Friday, September 17, 2010

Yes, I Did Kaporos This Year

Over the last 30 years, I have almost always done kaporos on live chickens, for myself and for my family the night before Yom Kippur. The central part of the kaporos prayer, which is often done with money is a prayer that reads as follows. (In English translation)

"This is my exchange, this is my substitute, this is my atonement. (This rooster (hen) will go to its death / This money will go to charity), while I will enter and proceed to a good long life and to peace"

The prayer is said while moving the chicken around one's head, and is repeated 3 times. Some people use money instead of a chicken. Even those who use a chicken donate the meat to charity as well as the profits from the sale of the chickens. Additionally, a lot of charity is given at the time of kaporos that is done with chickens.

Because of PETA's objections to the ritual, I thought a lot more about doing kaporos than usual. The appeals to my empathy with fellow living creatures as well as the humaneness of kaporos are something I decided to face head on.

The entire kaporos ritual, including purchasing the live chickens, bringing them to my home, assisting younger family members in holding the chickens and bringing them back to the shochet to be slaughtered usually takes me a good 2 1/2 hours. During this time, I feel the warmth of the chickens, their heartbeat and their emotions. Years ago, when I was nervous about holding a live animal, they sensed my nervousness and responded in kind. Today, as in past years, they almost seemed to fall asleep as I held them. In a sense, I bonded with the chickens, facing the fact that they were living creatures with sparks of life akin to my own.

The idea behind kaporos is that the world is affected by the choices that people make, from the use we make of the environment to what we eat, to how we treat each other. The animals we consume do not mysteriously materialise like morning dew on the shelves of our supermarkets. They are living creatures that forfeit their lives in order to prolong ours. We should reflect on whether our goals and achievements and the way we treat each other is any improvement over the animal kingdom that we press into our service.

The time of kaporos is a time that I face these questions head on. It is a time to ask whether the lives we lead justify our position at the top of the food chain or whether they make a mockery of it.

There is a flip side to the concern we should feel for the animal kingdom. There are people who love their pets and show cruelty to people. The Nazis passed animal cruelty laws that they enforced at the same time that they enforced laws stripping "inferior races" such as Jews, Africans and gypsies of their statutory humanity. There are wealthy Haitians who treat their "restavek" slaves worse than animals even as they pamper their pets. And there were Hindus and Muslims who slaughtered each other during the time of Partition in India in 1947 with less thought than would go into slaughtering a chicken. And the deaths of over 7 million congolese in its wars since it became independent are ignored by the world.

How do we maintain a sense of proportion, of caring properly about the humans in the world as well as the creatures who share the planet with us? PETA has raised legitimate questions, questions that I asked myself as I held the chickens that I later handed over to be slaughtered. But there are questions that PETA does not ask about the welfare of humans, and how one places the rights and needs of all who inhabit planet earth.

If there is one theme that kaporos has underscored for me, it is the increased responsibility that goes with being human. Less sentient creatures, those less able to tame and manipulate the environment are profoundly affected by our choices. We can tower above less intelligent creatures or sink far beneath them. The choice is ours.

I doubt that PETA will be very happy with the choices I have made. But because of the questions they asked, I thought a lot more about kaporos this year. And for that I thank them

Monday, September 13, 2010

Dinkins Reminds Us Why He Only Served One Term

David Dinkins was a one term, third rate mayor of New York City. He had a speaking style that could put your foot to sleep. During the Crown Heights riots, he did nothing for 3 days, until someone almost hit him with a brick. Then he realised that it was serious and let the cops make arrests.

On the first day of Rosh Hashanah, Dinkins made up for the mind numbing boredom of his speaking style by saying something so stupid, it made people sit up and take notice. While endorsing State Senate candidate Adriano Espaillat, Dinkins noted as follows.

"But it is important, it is so very important, particularly for the people of this district who vote on Tuesday to recognize how important it is to understand that the city is changing. Most people in the city are going to look more like us than others and that's just a fact. It is not a bad thing. It is frankly a good thing."
Since when is "looking like us" a qualification for office? Was it a qualification in the segregated south, or in apartheid South Africa? If a neighborhood is turning white, am I allowed to say that "It is frankly a good thing."?

Espaillat, has not repudiated Dinkins' racially divisive remarks. His opponent, Mark Levine is a white Jewish man who is married to a Hispanic woman On the campaign trail, he doesn't look quite right to Dinkins. Did David Dinkins tell us anything at all about how Espaillat differs on the issues from Levine? Do we know anything at all about how the two candidates differ in ideology? The answer is clear. Dinkins is invoking racial solidarity to create a winning bloc of votes.

Dinkins has not changed a bit since he was mayor. Once, when he was asked if he was going to visit Ellis Island, he replied as follows.

