Following the tragic death of a young member of the Melbourne Jewish community, there has been an outpouring of emotion, and plenty of brow-beating and debate from various parts of the community. It is certainly a time for self-reflection, when we must ask ourselves if by our actions or inaction, we contributed in some way to this terrible outcome.
His death is best described as ‘unjust’. Accusations were made, and with the premature death of the accused, stakeholders have been denied the outcome of the judicial process. Neither the accusers nor the accused will have their day in court and the opportunity to confront each other, and the closure that comes from a judicial determination. A close-knit community will continue to speculate as to what did or did not happen and why. That is unjust.
On further reflection, there is no surprise at the challenges for justice to be served in a community context.
The Justice system says that someone is innocent until proven guilty. In a community, someone accused is usually presumed guilty until proven innocent, and it’s impossible to ever be “proven” innocent, as the stain of accusation remains forever.
Justice says that “it is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer“. In a community, we would banish forever one hundred suspected child abusers and shun all members of their family rather than have a single person putting our children at risk.
The justice system moves at a snail’s pace, with investigations and the courts taking months and even years to reach a conclusion. It has no chance of keeping up with community, where with the help of social media and the 24/7 news cycle, rumours and innuendo spread as fast as the speed of light.
Justice describes itself as blind and objective, and works well in a vacuum. But as we know, in a vacuum, as in space, no one can hear you scream. Communities have ever-prying eyes on itself, and the complex inter-relationships make subjectivity and conflict-of-interest inescapable. The communal screams resonate within and spread outwards.
Indeed, the Victorian Government report for the Inquiry into the Handling of Child Abuse by Religious and other Non-Government Organisations recognized the challenges and limitations of the existing judicial processes in dealing with the crime of child abuse, as well as the need for better skills and knowledge within organisations to respond to allegations of criminal abuse and to report these to the police. Much is invested in helping communities and the police work more effectively together.
Don’t hold your breath for a community-wide inquiry into how we approach abuse crimes, and how close-knit communities can avoid the self-destructive behaviour that happens in the face of the internal and external scrutiny associated with the most terrible of crimes. That’s exactly the sort of self-reflection we need, and yet the sort that is so elusive.
What makes communities so strong – our deep and intricate connectedness – turns into a weakness when dealing with crimes (allegedly) committed by our own against our own. Because my child’s school friend’s uncle* drove my neighbour’s son-in-law into bankruptcy, and my cousin’s close friend is accused of unspeakable crimes against the person who has sat next to me in the synagogue for the last twenty years. If I had a problem, they would help me out, and vice versa. But does that mean I must “take their side” in a intra-community conflict? And what if, as is often the case, I’m connected to both sides of the conflict?
The proverb “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” may result in strange bedfellows, but one thing it does is lead to a net increase in the number of my friends. On the other hand, its corollary “the friend of my enemy is also my enemy” (not unlike “you’re either with us or against us“) only results in a net increase in the number enemies and causes a small dispute to expand, polarise and divide entire communities.
This challenge has plagued us throughout history: the great Mishnaic contemporary scholars Hillel and Shammai only differed on five issues, but the academies that survived them and bore their names are like the Montagues and Capulets of the Talmud.
This is the challenge of community: to retain the benefits of our connectedness and avoid the injustices that often come with the territory. It’s a challenge we are yet to overcome.
* The cases are completely fabricated, yet probably bear a striking resemblance to many actual cases.