“Nokh Gerekhtigkayt, Nokh Gerekhtigkayt, Zolstu Zikh Yogn” (Yehoash’s version of Deuteronomy 16:20)
In one of the few uninspired stories in my grandfather’s The Wise Men of Chelm, a delegation goes out from the town in search of justice. Following the expansion of business and trade in the town, there had been a radical separation between rich and poor. The rich have everything, the poor nothing, and there is no Justice in Chelm. So they go looking for it out in the world.
I called the story uninspired, mostly because it’s predictable and, in the Yiddish version, goes on way too long. Fortunately, every new telling gives a chance to tweak it a little. Here’s the short and sweet version: The Chelmites encounter swindlers who sell them a barrel of rotten fish, telling them not to open it until they get back home, because Justice is hard to come by, and easily lost. They get home, open it, and understand. The Justice of the World stinks, and they are on their own.
This morning I wake in an America where justice stinks. According the famous quote by New York State chief judge Sol Wachtler, a prosecutor can, if he wants to, get a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich. OK. We Jews can accept the idea that a ham sandwich might not be altogether an innocent thing. Nevertheless, the killer of an unarmed boy they don’t indict, if that killer carries a badge. Here’s The Nation on the subject.
In a different one of my grandfather’s books, Robert’s Adventures, near the end of the book, there is a strike at a textile factory in Ashashok, Pennsylvania. To cope with the strike, the sheriff has deputized a group of street thugs. Their young lackeys are planted in a crowd and throw rocks during a demonstration, to give the hastily uniformed ‘deputies’ a pretext to fire on the crowd. The strikers set up aid stations. These are tents with heat, food and medics for the workers who have been evicted from factory housing. The ‘deputies’ shut them down, by court order. Later, they threaten Robert, because his uncle has been taking scrip (union-issued tickets) and letting people use it to buy food in his shop.
In short, the law is whatever the law wants, guided by what secures or threatens the powers that be. Impunity and intimidation are built into the model. Violent riots play into the hands of those who favor such impunity. So much so that, when it serves their ends, the law eggs the angry mob on. This gives them the pretext to further militarize the police.
Apparently, in 1938 my Zeidy thought that this basic information should be part of a young person’s world view. The law is not the same thing as justice. We have nowhere else to go to look for it. We have to make it where we are.