Friday, November 8, 2013

The Humanity of Perpetrators

I have been thinking about three people who can be described as perpetrators of crimes: one, who inspired me in Bondi last week; another is a member of the group of men and boys who attacked several Jewish people on a Friday night in Bondi. The third case involves a man we will call H who was arrested this week and charged with sexual abuse. I also seek some insights about these events from the Torah reading that tells of a villain named Esau and the context of his upbringing.

Last week, I encountered a young man named Jimmy, with an inspirational story: Jimmy has a history of crime, stealing his first car when he was 12 years old. Jimmy is of Aboriginal heritage but knew nothing about his heritage growing up. Later, he was reticent about telling anyone about his heritage because he thought they would think he was looking for a handout. He was ashamed of being Aboriginal. He told his mother he was disappointed with his first 8-month jail sentence. He considered it too short for him - he actually preferred a longer sentence which would have given him some status. Some years later, now the father of a young girl, he received an 8-year sentence. During this period, he made a choice to go straight because “I didn’t want to not be there for my daughter - to be the kind of dad that my dad was, never being there for me”.

Jimmy got permission for day release from prison to work in the community- based “Our Big Kitchen” in Bondi, where he was welcomed. He developed a talent for baking Challah (the Jewish Sabbath bread).  He was very shy at first, even running away when asked to talk to a group of pre-school children, but eventually his confidence grew. Last week he addressed a group of Muslim, Jewish and other students at an interschool program I led under the banner of Together For Humanity. He powerfully illustrated the idea that every human being should be thought of as a human being; the crimes or lesser sins committed by people are one important element of who they are, but not their essence. Jimmy is rising above his crimes by his choices.

The second case is far from inspiring. I have known the Jewish family who were attacked on a Bondi street since the 1990’s; one teaches at a school my children attend. She is a warm, kind and personable woman.  I am disgusted by the attack on them and especially about the significant anti-Semitic nature of the attack.

I was saddened to learn that some of the perpetrators of the attack on this lovely family were apparently Pacific Islanders , although somewhat relieved that the attackers were not Muslims. The organisation I lead, Together For Humanity, works intensively with Arabic Muslim and Pacific Islander teenagers not much older than this alleged perpetrator. There are significant challenges for these boys who are coming from a different world, where there is a great emphasis on family and different ways of showing respect. Pacific Islander students show respect by looking down and “not answering back” in a culture (ours) that values eye contact and verbal communication when dealing with a problem (see embedded video that features Pacific Islander Academic Dr Jioji Ravulo taken from . Newspapers quoted the boy’s mother talking about his problems with alcohol. Like Jimmy, he has spent time in Juvenile Detention, and - I suspect - sought glory or pleasure in “badness”. Unlike Jimmy, he has not yet made a choice to turn his life around.

Very disturbing in a different way is the recent arrest for sex offences of a man I knew in the 1990’s as a fun, dedicated, altruistic, somewhat wild, community volunteer, always smiling, often busy helping people with Mezuza scrolls and making their homes Kosher. Normally, when I hear about sexual abuse, I think about the terrible ordeal of the victims, the perpetrators being viewed as one- dimensional, evil monsters. Yet, this man H, whatever terrible harm he has inflicted on his young victims and the absolute primacy of justice for the current and potential victims, is a multi-dimensional human being. In addition to the tragedy and the terrible costs borne by his victims, it is very sad for him and his family. I shudder to think about what darkness in his soul drove him to commit the acts he allegedly committed. 

Esau, the son of Isaac and Rebecca, is generally thought of as a villain in Judaism. Unlike Jimmy, Esau’s father is not absent. In fact, we are told that he loved Esau although the love is conditional upon the meat he is able to hunt and bring to his dad . Still, it is not smooth sailing. We are told that his mother Rebecca loved Jacob. This is understood to mean that she did not love Esau because she recognised his wickedness . It is further suggested that it is, only when the “the lads grow up ”, that anyone pays attention to their unique natures: Esau was a man of the field while Jacob sat and studied in tents. The parents fail to recognize or notice Esau’s character, with all the “strength, energy, agility, and courage that lie slumbering in this child ”. Esau was the first born son in a culture in which the first born was to be treated with a measure of deference. Esau is further alienated when Jacob figures out a way to free himself from these customs  by purchasing the Birth-Right for a pot of lentils , legally displacing Esau from his elevated position.

In many conversations about offences, there is an either/or approach to the issues. One is either tough on crime with mandatory sentences, pink prison clothes and throwing away the key, or one is a bleeding heart, soft on crime, caring only about the perpetrators and not the victims. This is a false choice. We can forcefully condemn crimes against people because of their race and the exploitation of children, and insist that, no matter what their circumstances, people are responsible for their choices. At the same time, we can also recognise the humanity, the struggles and social context of those human beings who have chosen at certain moments of their life to be perpetrators . May we succeed as a community to maintain justice and order while also improving the conditions in which young people and older people find themselves, so that they are less likely to be drawn towards choosing to do evil.

  video by Dr Jioji Ravulo at
  Genesis 25:28
  Genesis 25:27
  Samson Raphael Hirsch
  Genesis 25:30-33
  Do  not judge your fellow until you have been in their place, Pirkey Avod 2:4 as discussed in Tanya 30

1 comment:

  1. Interesting. I too was relieved to find that it was not Muslims involved in the assault. I guess that is a product of media conditioning as was my second, more correct guess that it was Pacific Islanders. The issue of the child sex offender in your community is not a surprise. It is a common risk in all institutions where their is an unequal power relationship. I can remember my utter surprise when 30 years after I had last met him I discovered the scoutmaster that inspired and encouraged me was gay. That said to my knowledge he never acted in any improper towards those under his care. I think more harm was done by a fundamentalist Christian schoolteacher who took great pleasure in enforcing petty and often corporal punishments for minor breaches of uniform rules. He went too far one day and assaulted a student who fought back. It was a delight to see him finally suffer the pain he had inflicted on others for so long. As for the story of Esau and Jacob, its seems to me to be more one of sibling rivalry than inherent evil. If you will excuse a wry stereotypical joke it reads more like the first example of that old trope the "Jewish conspiracy," Although it is nice that the Nerd who "studied in tents" won that round.