Thursday, July 19, 2018

Political Civility: Rethinking Bar Kamtza

After Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders was asked to leave a Virginia restaurant earlier this month, I was asked: Is there any classical Jewish parallel to such an incident? I responded that a close parallel may be a story that is well-known to many Jews, especially at this time of year.

The Talmud relates that the city of Jerusalem was destroyed by the Roman Empire as the culmination of a series of tragic incidents that all began with an incident at a party. According to the Talmud: A certain man had a friend named Kamtza and an enemy named Bar Kamtza. He once made a party and said to his servant, "Go and bring Kamtza." However, the servant got confused with the similar names and made the mistake of bringing Bar Kamtza. (In a study group I led this month, someone quipped: “That’s like if I wanted to invite Sarah Huckabee Sanders to my party and I invited Bernie Sanders by mistake.”)

When the host found him there, he said, "You are my enemy!” [alternate translation: “You tell tales about me!”] What are you doing here? Get out."

Bar Kamtza responded: "Since I am here, let me stay, and I will pay you for whatever I eat and drink."

The host said, "I won't."

"Then let me give you half the cost of the party!"

"No!" said the host.

"Then let me pay for the whole party!"

The host still said "No!" and took him by the hand and threw him out of the party.

Bar Kamtza then said: "Since the Rabbis were sitting there and did not stop him, this shows that they agreed with him. I will go and inform against them to the Government."

Bar Kamtza then contacted the Roman Emperor and said, "The Jews are rebelling against you." When the Emperor was skeptical, Bar Kamtza proposed a test: he invited the Emperor to donate an animal for a sacrifice in the Temple in Jerusalem and see if the Jewish leaders would accept it. While transporting the animal, however, Bar Kamtza blemished the animal to render it unfit for sacrifice, with the knowledge that the Jewish leaders would probably refuse to offer it as a sacrifice, which would lead the Emperor to conclude that they were being disrespectful to him.

This is only the first chapter of a multi-part story, but it is the most famous part of the story. I have had numerous opportunities to teach this story to adults and children alike, and I always ask: what were the “off-ramps” that were missed in this story? What could each of the characters done to prevent the unfolding disaster?

Consistently, people answer: the host of the party is primarily at fault. He should have welcomed Bar Kamtza, or at least taken him up on his generous financial offer. Alternately, the rabbis at the party should have spoken up for Bar Kamtza to spare him the embarrassment of being thrown out of a party. The Talmud indicates that this was Rabbi Eleazar’s interpretation of the story as well: “Rabbi Elazar says: Come and see how great is the power of shame, for the Holy Blessed One assisted Bar Kamtza in destroying God’s Temple and burning God’s sanctuary.” (BT Gittin 57a) This story is often used as an illustration of the sin’at hinam, “causeless hatred,” that was the ultimate cause of the destruction of Jerusalem. In this story, a petty interpersonal conflict festers into a conflict between peoples and ultimately leads to death and destruction, because of the host’s intransigence.

As time goes on, however, I have started to think about this story differently -- and over time, my empathy for the host has grown, as my empathy for Bar Kamtza’s humiliation has diminished.

A first textual clue is that Bar Kamtza is introduced as a בעל דבבא ba’al devava - a phrase that is often translated as ‘enemy,’ but can also mean ‘tale-bearer.’ And in fact, that is what Bar Kamtza does: immediately after being thrown out of the party, he contacts the Emperor and makes a false report about the Jewish people.

Bar Kamtza’s later actions give us some indication of his character, his connections, and the role that he apparently plays in Judean society. That he has access to the Emperor places him at the upper echelons of society, aligned with those who already have a conflicted relationship with the leaders of the Jewish community. When Bar Kamtza has a grievance, he responds immediately by crafting a plan of deception and manipulation, with the goal of provoking a regional catastrophe, and he has the high level connections to make it happen. It is possible that some of these qualities are the reasons why the host was not excited to have him at the party in the first place.

This leads me to suggest an alternate reading of the story. Bar Kamtza is not at all “embarrassed” to be thrown out of the party. Rather, he is a political operative who knows how to exploit every mis-step of his opponents. Such a person is skilled at harnessing umbrage and using it for political purposes. I picture Bar Kamtza receiving the invitation to the party, realizing that it must have been received in error, and rejoicing that he has an opportunity to exploit his enemy’s mistake. Of course he is going to attend the party, and of course he is going to respond with crocodile tears when he is asked to leave, with the goal of provoking an overreaction by the host. And of course he is going to use the experience as a pretext to pursue the goal that he had already established - but this time with the appearance of the moral high ground.

