My friend Ellen Rosenblum, Attorney General of Oregon, had to confront an invasion of anonymous federal agents who came into Portland last July. They kicked and hit people; dragged them off the street; and put some of them in unmarked cars, taking them to undisclosed destinations. True, some of the demonstrators were far from angels, but AG Rosenblum brought suit to prevent the feds from escalating the violence though their tactics.
Also frightening was the anonymity of the federal forces– who were they and who was supervising them. The suit did not succeed. The federal court held that the Oregon AG did not have the legal standing to assert the rights of citizens to protest without federal interference. The suit subsequently became moot when the feds decided to leave town.
She was interviewed at the end of July by the Times of Israel. It is unusual to say the least to have a state attorney general challenge a federal law enforcement action. Ms. Rosenblum is an elected officer, so it took some political chutzpah for her to take on the feds whose conduct was being vociferously supported by the President and others. Especially, since some of the protesters were themselves acting with an excess of zeal and attempting to damage property. But her point made sense, the feds escalated the situation, rather than calm it; they assaulted bystanders. They were raising the tension and violence level through their tactics, not reducing the conflict. And there is the aura of overreach, using the protection of federal property to rationalize the hitherto unprecedented spectacle of anonymous feds becoming street cops and displacing locally accountable police departments.
Interesting, but where does Judaism come into this? Rosenblum is the product of a Reform Jewish background. As she said during her interview by the Times of Israel:
“I grew up in Reform Judaism. It was not so much religious-based in the sense of really studying the Old Testament or the Talmud, but here’s something I have in my kitchen: this is a quote that I wrote on a little whiteboard, and it’s from the Talmud. It says, “The day is short, the task is difficult, it is not our duty to finish it, but we are forbidden not to try.”
Rosenblum, added, during the TOI interview,
“I went to the social action committee with my dad monthly at the synagogue, and I just understood that that was what being Jewish was about, making sure that we were protecting people’s rights.”
These are remarkable statements, from a number of standpoints. First, how remarkable is it that an elected official in a state with a relatively small Jewish population would go on record so clearly with respect to her Judaism. While we have never hidden our religious identities, most likely in past years, a Jewish elected official in a northwestern state probably would have downplayed it, in almost any context.
Second, Ms. Rosenblum discussed her Jewish faith in the context of a highly charged debate over the tactics used in Portland to address the unrest there. She was exposed to charges of being a soft kneed liberal, rather than a true tough American… with all the connotations that could imply. Yet Ellen Rosenblum made clear who she was.
Finally, beyond identity, she drew a connection between her response to the federal tactics and her specific view of what her Judaism entails: namely, a concern for fairness and social justice in our society. Her response to the infringement on civil liberties may not have been faith-based, in the sense of being dictated by a religious dogma. Nonetheless, according to what she told the interviewer, her faith gave her a worldview in which caring for others, that is, social justice, had paramount importance. She had an obligation to carry on that work, even if the federal court did not allow her to finish it.
Just think about it in terms of Jewish history in countries where we are a small minority. A Jewish official takes action on behalf of an unpopular group as against law enforcement. In discussing her action, she stands by her Jewish identity and even ties it into the course she felt compelled to undertake. Pretty comforting. Three cheers for American Jewry. We have had a remarkable experience in America. We can be grateful for it.