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In September, while Jews throughout the world gathered to observe the beginning of Selichot, the Jewish call for repentance and forgiveness, a group in Vancouver, British Columbia approached the issue with an unusual angle in mind.
On the evening of September 24, 2011, the Conservative synagogue Congregation Beth Israel opened its doors to a public forum on revenge and forgiveness. A moderated panel examined whether the public responses to the riots that shook Vancouver’s downtown quarter earlier this year were ethical. A reception and Selichot service followed the two-hour discussion.
The panel was comprised of four experts: civil rights lawyer David Eby; Jewish law scholar Gregg Gardner; Jerome Henry, who was serving as Deputy Consul to the French Consulate General in Vancouver at the time of the riots; and Emmy-award-winning Journalist Peter Klein, who served as the panel’s moderator. Each provided a different understanding of the meaning of forgiveness and its place in the actions of those victimized by violence.
|Selichot forum: Gregg Gardner, Jerome Henry, David Eby and Peter Klein|
In June 2011, angered by the results of the Stanley Cup Finals, sports fans trashed businesses and set cars on fire on downtown streets. The actual number of participants in the riots was considered much smaller than those who stuck around to watch or to oppose the vandalism. Still, the perceived damage to Vancouver’s image as a peaceful, inviting city prompted public outcry.
The question that several on the panel attempted to answer was not whether members of the public should have rioted, but whether their actions deserved the response they received. Would a forceful response by the city actually address the issue? Was the retaliatory behaviour of some citizens that occurred after the riot appropriate? Should more attention or less be given to finding and prosecuting the perpetrators? Jerome Henry, a French national, noted that while Canadians were dismayed at the violence, some in the international community were amazed at the attention that the event had received in local media.
“Coming from the French perspective, it was a very small event,” said Henry. “It was two cars burned. We don’t even count the cars burned every Saturday night in France.”
Peter Klein asked who could be considered to blame for the violence.
“I think a lot of people have wondered, where does the blame go? To those thousands of people who sit by silently and did not intervene? Were they to blame? This is an issue that obviously we as Jews have dealt with in our history,” he said, referring to events such as the Shoah (Holocaust) in which Jewish shops were vandalized before a crowd of silent onlookers.
The panel did not attempt to give any logical reason for the rioting, other than to acknowledge that the outcome of the game and liberal access to alcohol had helped to tip the balance that night. There was consensus that the mob behaviour was destructive and that there were innocent victims in the fray. But the issue at hand was the emotions that had taken center stage shortly after the riots, and their ramifications.
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David Eby pointed out that a growing chorus for victims’ rights in Canada has overshadowed efforts to use rapprochement as a means for healing wounds. The yearning to see individuals “pay” for their crimes with stiff sentences and long jail time has made it difficult to implement restorative justice programs in which the convicted are rehabilitated through restitution, dialogue and education.
It also emboldened vigilantes who may have felt they were acting conscientiously in striking back against suspected perpetrators.
“(Unfortunately), … we are seeing increased desire for retaliation in the name of victims’ rights,” said Eby, who noted that suspects were later “exposed” online and threatened on local networks – including one shopkeeper who was mistakenly photographed while trying to protect his property. Community action has always been a strong part of Vancouver’s culture. But so has the respect for the innocent bystander.
Gregg Gardner discussed Jewish law as it pertains to slander. “Jewish law places a lot of emphasis on identifying the ‘ideal witness,’ the trustworthy witness, in determining what is proper and responsible testimony. A mob acting as a witness and posting its evidence on social media clearly goes against this,” he said.
With a new year before us, the question that I was left with at the end of the discussion was how the lessons of these difficult events could be applied to other areas of conflict. Were there equally difficult instances of conflict and anger in which Jews could apply forgiveness?
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