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Yom Kippur 2014 / 5775 - Democracy, Voters' Rights, and Yom Kippur

02.10.2014 by

In the wake of the recent fighting with Hamas, the ongoing disgrace of the BDS campaign (I love Pink Floyd, and Roger Waters' imbecility is killing me!), burgeoning anti-Semitism, and the media/facebook/twitter battles which accompany all of this, the quality of Israel's democracy has been questioned, again and again. We are accused of discriminating against, disenfranchising, and oppressing our Arab citizens (the residents of Judea and Samaria, aka the West Bank, are not Israeli citizens, but do vote in Palestinian Authority elections), our other minorities - Ethiopians keep getting mentioned by the Israel bashers, along with Christians, which is weird, given the treatment they get in the Islamic world - and, in general, of not being so democratic at all. We are even accused of mistreating our Jewish majority, the Mizrachi (Sephardic) community.

There is, of course, some truth to these accusations. Israel, like every other country in the world, has some ethnic tensions, some difficult majority-minority dynamics, and a privileged class. We also have a 100-plus year war going on with the Arab world, making Arab-Jewish relations in the country, as a rule, somewhat tense. We are, however, not that bad, and are working on getting better. When I'm challenged about the quality of our democracy, I usually cite the high number of Arabs in the Knesset - almost always around a dozen, as it is right now  - compared with the ridiculously, embarrasingly, low number of African American US Senators (in my lifetime, I think it's always been zero or one; currently there are a remarkable two. Can you guess how many there have been since the creation of the United States? Go on, take a guess. Are you sitting down? Nine. Yes, nine. And only one African American woman). I also point out the Arab judges, Arab access to higher education, the many, many Mizrachi Jews who have made it in many, many fields, and the high, and growing, percentage of "mixed" Sephardi/Ashkenazi marriages, rendering much of that issue moot. Then there is the whole issue of the treatment of gays - ridiculous accusations of "pinkwashing" aside - of which Israel can be proud, as well as the ongoing existence of reservations for Native Americans, in the US and Canada, and the conditions there, which, from what I can tell, are worse than in the average Palestinian "refugee camp", in terms of suicide rates, alcoholism and drug use, and general health issues. All in all, frankly, I think we win.

However, my biggest complaint about American "democracy" is the ongoing disgrace of felony disenfranchisement. Here, read this, from Wikipedia, and weep:

The United States is among the strictest nations in the world when it comes to denying the vote to those who have felony convictions on their record.

In the US, the constitution implicitly permits the states to adopt rules about disenfranchisement "for participation in rebellion, or other crime", by the fourteenth amendment, section 2. It is up to the states to decide which crimes could be ground for disenfranchisement, and they are not formally bound to restrict this to felonies; however, in most cases, they do.

In 2008 over 5.3 million people in the United States were denied the right to vote because of felony disenfranchisement. Approximately thirteen percent of the United States' population is African American, yet African Americans make up thirty-eight percent of the American prison population. Slightly more than fifteen percent of the United States population is Hispanic, while twenty percent of the prison population is Hispanic. People who are felons are disproportionately people of color. In the United States, felony disenfranchisement laws disproportionately affect communities of color as "they are disproportionately arrested, convicted, and subsequently denied the right to vote". Research has shown that as much as 10 percent of the population in some minority communities in the USA is unable to vote, as a result of felon disenfranchisement.

In the national elections 2012, all the various state felony disenfranchisement laws added together blocked an estimated record number of 5.85 million Americans from voting, up from 1.2 million in 1976. This comprised 2.5% of the potential voters in general; and included 8% of the potential African American voters. The state with the highest amount of disenfranchised people were Florida, with 1.5 million disenfranchised, including more than a fifth of potential African American voters.

Felony disenfranchisement was a topic of debate during the 2012 Republican presidential primary. Rick Santorum argued for the restoration of voting rights for ex-offenders. Santorum's position was attacked and distorted by Mitt Romney, who alleged that Santorum supported voting rights for offenders while incarcerated rather than Santorum's stated position of restoring voting rights only after the completion of sentence, probation and parole. President Barack Obama supports voting rights for ex-offenders.

Did you see those incarceration rates? Glad I'm not a person of color living in America! Did you notice how absolutely no one, even the great reformer, Rick Santorum, along with his buddy Barak O., is even contemplating the insanity of allowing felons to vote while incarcerated ? That would be so unthinkable, so beyond the pale, that Romney was able to use it as a false allegation against Rick S., in order tp discredit him as a lunatic radical, which, had he actually held that view, he would be, given the political landscape concerning this issue in the US.

