Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Ethnic Profiling and Emanuel

I was racially profiled this morning. And it didn't bother me in the least.
Bezalel had a dentist appointment at Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital, but I also had three huge food warming boxes that I needed to return to our caterer in Jerusalem. (long story, different post). Any time you drive into any complex in Israel, be it an office complex, mall or hospital, security searches your car. So here I was, entering a major hospital complex, with three huge, sealed blue boxes in the back of my car. The security guy took one look at us, and without a second thought, waved us in.
Why didn't he check the boxes? Didn't he wonder at least why I have them in the car and what I was doing with them? He didn't, because he was profiling us. I'm a religious Jew with a kippah, and I was driving into the hospital with my wife, son and infant daughter. Probability, and probably his sixth sense told him to wave us on, and that searching the boxes (which were empty) would be a waste of his and our time. He was right.
Contrast this morning with another, very different security check that I also underwent, also right here in Yerushalayim exactly a week ago, at the American consulate. There, instead of profiling you, they treat every one - every single person - like a criminal. I've never been through such a thorough check anywhere in Israel before.
When you get there, they first check to see if you have a reservation, and only then do they let you into the outer courtyard, where you have to leave your baby stroller. No strollers inside. Period.
Then, a security guard hand-checked every bag. He took any electronics - even the USB key on my keychain. He took our cellphones as well. (Are there really any secrets at the US consulate in East Jerusalem?) He made Rena apply some lip balm on her hand, and asked me to taste the water inside the baby bottles that we had brought for Moriyah. It was really ridiculous. Then, after that, we went through a locked door into a second room, where we went through a second metal detector, and they put our bags, which they had just searched, through an XRay machine. Really?
I felt victimized because I wasn't racially profiled. In Israel proper (the consulate felt like a different country), they would have done exactly what they did this morning: looked at a couple with an infant child, checked our bags, and waved us through. But the US cannot profile everyone. Everyone is suspect; a potential threat. So everyone suffers.
The recent Emanuel case raises the important issue of racial profiling. Is it right for Chasidim to assume that Sefardim are different than they are?
Truth be told, in general - and those are important words - Sephardim and Ashkenazim really are different. You just have to open up to any page of the Shulchan Aruch to see just how true that is. We have different fonts in the book; the block lettering is for the Sephardim, the Rashi script for the Ashkenazim.
And it's not just about ritual. Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jewry have significantly different perspectives to Jewish practice and community.
In Sephardic tradition, there's really no such thing as sectarianism. There's no Conservative Sephardic Judaism. Does this mean that every Sephardic Jew follows the halachah to the letter of the law? Hardly. But the community doesn't excommunicate someone who doesn't adhere. It admonishes him, even shames him. But for whatever reason, it never rejected him to the point that he broke away and began his own flavor of religion. A Sephardic Jew may sin, but his shul and rabbi are still Orthodox.
Ashkenazim, for better or worse made a different choice, resulting in breakaway sects that attracted huge numbers of followers, but left the original community "pure", with far less tolerance for people who do not adhere to the precepts of faith with precision and care.
Someone from a true Sephardic background grows up with the values of his faith tradition, as well he should - with great pride. He will view the "sinner" in a very different way than will his counterpart raised in an Ashkenazi household.
Now, if I know that a certain faith tradition teaches a certain set of values, would it not make sense for me to assume that someone Sephardic subscribes to his own ethnic values? We all do it, all the time.
The media (and much of Western society) treat racism and ethnic preference as if it's a zero-sum game. It's all black and white. If you make any racial distinctions, then you're a racist. You have to treat, judge, address, assess and evaluate every single person equally, regardless of any predilection or indication you may have based on ethnicity. That's the American way, where the label "racist" is literally a death-sentence to a career and reputation. But in the real world, we all profile. It's the way that we function in the world.
It's how we decide to which school to send our children. It's how we decide where to buy a house. It's how we decide whether to suspect the man that just got on the bus, whether to open the door when the stranger knocks; whether to call the police when someone unusual appears on our block. We might not like it, and profiling sometimes paints too broad a stroke, punishing the innocent.
But I'm not sure that the American way, of suspecting no one, but therefore suspecting everyone, is really any better.