What Ta-Nehisi Coates Can Learn From the Jewish Experience

I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ bombshell new book, Between the World and Me, with fascination. As a privileged white male, I wanted to better understand the experience of being a black man in American society. I stayed up until three in the morning reading every word. But I was left feeling unsettled about the messages Mr. Coates was conveying to his 15-year-old son.

As a Jew, I have been the recipient of a steady stream of persecution narratives. At Hebrew school as a child in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, I had Holocaust education drilled into me, and read tales of the destruction of the ancient Temples in Jerusalem. In my late teens, by which time educational decisions were my own, I visited Nazi concentration camps and read Isaak Babel stories of pogroms. I sought out these narratives to better understand my heritage, but also grew wary of being overburdened by a bombardment of such dismal messages, including from within my own family. My Great-Aunt Jay would speak of Jewish persecution all the time. She experienced it growing up in rural New Jersey in the 1920s, where Jews were taunted and bullied. She narrowly avoided the snare of quotas: due to her extraordinary academic talents, she was accepted to Barnard College in 1925, where the university dean was an open anti-Semite and unofficially limited the number of Jews at the school. And Aunt Jay’s political views reflected this past: rabidly pro-Zionist until her death in 2013 at age 104, she frequently brushed aside claims of Palestinian persecution, pointing to greater injustices she believed Jews had faced. This kind of narrow focus on one’s own past grievances infects Jewish political discourse deeply today, from the West Bank and Gaza to the Iranian nuclear deal. No matter how far into the past the Holocaust or the Yom Kippur War recede, for many the threats to Jews are ever-present and unremitting, viewpoints that don’t always serve us as Jews.

It is hard to know when it is fitting to harken back to historical analogues when evaluating threats of persecution in the present. For me, having lived in Russia and France, where acute anti-Semitism still thrives and where I have, at times, concealed my Judaism and Jewish roots in public, this issue is not an abstraction. I have tried to settle upon the following delicate and unstable balance: to accept one’s ethnocultural heritage but not be crippled by it; to remember and forget at the same time. What does this mean? We all know that we must remember because those who forget history are doomed to repeat it. We also must be wise to the present, and not be blasé toward perhaps diminished but nevertheless virulent threats. Nor should we give oppressive individuals, institutions, and societies a free pass.

Ta-Nehisi Coates remembers history and knows threats better than most. Having grown up in the ghetto of Baltimore, his personal memories and experiences have seared an indelible impression on him of our national race relations, and informed his trenchant exploration of past and present injustice. And yet in Between the World and Me, Mr. Coates remembers and perceives a very one-sided view of black history in America: the negatives without the positives. How could he see only the suffering of the civil rights marchers, and not their redemption in victories securing rights and privileges previous generations of African-Americans could only dream of?

Comparing blacks to Jews is far from an apples-to-apples comparison. Blacks faced, and continue to face, obstacles in the U.S. that Jews do not and never did. On the streets of Harlem, my neighbors are profiled by law enforcement daily in a way I am not. But Jews and blacks have been united since the civil rights movement, seeing themselves in each other’s struggles for equality and against second-class treatment. That’s, in part, what drew me to the book: this braided history. Not so long ago, Jews faced their own exclusion from social institutions, quotas in colleges and universities, lived in their own ghettoes, and came to this country with nothing but the shirts on their backs, chased out of Europe by murderous pogroms and Nazis.

For a generation —whether black, Jewish, or both—to forge its future, it needs to look ahead, and not just behind. So how do we transmit a difficult history without burdening future generations with the past, and allow them to capture and live a new reality? I don’t have the answer, but I think it’s a worthy question for all persecuted minority groups.

Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (far right) Photo: Getty Images
Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (far right) Photo: Getty Images
Like Mr. Coates, I live in Harlem. What I see when I go outside here is that our majority-minority and multi-ethnic neighborhood defies easy stereotypes. On a typical walk to the supermarket I pass women in chadors, Chinese immigrants, wealthy and working-class blacks, hipsters, the homeless, Puerto Ricans, and community gardeners. In other words, I live, as Mr. Coates does, in a 21st century American melting pot where many different ethnic, cultural and socioeconomic groups live side by side, by and large harmoniously. Why didn’t Mr. Coates impart any of this narrative or reality to his son, one that he no doubt sees on a daily basis? Perhaps it’s because, like my Aunt Jay did, he clings to the past, where our heritage can haunt us rather than leaving room for the new reality.