“Ellis Island is for the people who came over on ships. My people came in chains.”

The fact is that many Caribbean, African and South American immigrants of African ancestry came to the US not as slaves but as free immigrants. One could argue that they faced racism, but they did not "come in chains".

Dinkins trades in racial resentment painted over with a thin veneer of gentility that all too often during his career flaked off and showed the ugliness beneath.By law, he served as the mayor of all New Yorkers, but as shown by his Ellis Island statement and his Espaillat endorsement, his heart was not in the job.

New Yorkers were fortunate to survive the David Dinkins mayoralty. We were not fortunate to have Dinkins as mayor. His racist endorsement of Espaillat, so devoid as it was of any discussion of issues faced by all New Yorkers is a vivid reminder of why New Yorkers voted that petty and prejudiced man out of office.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

French Teacher, Catherine Pederzoli Suspended For Teaching About Holocaust

France is a nation with a troubled past. When France was occupied by the Germans in 1940, some Frenchmen resisted gallantly. Most people did what they had to to get along, and others collaborated actively with the Germans. Even Francois Mitterand, a renowned French Socialist had a shadowy past as a German collaborator that he excused as a "youthful indiscretion".

Catherine Pederzoli, a French Jewish woman led class trips to death camps and taught about the Holocaust for 15 years, until a new administration in her school subjected her to scrutiny. They accused her of being too emotionally involved, biased and lacking in "secularism". They even criticised her for using the Hebrew term "Shoah" far more frequently than the clinically dispassionate term "genocide".

There is a reasonable explanation for the use of a Hebrew term for the Holocaust. Indyposted notes as follows.

"Investigators cited her use of the term “Shoah”, a Hebrew term used for the Holocaust rather than the more clinical term “genocide”. It should be noted that having a word that is specific to a particular genocide is not unheard of. The Ukrainian forced famine genocide of 1932-1933 is referred to by the term “Holodomar“. The Assyrians refer to the genocide against them by the Turks as the “Sayfo”. Each genocide has its unique aspects, and it is to be expected that the targeted nationality will have a unique and impassioned perspective."

In addition to awakening memories of a troubled past, there is the issue of the 12% of the French population that is Arab. Many French Arabs consider any mention of the Holocaust to be a part of the historical narrative that competes with that of Palestinian suffering that is presented in the Arab world.

The events of World War II divide French society at least as much as the American Civil War, which even today reverberates in America's national outlook and self image. How does one "correctly" teach about the Holocaust and place it in the context of European history? Even 65 years after the end of World War II, this remains a very touchy issue in France.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Eric Holder: Stopping Prison Rape Is Too Expensive

Back in 2003, the Prison Rape Elimination Act was signed into law by President George W. Bush. In 2010, the law remains largely unenforced. According to Eric Holder, Attorney General of the United States the law must not "impose substantial additional costs compared to the costs presently expended by federal, state and local prison authorities." In simple language, preventing prisoners from being raped in prison is just too expensive.

As underreported a crime as prison rape is, it is still a serious problem. The Associated Press reports as follows. "The government reported Thursday that 4.4 percent of inmates in prison and 3.1 percent of inmates in jail report being victimized sexually by another inmate or staff member.Those percentages translate to the sexual victimization of 88,500 inmates behind bars nationwide in the previous 12 months, according to a study by the Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics in 2008–2009."

It is hard to fathom the dismissive calculations of Eric Holder and many who silently agree with him that keeping prisoners safe from rape is "too expensive", that simple measures such as separating violent and predatory inmates from vulnerable individuals is not feasible.There are undoubtedly hidden costs to turning a blind eye to sexual assaults in prison. Most victims of sexual assault in prison will return to society. What will the costs be in mental and physical health? How many will return to prison because of psychological problems that stem from having been brutalised in prison?

The blame for the neglect of our nation's prisoners goes across the political spectrum. From liberals who can not see prisoners as being capable of oppressing others to conservatives who cavalierly dismiss the abuse meted out to prisoners, It is important to bear in mind that people are sent to prison as punishment rather than for punishment. The dull austerity, the curtailment of personal freedom and the separation from loved ones are all aspects of the prison experience that are meant to be a deterrent. Rape is not part of the sentence.For Eric Holder to publicly declare that preventing rape in prison is "too expensive" is disgraceful and unacceptable. It is a human rights violation that should be condemned by international human rights groups. There is a price for rape prevention, and an even greater price for ignoring it. Which bill will America pay?

*************************************************************One of the videos tells the story about a 17 year old boy who ended up in prison for misdemenor arson. After repeated rapes and repeated denials of protective custody, he committed suicide. His is one of many faces on this terrible problem.