Awakening Injustice

JTA reported this week that a Solomon Schechter affiliated day school in suburban Philadelphia unilaterally decertified its teachers’ union and will no longer negotiate with it, claiming that, as a religious institution, the school is exempt from the jurisdiction of the National Labor Relations Board. The union was a member of the American Federation of Teachers. This is but another assault on the integrity of the labor union movement. Horrors!

It sounds like a job for Uri L’tzedek.

That organization is a self-styled campaigner for “Orthodox Social Justice,” that is to say, the pursuit of “social justice” by Orthodox Jews. That qualification is added because it seems that their targets, and not just their inspiration, have been almost exclusively Orthodox Jews and companies run by Orthodox Jews.

Undoubtedly, they have some fine achievements to their credit in ensuring the rights of workers and the downtrodden. In employee matters, in essence, they have sought the enforcement of laws that already exist (such as minimum wage, overtime, working conditions, etc.), which sounds redundant except when one considers that not every employee or group of employees has advocates that can address their grievances.

But the very term “social justice” has never inspired confidence among conservatives because justice qualified is often justice denied. “Social” justice seems to imply justice only for a certain segment of the population perceived as less fortunate than others. Justice, then, for the employer, business owner, taxpayer, etc. must be sought elsewhere and presumably by others. That is not justice at all.

Indeed, the Torah is quite clear on this matter. Notwithstanding society’s obligation to assist the poor and the downtrodden, we are admonished: “Do not glorify the destitute in his [legal] grievance” (Shemot 23:3), and Rashi explains that we should not show any special deference (“honor”) to justify the legal claim of the poor just because he is poor. Justice is a universal principle, and not the province of any one group.

Thus, rather than represent “Orthodox Social Justice,” this organization adheres to fairly doctrinaire leftist political views under the guise of a few well selected platitudes drawn from our sacred literature, and very selectively applied. For example, is there a Torah position on a minimum wage, or on increasing the minimum wage by a certain number of dollars per hour? Not that I know of. Indeed, one can make a cogent argument that any minimum wage upsets the equilibrium through which employers and employees negotiate the relative value of salary versus services provided. It sounds good in theory (and to an extent has worked well in practice) but increases in the minimum wage generally bring reduced employment at those entry level jobs (in addition to driving up employment costs for higher wage employees whose wages are linked to a certain multiple of the minimum wage). Wouldn’t it be “just” to allow a potential employee, faced with a choice between unemployment or employment at a reduced wage, to make that choice himself, freely? The advocates of “social justice” say a hearty, and somewhat self-righteous, “no.” But the poor pay the price for that self-righteousness.

This is not to advocate for or against a minimum wage but a simple recognition that “justice” is not to be found on only one side of the argument, and that such leftist propaganda should not be allowed to masquerade as “Torah” or as “Orthodox.”

Or, to take another example drawn from Uri L’tzedek’s own writings, they claim to seek protections for both documented and undocumented workers. “Undocumented workers” is leftist slang for illegal aliens, who have no residence documents, presumably because they sneaked into the country and therefore could not procure the appropriate documents from the authorities, like, for instance, at a border crossing. Certainly, no person should be mistreated but nor is any person above the law. But how to deal with illegal aliens is ultimately a political, not a moral, question, and certainly not one for which the “Torah” presents clear guidelines. One can make a compelling moral argument that illegal aliens should be afforded rights, protections, amnesty, family unification, etc., even assuming they have to pay some penalty for their prior felonious conduct. But one can make an equally compelling moral argument that a nation has the right (maybe even in our dangerous world where terrorists lurk everywhere seeking to exploit vulnerabilities, the obligation) to secure its borders, deport illegal entrants and determine who can enter and when, and especially when the financial cost of sustaining, educating and healing the newcomers will be largely borne by the indigenous citizenry.

Is there a “Torah” view on how to solve the US immigration problem? Not that I know of. It is a political, not a moral, decision. Should one take purely political positions and masquerade them as “Torah”? I think not. Should an organization that purports to fight for “justice” aid those who are willfully breaking the law or actively seek the non-enforcement of laws duly enacted by a civilized, democratic society? I think not. There is no right to selectively choose to follow certain laws and not others and certainly no justice in the outcome.

Which brings us to the topic de jour. This week the intrepid battlers for “social justice” waded into a public school funding controversy in Monsey, New York, my old hometown. With the population now overwhelmingly Orthodox, even Haredi, the public school board in Ramapo is controlled by Orthodox citizens who want the dominant voice in deciding how their tax dollars are allocated to the public schools. That is the reality of demographics and public policy, one not unfamiliar to us in New Jersey. It seems both fair and just.