After finishing the book, I felt for Mr. Coates’ son, Samori, on account of the cultural baggage that his father foisted on him. I was left suspecting that Mr. Coates’ negative torrent, with scant mitigating messages of nuance and hope, has done Samori a disservice. I wondered, as I did growing up hearing so much about the persecution of the Jews, how can we acknowledge but not be overcome by this baggage?

Mr. Coates is not blind to the promise of the next generation to transcend some of what ailed his. In fact, in the book, he marvels at his son’s lack of self-conscious fear and restraint in the company of other races. His son’s childhood is marked by confidence and the presence of non-blacks so starkly absent from his own. Why would Mr. Coates want his son to acquire the paralyzing fear that he possesses himself? Is it helpful to stress to his son that the epidemic of police brutality is the sole defining reality of black male young adulthood in America, to the exclusion of the hope and possibility for black men that Mr. Coates himself embodies? Mr. Coates’ manifesto led me to think of the words of Samuel Pisar, the recently deceased Holocaust survivor, advisor to JFK, and recipient of the Legion d’honneur, who said of his childhood horrors, “I muted the past [and] turned to the future with a vengeance.” While we can debate how much, if any, to mute the past, we, like Mr. Pisar and Mr. Coates himself, owe ourselves and our children to seek the courage and hope to overcome—and expunge for good—the handicaps of our past and present life circumstances, in the pursuit of a better future.

COMMENT
FILED UNDER: AFRICAN AMERICANS, ANTI-SEMITISM, BLACK HISTORY, CIVIL RIGHTS, HARLEM, JUDIAISM, RACE RELATIONS, RACISM

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OPINION
Criminal Justice Reform Isn’t ‘Soft on Crime’
Biden, Trump and every American should agree: Good cops, taxpayers & prosecutors all benefit from needed reforms

By Sidney Powell and Bernard B. Kerik • 09/17/15 8:00am

(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
(Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Is criminal justice reform dead?

The media claims so. Pundits say that cops and prosecutors won’t support a Biden presidential candidacy because he’s for criminal justice reform and that Trump’s policies against illegal immigration and gangs and violent crime limit his support. The fear-mongering media’s efforts to derail criminal justice reform rest on the erroneous premise that this is a “soft on crime” position. That is flat wrong.

Every taxpayer should support criminal justice reform. Every member of Congress should support criminal justice reform. Here’s why.

The idea is to take more violent criminals off our streets while enabling those who are not violent to be punished in a way that allows them to continue to work, pay taxes, and support their families—instead of rendering them a drain on public resources. The states are doing this already—with great success.

Isn’t this smarter? Better? Of course it is. As a veteran cop and a veteran prosecutor who have worked in law enforcement their entire careers, we know that most cops and most prosecutors serve with honor, work long hours, risk their lives, and try to do everything right. But, as Ninth Circuit Judge Alex Kozinski has said, bad cops and bad prosecutors—those who don’t follow the rules and the law—make the job so much harder for the good ones. Their misconduct diminishes the credibility of all of the good ones.

Law enforcement officers, taxpayers, prosecutors—and anyone else—who oppose criminal justice or prison reform are either ill-informed on the issues or are looking at the situation through the wrong end of the telescope. As United States District Judge Jed S. Rakoff wrote: “The criminal justice system in the United States today bears little relationship to what the Founding Fathers contemplated, what the movies and television portray, or what the average American believes.”

Criminal justice reform is smart and right. It will make our streets safer, the jobs of law enforcement easier, and provide more money for additional officers, training and equipment and for other services in our communities. True reform focuses on every American’s Constitutional rights, making our justice system and prisons humane and safe, efficient and effective.

The realities of the system are far different from the public perceptions or beliefs of people who have not personally experienced it. Before making any judgments on these important issues, we encourage you to read two non-fiction books – our books: From Jailer to Jailed: My Journey from Police and Correction Commissioner to Inmate 84888-054, and Licensed to Lie: Exposing Corruption in the Department of Justice. We’re not saying this to increase book sales; get them at your library. These books reveal shocking realities that we would not have believed had we not seen them ourselves.

Mr. Trump’s positions on illegal immigration and his hard line on violent crime should be respected and considered, but those views should not prevent him or anyone from supporting criminal justice reform. It’s smart business.

No one is suggesting opening prison gates and flooding communities with violent convicts. We’re not talking about eliminating mandatory minimums for real drug kingpins and violent felons. We’re not talking about eliminating police funding for specialized units and protective equipment that will keep our officers and communities safe.

We are addressing over-criminalization—imprisoning nonviolent people for small amounts of drugs, catching too many fish, or technical violations of obscure laws or regulations that even lawyers don’t understand. We are talking about requiring proof beyond a reasonable doubt of a significant element of criminal intent for facially innocent conduct. We are talking about even-handedly applying the law to those who break it—not selective prosecutions of the unpopular or targeting people because of who they are or their political views. It is real crime we should be prosecuting.

