The Danger of Invisibility (On Purim and Mass Incarceration)

March 21, 2016
Roni Ben-David

As the youngest child in my family, I felt like older people weren’t interested in listening to me. When I did speak up, I was often dismissed – what do you know? As a result, I stayed quiet at the dinner table and played games of make-believe by myself. In a way, I embraced my invisibility by seeking out hiding spots to read and play. Perhaps, that’s why I loved the holiday of Purim, which will be celebrated this week. Besides the fact that it involved carnivals and dressing in costume, it was based on a story about concealed identities revealed and people with little power, in particular our Jewish heroine, speaking up.

The story takes place in Persia, where King Ahasuerus is ruler and Haman is one of his important Ministers. Haman develops a personal vendetta against the Jews after one of them refuses to bow to him. So, Haman approaches the King and convinces him that they should annihilate all Jews in the kingdom. The thing is, Haman doesn’t have to do much convincing…the King acquiesces immediately. As far as we know, the King doesn’t have his own reasons to commit this genocide — so why would he do this? Perhaps it’s because he doesn’t have any personal contact with Jews. They are neither his friends nor his neighbors. Their kids don’t go to school with his kids. While he isn’t motivated by hate, he also doesn’t seem to care about the Jews. He’s not interested in using his power to stop the monstrous decree because he feels no connection to them or their fate as a people. Can this lack of personal connection be as dangerous as murderous hate?

One of the most disturbing aspects of our criminal justice system is that so much of it is hidden from people not directly affected. Many are shielded from knowledge of what life is like behind the gates. The US has over 1.57 million inmates in federal, state and county prisons and jails – with nearly 5 million adults on probation or parole, of which people of color are wildly over-represented. Yet in circles outside of communities of color, it’s one of our least visible institutions. Exposure to the penal system is a deep dividing line.

Those most targeted by the criminal justice system are people whose voices are rarely represented in mainstream media – people of color, low-income people, and youth – especially LGBT youth, foster care youth and those with learning differences.

What is the cost to people within a system that is hidden from public view?

According to a report by the Equal Justice Initiative, In the U.S., one out of every three black men born in 2001 will go to jail or prison if current trends continue. Black men are more than six times more likely to be incarcerated than white men. These stats correlate with a gulf in poverty rates between blacks and whites. And these trends have been intensified by the disproportionate impact of the “war on drugs,” in which two-thirds of all persons in prison for drug offenses are people of color. Laws that disenfranchise formerly incarcerated people and create permanent barriers to housing and employment just perpetuate the cycle.

Let’s return to the Purim story…When I said that King Ahasuerus didn’t personally know any Jews, that wasn’t entirely true. As many of you know, he didn’t THINK he knew any because his beloved new wife, Esther, concealed the fact that she was Jewish. She was able to pass in order to attain her status in the King’s court. Once she had won his favor, at the right strategic moment, she revealed this hidden part of her identity. She risked her life to speak up for her people, whose voices were not heard by the King and his Ministers, and as a result the King enacted a policy change that spared the Jews. As soon as she had the opportunity, Esther made the struggles of her people visible to him, amplifying the cries of those who were silenced.

Thankfully there are many people doing this in the sphere of criminal justice. Michelle Alexander and Ta-Nehisi Coates are bringing to light systemic injustices. Bryan Stevenson uses the law to enact policy change.

When I read Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow” a few years ago, I felt a sense of urgency to address the ways that the criminal justice system perpetuates a deeply damaging system of racism in this country. Much like my attachment to the Purim story, I felt it was a truth hidden to many that could save lives. I found Bend the Arc, where I joined the newly formed Criminal Justice Reform Team. We harness the power of the progressive Jewish community through a multitude of strategies including: political and community organizing, research, public education, and targeted lobbying efforts to politicians. In 2014, we worked hard to pass Proposition 47, changing sentencing for petty crimes from felonies to misdemeanors, and directing financial savings to schools and community services.

Last spring we chose to focus our efforts on SB 124, state-wide legislation to limit the harmful practice of solitary confinement against youth in our juvenile justice system in California. In partnership with the Ella Baker Center, our team worked to move the bill through the California Legislative Cycle. Although the bill was put on hold for last year’s cycle, it was reintroduced and this time, Ella Baker Center invited Bend the Arc to be co-sponsors.

There is a line in Deuteronomy 16:18 that is often quoted: “Justice, justice you shall pursue.” Rabbis have wondered why the word justice is repeated. Rabbi Simkha Bunim, an early 19th century Chasidic master, taught that this means, “Pursue justice justly. The methods we use to pursue justice must also be just.” Today, we need to find methods to illuminate and fight racism in our justice system.

When we ignore systemic injustice in our country, when we turn away from suffering and unfairness, we deny what makes us human. We have the opportunity to turn towards it by learning about the issues and engaging in honest conversation. But it’s not enough to learn and know – we must act. If we don’t use our power and resources to interrupt systemic injustice and be agents of change, we are supporting the status quo. Like Esther, may we bring greater visibility to this crisis. Like Ahashueros, may we use our power to create deep change.