BY EUGEN SCHOENFELD / AJT //

Eugen Schoenfeld

Eugen Schoenfeld

For the last few weeks it seemed like everyone in the US was overwhelmed by the Zimmerman – Martin affair. The air waves, at least those carrying the CNN news, were filled with all forms of lawyers, soothsayers, and pseudo analysts arguing the pros and cons of the case.

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Some believed in Zimmerman’s guiltlessness and predicted acquittal, while others proposed that he is guilty and hoped that the jury would find him guilty. This trial brought back memories of the 1960’s and became an event of  national importance, perhaps as a test by which we can judge our moral advancement of our legal system.

I was in St. Louis for a family reunion enjoying the company of my wife’s family as well as the remnant of the Schoenfeld family – being the last of the Holocaust survivors who migrated to the United States. In the midst of a noisy gathering, the news was proclaimed that the jury found Zimmerman not guilty of having murdered Martin.

Personally, I was shocked at the jury’s judgment that Zimmerman was genuinely fearful for his life and for this reason the killing of Martin must be considered an act of self defense. I am not a lawyer. I cannot and will not argue the many faceted legal issues in the case.

But as a reasonable person, influenced by the teachings in the Torah, and as a Jewish Holocaust survivor who has experienced legal and moral injustice, I could not but question the jury’s verdict.

Among the many aspects of the case, I became most disturbed by post trial comments made by juror number 46. She justified her position of finding Zimmerman not guilty on the basis of the “stand your ground” law.  How often have I heard that we the people of the United States are a nation committed to and governed by the law.

Yes, this is true.  However, and while I hate to make the following comparison, Nazi Germany also declared the same principle. The castration of people, the incarceration of people who were anti-Nazism, the killing of Jews, all these atrocities were legal because the German laws defined these acts to be legal.

Many of the German judges claimed that they are innocent of charges brought against them at the Nuremberg trial because they followed the law. The Tribunal declared in essence that a law, which is not just, is by its very nature illegal. The function of the justice system is to judge peopXle based on laws that are moral and that follow the principles of justice.

The Torah also teaches us that we, in a righteous society, must differentiate between just and unjust laws. Not even the will of the majority can make a law just if it inherently violates the principle of justice. For this reason we are not only a democracy – we are a constitutional democracy.  

The principle of being governed by laws assumes the laws to which we are bound do not violate the principles declared in our constitution, and perhaps it is even more important, that our laws also comply with the principle of justice.  To my mind, and I repeat my caveat that I am not a jurist, in a jury trial – the jury itself must adhere only to the laws to which they are bound, and not to morality and justice in the broader sense.

I do not wish to sound as a Biblical extremist, but the Bible often has great moral insight and it states succinctly: with justice you shall judge your neighbor. Yes, we are a nation of laws, but we must also be a nation that adheres to the principle of justice.

I am very committed to my Jewish heritage and in this instance as in most occasions when I seek answers to moral dilemmas I start by seeking the Biblical moral teachings. The Torah enumerates two conditions that justify homicide.

The first that I will name, haboh l’hargechah, proposes that if one comes to kill you one is justified to take defensive acts such as by killing the aggressor first. The second proposition is that if a thief stealthily enters into another person’s home, the proposed victim may stand his ground – in Hebrew it states damo b’rosho, namely his death is justified.

Notice that in both instances the guilt rests on the aggressor defined as the person who initiates the intended illegal and aggressive act.  Self defense is an act that is directed against a person whose prior actions can be interpreted as aggressive.

An aggressor, by definition, is the person who initiates an act of violence that is, a person who starts a chain of events that culminates in a violent aggressive confrontation. From this point of view, would not the initiator of the chain of events that led to Martin’s death be Zimmerman, by confronting Martin without authority and challenging Martin’s right to be on a public street. 

Zimmerman had the power to challenge, because he possessed a gun, but he did not have the legal authority to confront and challenge Martin, simply based on his biases. In fact, Zimmerman was told by the authorities not to pursue Martin and that he did not have any authority to pursue Martin. 

Zimmerman did not heed the advice, and instead initiated a chain of events that clearly marked him as the aggressor. He follows Martin with intent to challenge Martin’s right to walk peacefully on the street. Martin was not loitering, nor was he performing any illegal acts; he was on his way to his father’s home. When Zimmerman chased Martin in his car, Zimmerman became the aggressor and Martin became the victim.

These facts clearly reflect the situation that the Torah refers to as haboh l’hargecho.  It seems as though it would not be Zimmerman, but Martin who was fearful for his life. If anyone has the right for acting defensively, it is Martin, for it is he who was at that time being threatened.

What happened in Florida is contrary to all moral precepts and contrary to moral law that gives the legal right for self defense – the legal right to stand one’s ground.  By this interpretation, and by freeing Zimmerman from his guilt, the court ipso facto has declared Martin to be at fault.

I am disturbed by this case because it reminds me of the abuse of justice that we Jews have experienced throughout history. As Jews we have a long history of being accused of non-existent crimes, such as: killing Christian children for their blood, falsely believed necessary in the baking of matzoth; or poisoning the wells in Europe and causing the Black Plague that killed millions of Christians –but never mind that Jews died from the same disease. Yes, I have a long and extensive court experiences.

As a Jew I also have a long and extensive experience about legalizing unjust laws. Can any Jew believe that laws, simply because people in power instituted them are always just? My whole family was executed in Auschwitz found guilty by unjust laws.

Well, of course, that was in Germany, but in America?  We are told over and over that we are a nation of laws. Indeed we are, but the question that still persists in my mind: are we also a just nation? Do we judge our neighbor not necessarily by laws alone but also by using the principle of justice? 

Perhaps, as a people who claim to be committed to Biblical moral principles should we follow the tenet: Justice, justice shall you pursue.

NEXT WEEK: Publisher Cliff Weiss offers his thoughts on the Zimmerman trial. Do you have an opinion? The Jewish Times welcomes additional comments on the trial and the compelling issues it raises.

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