We need to live within the boundaries of constitutional law. And every American should insist that those who are sworn to uphold the laws don’t break the laws as they enforce or prosecute them. Would any good police officer or prosecutor disagree with us? We would hope not.

Let’s not forget what local, state, and federal law-enforcement agencies’ mission statements, goals and objectives express. Prosecutors are to seek justice—not convictions. For police, it’s about protecting and serving—keeping our communities safe and enforcing the law according to the Constitution.

Today, the federal government is taking ethical, civil, business, and regulatory violations and transforming them into criminal conduct. Who have become the most “high value” targets for those prosecutors? Cops, politicians, CEOs, companies that the administration doesn’t like, and even fishermen and hunters.

Years ago, when we personally worked for and with the feds, we could not seize your personal property until you were convicted of a crime and it was determined that the property was either used in the commission of a crime or purchased as a result of the commission of a crime.

Today, our federal law enforcement seems little different from Russia or China. Once you become a target of the government—and sometimes even before—overzealous members of law enforcement seize your property and, whether you’re convicted or not, it is virtually impossible or too expensive to get your property back.

That is not justice, and that’s not how it is supposed to be.

For those law enforcement officers, executives, and organizations who think they are opposed to reforms, imagine yourself tomorrow as a target of the federal government. Suddenly, everything you’ve earned and your entire career is taken from you. If you think it cannot happen to you, think again. Look at the trends of prosecutorial overreach, over-criminalization, and the prosecutorial misconduct outlined in our books. If they can do it to Ted Stevens, a sitting United States Senator, and hundreds of others, they can do it to you.

Prosecutors who deliberately hide evidence of innocence, suborn perjury, extort testimony, bludgeon false pleas, or manufacture evidence are violating the law, yet they are rarely held accountable in any way. They have absolute immunity from suit even for their intentional wrongs. The absolute immunity of prosecutors should be abolished, and as the Ninth Circuit once suggested, perjury prosecutions should be brought against prosecutors who violate their oath and the law.

Donald Trump himself has been the target of an overzealous New York State Attorney General. AIG’s Hank Greenberg, Ken Langone, the founder and chairman of Home Depot, Dick Grasso, the former Chairman of the New York Stock Exchange, and so many others have been targets of relentless and wrongful prosecutions. Venerable accounting firm Arthur Andersen LLP and its 85,000 jobs were destroyed—the wrongful conviction reversed later by the Supreme Court nine to nothing.

No one can make up for the anxiety, stress, and expense that wrongful prosecutions create. Nor does anyone hold these prosecutors accountable. Imagine the toll it takes or Americans who don’t have the resources to fight such abuses. They are personally and professionally annihilated regardless of the validity of the prosecution.

The Innocence Project has, for decades, been fighting for and obtaining the release of innocent people from prison. Many of them spent decades behind bars for crimes they did not commit—usually while the real criminals were on the streets committing additional crimes.

In a free and democratic nation, there is no crime worse than a government’s tyranny. The abuse of the extraordinary power of federal prosecutors to wrongfully and intentionally deprive citizens of their liberty, freedom, and their very lives for political and personal gain is happening daily. It must stop.

To borrow a line from the old movie Billy Jack: “When policemen [and prosecutors] break the law, then there isn’t any law.”

Judge Kozinski, one of the most highly regarded, brilliant, and experienced judges in the country, has been sounding the alarm on these issues across the country. He penned the preface to the Georgetown Law Journal Annual Review of Criminal Procedure, in which he identified numerous myths in our criminal justice system and proposed a number of solutions. Judge Rakoff also has expressed grave concerns, recognizing that the force of the federal government brought to bear against the individual is so great that even the “innocent plead guilty.”

Undoubtedly we should lock up the bad guys and make sure the bad people who do bad things pay for their crimes. However, the punishment needs to fit the crime—and we need to be smarter in the way we deal with all of it.

Every taxpayer and public servant should support the economic benefits to law enforcement and citizens in general by fairer, smarter, more efficient and effective law enforcement.

Texas, Ohio, and many other states prove that criminal justice reform works. This is too important to our nation as a whole and our humanity in general to let media pundits, special interest lobbyists, the massive prison industry, and fear-mongering media to derail the significant bi-partisan progress that’s already been made for criminal justice reform.

Americans should demand that their lawmakers in Congress legislate criminal justice reform. The time to act is now. Enough with the talk.

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