There has always been a basic inequity that requires Orthodox parents to pay for their own children’s education and simultaneously pay for their secular neighbor’s children’s public school education. This dual taxation has crippled many Orthodox families, and significantly increased the pressure on the breadwinner to earn salaries disproportionately higher than the norms of American life just to subsist.

For sure, I recognize the need for a public school system and our obligations as citizens to subsidize it. But the polity would have to educate our children anyway, and we are obviously providing a great savings to our neighbors (not to mention a better education for our children, for the most part) by paying for it ourselves.

There are jurisdictions that take note of this inequity, and have found ways (for one, government vouchers that allot a certain stipend per student and allow parents to choose any school, public or private, for their children) to offset the costs on the Orthodox families. School districts could assume the financial responsibility for the secular educational component of a yeshiva education without any constitutional unrest. There are many other jurisdictions – the norm, really – in which the school board votes itself (or its teachers and staff) annual increases, luxurious facilities, and generous pensions. Where Orthodox Jews live but are not the majority, we pay for it disproportionately, and it is an onerous tax burden. Teacher salaries and the quality of the facilities at Yeshivot lag way behind that of the secular system. Justice and fairness would seem to favor equity.

Yet, this week, a caped crusader from Uri L’Tzedek (literally; he apparently wore a talit to the press conference, and not that I have anything against people who wear capes) lambasted the Haredi control of the Ramapo school system and demanded a state takeover. He apparently advocates high taxation without any representation. The job of the school board is to ensure a quality education for its students, which does not always require more money, and at the least to verify that all its students actually reside in the district and are not interlopers from elsewhere. The main complaint seems to be the loss of jobs, which troubles the teachers’ unions but not anyone who perceives the declining enrollment due to the change in demographics. Others decry the loss of perks to which they had grown accustomed when the Orthodox alone paid for them.

One complaint stood out: that crime has allegedly increased in the Ramapo public school system because the Haredi-controlled school board cut the funding for school security guards. That is a startling complaint with interesting ramifications. I doubt there is even one security guard in any yeshiva, which somehow does not translate into a crime rate of any sort. Perhaps the problem lies not in the absence of security guards but in the dearth of morals.

It seems that Uri L’tzedek in its eagerness for “social justice” has lost sight of some basic principles. First, just because Haredim do or say something does not necessarily mean they are wrong or unjust (!). Second, justice does not always lie with the teachers v. the administrators, with the unions v. the owners, with the employees v. the employers, with the illegal alien v. the citizen, with the tenants v. the landlords, with the non-Orthodox v. the Orthodox, and with the non-Jew v. the Jew. Usually, true justice is somewhere in between.

To be taken seriously by anyone outside the far-left echo chamber and its media acolytes, they should broaden their world view just a bit. Will the Perelman Jewish Day School outside Philadelphia soon behold the protests of the caped crusader and his union allies, and feel the daggers of the do-gooders? Or is the school exempt from such demonstrations because it is not Orthodox? We shall see. I hope the Samaritans desist only because it is none of their business how a real business operates its business, as long as it is legal and ethical. And even then it is none of their business, but the business of the authorities.

To paraphrase a recent book in a related context, this new group sees the Torah as a “useful ally” when it confirms its biases but otherwise can be safely ignored. Generally, it is conventionally a creation of the left and reflecting the values of the left. To be fair, even in that, it invariably serves a legitimate purpose in keeping the Jewish people always striving for ethical improvements. But it cannot be done in a heavy-handed, dogmatic and reflexively biased way, but with more balance, forethought and sensitivity. In Monsey, for one example, it has allied itself with the wrong people and with the wrong cause.

Just wondering: does this union of humanitarians investigate the business practices of its donors? The media always love the liberal watchdogs, but who exactly is watching the watchdogs?


3 responses to “Awakening Injustice

  1. Excellent take on “social justice” – a fraudulent term if I ever heard one. But we must remember that Yeshiva education is, in American terms, a luxury. Empty-nesters don’t benefit directly from the public schools, either. Shall they also be entitled to a tax rebate to help fund their retirement? School choice as a private expenditure is fine. But as a public expense, it is hard to justify. If one group receives such consideration, more will surely demand the same consideration.

  2. Shmuly Yanklowitz, the Founder and President of Uri L’Tzedek,
    recently publicly announced his support for so-called “gay marriage”:

  3. Tsvi Zilberstein

    Finally a clear and succinct demolition of this self-promoting norishkeit (except it actually hurts real people) of an organisation UriLtsedek.
    On a separate note, I’ve been surprised to see their “certificates” share walls with the RCBC hashgocho