What would have happened if the host had welcomed him into the party, or taken him up on one of his offers of payment? My sense is that Bar Kamtza would have found some way to exploit this as well. He might say, for example, that it is a sign that the host is unprincipled and materialistic. Or he might overhear some information at the party that he could use to pursue his goals. Or he might simply wait until tomorrow for another chance to pursue his goals. I used to empathize with Bar-Kamtza over his embarrassment at being disinvited, but now I feel that even if he is coddled, he will always manage to find something to take umbrage about, at a time and place of his choosing.

The implications of this reading of this classic story are challenging in light of the current debate over “civility” in the United States and elsewhere. I would still counsel civility as the wise choice in almost every interaction with people with whom one disagrees, even if the disagreement is vehement. A person like Bar Kamtza is trying to provoke an overreaction from the other side, which is a good enough reason not to overreact. But I am increasingly convinced that Bar Kamtza does not deserve our sympathy. And sadly, our world is full of those who will exploit apparent minor slights with the goal of magnifying them into serious conflicts -- and that, too, is a manifestation of the sin’at hinam, “causeless hatred,” that we are cautioned to avoid.

Friday, July 13, 2018

I never thought I would witness a mass trial in the United States (trip to Laredo TX, part 3)

Monday July 9, 2018:
I have no photos of the mass trial we saw, as photos are illegal in the courtroom, but this (illegally taken) photo published in June 2018 in various news publications accurately reflects the courtroom scene that we witnessed on July 9 in Laredo.  See 

On Monday morning, our group went to Federal Court in Laredo TX to observe immigration cases.
I have no photos of this because it is illegal to take photos in the courtroom, but please look at this (illegally taken) photo and article - - , as it basically accurately represents what we saw: a group of more than 70 defendants in a mass trial for illegal border crossing.

The first thing the judge had to do was arrange the defendants in the courtroom in rows so that the taller people were in back and the shorter people were in front. Defendants we saw were mostly men but some women, almost all of whom appeared to be in their late teens or 20s, from Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.

Over the course of the morning, we saw some defendants wearing street clothes and some wearing orange jumpsuits; some were chained and some were not. (My guess is that this has something to do with whether it was a misdemeanor charge (border crossing as a first offense) or a felony charge (border crossing as a subsequent offense). The article says that the defendants were told to answer the judge's questions in unison - however, what we saw was each person answering the judge's questions, one by one, row by row: 'si si si si si si si si .....'. 'No no no no no no no ....'. (Defendants wore headsets for Spanish translation- though apparently some of them speak other regional languages and are not proficient in Spanish).

The article also says that the court-appointed public defenders have less than 2 hours to meet with all the defendants to prepare for the proceedings - translating to less than 2 minutes of individual time per defendant. This is exactly what we were told about the cases we saw on Monday, based on conversations with people who work at the court. (Yet every person, when asked 'do you fully understand the charges against you and the rights you are giving up by pleading guilty,' answered 'si si si si si si si si si si ....')

Obviously I am not a lawyer, and I have almost no experience in courtrooms, but I was disturbed by this scene that seemed so different from what I would expect from the American judicial system. The lawyers and law students in our group were especially appalled, with some saying that they felt they were witnessing due process violations.

All the people we saw pleaded guilty of illegally crossing the border between June 26 and July 6, by walking/swimming/taking a boat/raft/inner tube across the river (as they each pleaded guilty, one by one, they were asked to say how they crossed the border, and everyone answered using one of these means of border crossing), and the next step for them is 'removal proceedings' (i.e. deportation). It is possible that some of them will request asylum during that phase of the process. (from media reports, it seems likely that at least some of them are fleeing violence.) we don't know, however, about the quality of their legal representation and to what extent they understand this part of the process. As far as I can tell from my notes, 'asylum' was not mentioned even once in the court proceedings that we saw.

Presumably each of these people has a story that never got heard. Some of them may have been coming for economic opportunity; some may have been repeat border crossers but this is the first time they had been caught. Some may have been criminals or gang members. Some - especially those from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador- may have been fleeing desperate and dangerous situations in their home countries. But no aspect of their stories were part of these proceedings, other than their names, the dates that each crossed the river, and the means by which they did so. I presume that the court-appointed lawyers also did not have the opportunity to hear their stories.

When we asked Bishop Tomayo of the Diocese of Laredo how we can be most supportive to people in this region, he answered: "Tell their stories." This has been a theme of my trip here: everyone has a story. We met Border Patrol officers who were eager for us to understand that they are each individuals underneath their uniforms, and each one has a unique perspective and motivation for pursuing the work that they pursue. We met immigration activists who each have a story about how they came to be involved in this work. Even at the church in Sutherland Springs, not directly related to the rest of our trip, we met a number of people who were eager to share their stories of being in a community that is recovering from tragedy. And similarly, every person who makes the dangerous decision to cross the border illegally has a story of what brought him or her to do so. The first and most basic step is a small step - to listen to each person's story.