Well, let me tell you something. Here in Israel, at every election, ballot boxes are brought into the prisons, set up in the yard or wherever is convenient, and the inmates vote. Now, we are not so exceptionally liberal in doing this. Wikipedia lists Canada, Croatia, Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, FranceJapan, Kenya, Netherlands, Norway, Peru, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Sweden, and Zimbabwe, along with Israel, as examples of countries that allow inmates to vote. The UK, by the way, is also fairly draconian in this, opting out of EU regulations by denying inmates the vote. All in all, I am glad to report that Israel is on the right side of this issue, and takes the democratic rights of all its citizens, even those who have broken the law, seriously.

But, some of you may be asking, is this really right? Should convicted criminals be allowed to take part in elections? Should they not forfeit some of their rights when they commit crimes? Isn't being a citizen, and exercising the rights of a citizen,  contingent upon being a good citizen? Well, no, actually, and here's why.

We begin Yom Kippur with a facinating prayer - Kol Nidre. If you pay attention, however, you will notice that there is a short preface to Kol Nidre, which seems to serve, in fact, as an introduction to the entire liturgy, and experience, of Yom Kippur. It goes like this:

על דעת המקום, ועל דעת הקהל, בישיבה של מעלה ובישיבה של מטה, אנו מתירית להתפלל עם העבריינים

With the sanction of the Almighty, and the sanction of the congregation, in the tribunal above, and in the tribunal below, we allow [ourselves] to pray with those who have transgressed.

Now, of course, the transgressors we refer to are, first and foremost, the guy you see when you look in the mirror. As a congregation, with these words, we recognize that all of us are imperfect, all of us have sinned, and we realize that that presents us with a problem: Who are we to address God? Who are we to stand here, dressed in white, wrapped in the tallit, beating our breasts, pretending to be angels, when after all, it's just you and me? Sinners all, criminals all, (עבריין is the modern Hebrew word for criminal),  imperfect all, not one of us even close to being an angel.

So, recognizing this, we grant ourselves permission and - watch this! - assume that "in the tribunal above" they agree with us! They also think that, as imperfect as we are, as sinful and hurtful to others as we have been, we are all part of a greater whole, the "tribunal below" - connected, miraculously, wonderfully, to the "tribunal above" - the congregation, the community, the historic Jewish people.  And, as members of that people, we have a right and an obligation (like voting) to pray, to beseech, to stand together, equal, before God and His judgement, and figure out what we have done wrong and how we can fix it; who we are and who we can become. 

This lesson is essential for Yom Kippur, and for every other day of the year as well. The only possible way out of the predicament of being human - of failing, of doing harm, of falling short - is to understand that we are all like that, and we must stand and work together to try and make it better. Our membership in the congregation, the tribe, the nation, and, in fact, the human race, is not contingent on how we behave. It is, rather, the only way, once we have sinned, that we can move forward towards a life of behaving better. On Yom  Kippur we are commanded to pray, which means we are commanded to pray as sinners, and with sinners. We accept them into the congregation, as we accept ourselves, because that is the only way that we can honestly do this: by recognizing our shared humanity, with its imperfections, and, together, work through them. 

When we disenfranchise the citizen who is demonstrably bad - a felon, a criminal - we err in two directions. We deny him or her the only way back from the abyss - his or her connection to a communtiy - and we also create for ourselves a false dichotomy, a phony and selfish sense of security, in which "they", the criminals, are the sinners, and "we" good citizens are not. Such denial of our shared humanity, our shared imperfection, and our shared need to improve together, flies in the face of good citizenship, real fellowship, full democracy, and the truly lived experience, and work, of Yom Kippur. 

שנה טובה, גמר חתימה טובה

Rabbi Shimon Felix

Yom Kippur Summary

יום כיפור

Yom Kippur is the climax of the Ten Days of Penitence, which begin on Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. These are days of introspection; taking stock of our behavior during the past year, the asking and giving of forgiveness between friends, family members, and neighbors, and prayers and wishes for a sweet new year.

On Yom Kippur we do not eat, drink, bathe, annoint ourselves with oils or lotions, wear leather shoes, or engage in sexual activity. We refrain from these activities in order to focus totally on our relationship with God, the Jewish tradition, and our fellows, in an attempt to assess how we are doing and how we can do better. The day is spent in synagogue, with the recitation of many moving and beautiful ancient prayers, centered around our shortcomings and our hopes to improve ourselves. 

The day traditionally ends on a positive note, as we hope that our heartfelt prayers will have been answered. In many congregations "Next Year in Jerusalem"  - לשנה הבאה בירושלים - is sung at the close of the services.

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