Tag Archives: justice

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur: a Call to End Charity?

This article was first published in the Canadian Jewish News on August 18, 2018

Are Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur a call to end charity? To most Jews around the world, that message sounds contrary to our experience of the Jewish New Year. That is because, traditionally, the High Holidays are not only a time of celebration, renewal, and atonement — they are also a time of giving. Be it through the tradition of bidding for aliyot, or making Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur pledges, Jewish congregants spend this time of year giving tzedakkah to their synagogues and to Jewish and secular charities that serve the larger Canadian or international community.

But what if the Torah and our prophets’ words enjoin us to aspire to a world with no charity? In fact, Jewish teachings do just that — directing us to build a world where there is no need for charity. No need for charity because we have implemented socio-economic and political structures where people, be they seasonal workers, minimum wage earners, or seniors, live with dignity and financial security.

The Torah says: “There shall be no needy among you.” This statement commands us to build a world where there is no tzedakkah, as we use the word today (i.e., charity only). There is to be no needy among us because we have true tzedek, meaning righteousness, graciousness, justice. An important example of this ideal is reiterated in the Bible verse, “The wages of a labourer shall not remain with you until morning,” which immediately follows the injunction against defrauding or robbing our fellow. And so, one could argue that not only is it clearly wrong to withhold wages, but that withholding fair wages is a breach of this commandment, too.

This commandment is particularly relevant in the 21st century. Even in our relatively progressive society, workers are often not paid for their work or are so underpaid that it’s akin to their wages being withheld every morning. People work at low wages that prevent them from being able to afford rent, food, and the basic necessities of a dignified life. Precarious and seasonal jobs aggravate instability, inequality, as well as the mental and physical health of workers and their families. And we regularly purchase products that are made by overseas workers who are horribly underpaid and work in inhumane conditions — conditions which create the needy among us.

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The Shelter Crisis Forces Us to Ask Hard Questions About Society

This article was first published in the Huffington Post on January 8, 2018

In what kind of society do we want to live?

This is the question many Canadians, and especially Torontonians, may be asking themselves, as we have struggled with a shelter and housing crisis that has left our fellow residents out in unbearably cold weather for the past couple of weeks.

Do we want to live in a society driven by frugal Scrooge-like governance, which leaves many of our neighbours behind? One driven by a singular focus on (imaginary) savings, leaving gaps in essential human needs, such as food, shelter and basic health; gaps which are then partially made up by charitable individuals and groups? Or one where we, and our government, build a society in which everyone’s well-being is respected, their needs are accounted for and where no one is left behind?

Do we want a society where we rely on charity, or one where there is no need for charity?

I opt for the latter.

I am not chiding charity. I believe in it. I have spent thousands of hours, since my early teens, volunteering at charitable organizations. Charity has been at the foundation of our civilizations. Rooted in religious conviction, charity is the most humane and compassionate aspect of all religions. And while our society is no longer as religious as it once was, religious organizations, as well as individuals and non-profit groups, continue to embrace and advocate for charity year-round.

From Out of the Cold programs run by religious coalitions to food banks to “mobile” (read van) services for the homeless to individuals handing out sleeping bags or chipping in to pay for hotels for homeless people during a frightfully frigid winter, charity is weaved into the fabric of our social democratic society. Without charity, we would more starkly resemble the desperate Dickensian poverty from which we think we have distanced ourselves.

But what’s more, our governments rely on charity to do the work that they are unwilling to do.

Our governments don’t put enough money into building assisted housing for people with disabilities, so families turn to charities for help. We don’t put enough funding into repairing or building new affordable housing, so families crowd themselves into small apartments ripe with problems that are harmful to children or the elderly.

When our governments act, they do so in tepid, small measures, putting off what is essential now for the next election cycle. Our governments are afraid of articulating, or making, the connection between the ballooning wealth of the few and the endless struggle of the many to make it into the middle class, so people in precarious or minimum wage jobs are forced to turn to charity to stay afloat.

But this reliance on charity is neither the most just, nor logical, way of governing a social democratic society.

If we build the systems and structures we need to take care of all of our residents as if they were a beloved member of our family, then we would need less charity. A society that builds inclusive neighbourhoods that truly and meaningfully provide for members would include: mental health support at the early stages when the needs arise; schools that provide kids with the skills and education they need, so that their family’s inability to afford a tutor or extra-curricular activities does not put them at a disadvantage; housing that is available and affordable to people of all income levels in all parts of the city so that homelessness is history.

That society will not need charity.

What’s more: for those who want to keep government expenses low, the evidence shows that it costs us less to prevent problems and be proactive than to respond retroactively or to emergencies. And, as the recent efforts of those kind-hearted Torontonians who used their own money to put up homeless people in hotels overnight confirms, taxation and proper governance will generally cost less than charity.