Detention centers, religious leaders, immigrants and asylees ((trip to Laredo TX, part 2)

Part 2:  Sun July 8

Photos from the South Texas Family Residential Center in Dilley, Texas. This is the largest family detention center in the US, with room for 2400 detainees. ‘Family residential’ is basically a euphemism for the detention of women and children. We were not allowed to enter (we did not expect to). One of the leaders of our group, however, is an immigration attorney who has various clients who have claimed asylum status and are now detained at Dilley. Mothers and children are detained together while they await their hearings to determine if they meet the criteria for asylum.
The attorney in our group noted that increasingly, these hearings take place by video, with the asylum seeker in the detention center, the judge in another location, the attorneys in yet additional locations, and translators on the phone. She suggested that the overall effect of this is that the hearings are chaotic and the judges are then less inclined to regard the asylum seekers as trustworthy - and as a result, people who clearly meet the criteria for asylum in her opinion are less likely to be successful in their hearings.
She also noted that most of the large detention facilities are managed by for-profit companies. Dilley is managed by CoreCivic, until recently known as CCA (Corrections Corporation of America). We also briefly visited another detention facility managed by Geo, another for-profit prison management company. We noted various difficulties of the for-profit prison system, including that prison management is incentivized to maximize profits by reducing the cost of detainee/prisoner care. The security and safety record of these private prisons is frankly terrible. In mid-2016, the Justice Department determined that all contracts with for-profit prisons would be concluded because they did not provide the level of security and safety as the Department of Corrections’ own prisons. After the presidential election, however, the attorney general reversed this decision. (Google ‘Geo Group’ for more info about this.) (This episode is a reminder that, from the perspective of the people we have been speaking with, the US immigration system has been terribly broken for many decades, and no one should think that problems began with the current administration (though the current administration has adopted many policies that seem particularly heartless). Dilley was built under the previous administration, and the dramatic expansion of for-profit prisons also took place under previous administrations.)


Bishop James Tomayo, Bishop of the Diocese of Laredo, joined our group for Shaharit /morning prayers yesterday morning and at various points throughout our visit..He was one of the many religious leaders we met who are working hard to care for the residents of this region. Bishop Tomayo showed us the coat of arms of the Diocese of Laredo, which has an image of a river running through it - echoing the Rio Grande that separates the twin cities of Laredo, Texas, and Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. 

across the border from Laredo TX to Nuevo Laredo Mexico

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Resilience in the face of tragedy: my visit to Sutherland Springs, Texas (Texas trip part 1)

My next several posts will describe my trip to Texas in July 2018 to learn more about the current immigration crisis and some other issues. 

Part 1:  Sun July 8

I am spending today and tomorrow in Texas, visiting sites in the Laredo area that are connected to the current immigration crisis. I am grateful to my friend and colleague Rabbi Neil Blumofe of the Jewish community of Austin for inviting me to participate in this group with members of his community and some other visitors from out of state - and so grateful to the organizers of the trip.
Our first stop, however, was the Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, TX - the site of the horrific massacre last fall in which 26 of the members of their community were murdered during a church service - a huge percentage of this small community. (The total population of Sutherland Springs is about 500 people.).
We were guests of the pastor, Rev. Frank Pomeroy. He and his wife were out of town on the day of the massacre, but one of the victims was their 14-year-old daughter Annabelle z”l.
THe church building has now been converted into a memorial - with 26 chairs set up in the locations where the victims had sat on that fateful day. (Church services are now held in an adjoining temporary building.) The church deacon who showed us around the memorial noted, “I am the only deacon left. We lost a lot of deacons on that day.”
I found the community remarkably friendly, and clearly they worked hard to cultivate an atmosphere of joy and gratitude even amidst the backdrop of sadness. Among announcements about vacation bible camp and study groups was an announcement that a photographer would be coming to the church next Sunday - to take family portraits for anyone who wished, at no charge, with the option of incorporating photos of deceased relatives in the background of the portrait. On a regular basis the church receives gifts from communities around the world that they pass on to the parishioners (see photo of one such gift that was placed on every seat).
The community is clearly welcoming of visitors while also being upset at the constant presence of the news media. They appreciate those who want to stand with them in their sorrow, while being annoyed by those who seem to be gawking and exploiting - much like anyone experiencing tragic loss.
Not surprisingly, there were various indications that this is a community that is quite distant from me religiously, politically and culturally. (It should not come as a surprise that they are not looking at their terrible tragedy through the lens of gun-related issues, and I don’t imagine that their perspectives on guns have changed following their tragedy.). The pastor’s sermon made it clear that they have not had many visits from non-Christians, if any. What we have in common, however, is what is most important to me at this moment - including dreams for the welfare of our children and communities. One of my hopes for this trip is to listen deeply to people with whom I agree and with people with whom I disagree - and always to find some way to demonstrate how we are connected despite difference.