the easy route and donate money for tzedaka. But that word means, do what is right. If individuals felt like they themselves were responsible to cure the ills of society, we wouldn’t be waiting around for the government to solve them. So the Mishnah 4:5 teaches us from Sanhedrin: So that none can say that I am greater than you because of my lineage, the Holy One, blessed be He, stamped each person with the seal of Adam, and not one of them is like his fellow. Therefore each and every one is obliged to say, “For my sake the world was created.” When we can accept that statement from the other as true as we can for ourselves, the we can proclaim liberty throughout the land.
Rabbi David Weizman