Charity has its foundation in established religion. But so does the concept of notneeding charity. “There shall be no needy among you,” is but one exhortation from the Bible that commands us to build a world where, in effect, there is no charity because there is no need for charity.

The notion of a “just society” should presume the equity and compassion needed to build inclusive communities. Fairness and empathy must be weaved into the very fabric of a just society, including its governance, so no one is left out at night, ever. Our elected representatives must have the courage to be just, so we can live in a world with no charity.

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Justice for Victims: Less Jail Time, More Face Time

While the Federal Conservative government is spending billions of dollars to build more prisons, to jail more people, and to punish with greater vengeance, all in the name of tackling crime and of justice for victims, the province of Alberta apparently cannot come up with a measly $351,000 for the one measure that is proven to actually help victims and possibly to reduce crime: victim-offender reconciliation.

Alberta’s Public Security Department announced on Monday that it is ending the annual $351,000 grant for restorative justice programs, allegedly because economic times are tough.

Victim-offender reconciliation (V.O.R.), a form of restorative justice, is one of the most effective and humane means of dealing with crime. It involves mediated or facilitated meetings between offenders and victims. The aim of V.O.R. is, on the one hand, to ensure that offenders comprehend the full human impact of their actions, and that they voluntarily –and genuinely–take some responsibility for those actions. Equally significant, reconciliations help victims cope with their trauma and reduce their fears by humanizing the offender. They help victims move on with their lives. When done right, victim-offender reconciliations may even lead to the wondrous result of the victims helping the offenders overcome those life obstacles that lead them to commit the crimes.

If politicians truly care about victims and want justice for victims, they must look beyond the impulsive urge for punishment for the sake of punishment. They must look at processes that in fact make victims feel whole and restored. Harsh imprisonment may satisfy a desire for “justice” as revenge, but it does not bring about true justice. It never helps victims actually cope with their trauma. Yet incarceration and punishment continue to be the reckless and irrational mission of law-and-order governments.

Furthermore, as a society, we continue to use avoidance and punishment to deal with problems and conflicts that, in fact, require conversation, reflection, commitment, responsibility and empathy.

In its essence, crime is the infliction of pain (sometimes horrible and tragic) by one person on another. Friends sometimes do this to each other, though on a different scale. It is true that when wronged by a friend, some people choose avoidance and simply cut off a relationship. But we know that the better and more effective way of dealing with that pain is to confront the friend and to communicate with them. Why would it be any different if some other human being causes us pain? Why would we choose avoidance and punishment, rather than communication and resolution? Why would we not seek to open the doors to victim-offender reconciliation?

The path of victim-offender reconciliation is not easy- least of all for the offender. It is demanding. It can be emotionally draining and gruelling. It compels the offender to deal with his actions and their consequences, rather than bury the memories, ignore responsibility, or rationalize his behaviour. It impels the offender to make amends, thereby helping the victim and improving his own life. And because V.O.R. forces the offender to confront the victim, and mobilizes everyone to deal with the underlying issues that lead to the criminal behaviour, it is effective.

After all, what is more likely to reduce recidivism: an authentic, deep and personal examination of one’s actions, their consequences, and the acceptance of responsibility, or a jail cell where an offender is taught little conflict management or other skills? What is more likely to empower victims and to help offenders change direction: a process that encourages everyone to tackle the underlying factors that lead to the crime, or a prison sentence where the offender develops bonds with others who are also leading a life of crime? The benefits of restorative justice to the victim who heals emotionally and to the offender who humanizes his victim are simply greater than any money-saving measure.

And while it is difficult to measure what the cost savings are, surely reconciliation is more cost-effective than imprisonment. The cost of incarceration is extremely high, ranging from $89,000 to $250,000 per year. This cost does not include the eventual costs to society of unemployable, beaten or unstable individuals, once they are released from jail.

But “law-and-order” politicians and our current Conservative government continue to charge anyone who opposes the backward and Draconian push for more jails and longer sentences as being “soft on crime.” They regularly accuse detractors of not caring about victims.

If we truly care about victims, however, we must help them cope and heal. Victim-offender reconciliation programs across North America have proven that the process of restorative justice can do just that, in a way that no tough sentence alone can ever do.

According to the CBC and the Edmonton Journal, the $351,000 per year grant (the equivalent of incarcerating two inmates for one year) helped victims and offenders in 218 criminal cases in one single year (2009). With each case bringing together at least one offender and often more than one victim as well as mediators, the $351,000 helped over 436 victims and offenders, and brought together 1000 or more people. Try stuffing that in a jail cell.

(To read the reflections of an ex-offender on restorative justice and the London riots, see this article: Restorative Justice After the Riots?)

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