The Velvet Kippah
Ancient Prescriptions For New Prisons
Can religion inform society indirectly, transmitting its values even to those who reject its practices? The answer may be found, surprisingly, languishing behind bars in Israeli prisons.
For a number of years, MSNBC's "Lockup: World Tour" series has taken viewers to the inside of penal systems around the world, many of which do not provide much more for their inmates than medieval dungeons. Lockup's first Middle East stop was Israel, where producers found a very different story. The narrator related that one prison he visited resembled a college campus more than a prison. The relationship between inmates and officers was cordial, rather than adversarial; prisoners called officers by their first names. The episode showed prisoners with a good deal of freedom to roam, whole families living together in communal areas with their own kitchens and bathrooms, and a rich variety of educational offerings, including vocational training and degree-granting programs, leading even to a doctorate. Jews and Arabs are housed together, sometimes in the same cell. While anti-Israel forces like to speak of horrid conditions, at least for those convicted of terrorism, one Hamas terrorist has used his smartphone and Facebook page to show off his accommodations, including pets, sports paraphernalia, and music equipment.
Is this good? The data suggests that it is, at least in one regard. While violent crimes like murder and rape are rarer to begin with in Israel, there is no shortage of white-collar and other economic crimes, as well as drug-related activity. But recidivism is about 20 percent less in Israel than in the West. And the show's producers observed that Israeli prisoners on an individual level showed a more optimistic face to the future than they did in the U.S. and Europe.
How did a rehabilitative style win out over the punitive ethos of other prison systems? Israel is progressive in many ways, but also contains subpopulations who are very conservative in their thinking. Bright and cheery prisons also cost a good deal of money, which Israel can ill-afford so long as she must commit a huge part of her national revenue on defense against a score of hostile states poised to destroy her. The answer may be the Bible, as understood by Jewish tradition.
Rabbi Yaakov Galinsky was a powerful orator in his younger days. His booming, commanding voice filled a room, even though when he pulled himself to his full height he still fell short of the five feet mark. A refugee from Hitler's inferno, he pioneered Torah education in the development town of Hadera. He developed a reputation as an entertaining and illuminating lecturer.
Many years ago, I heard him relate how he responded favorably to a request to address the inmates of Israel's largest prison. He exchanged pleasantries with the warden, who then called for someone to take him down to the auditorium.
"You mean you are not coming yourself?" asked Rabbi Galinsky. The warden muttered something under his breath. Rabbi Galinsky pressed on. "I insist. Professional courtesy."
"Professional whaaat?" sputtered the warden. "I'm a warden and you are a rabbi. What profession do we share?"
"I'm not an ordinary rabbi. I'm the head of a yeshiva, a Torah school. Literally, a yeshiva is a place where people sit for a long time. You, too, are the head of a yeshiva; your inmates also sit for a long time. You just keep your charges under lock and key. We both head yeshivas!"
Yitzchok Adlerstein is an Orthodox rabbi who directs interfaith affairs for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and chairs Jewish Law at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles. He is hopelessly addicted to the serious study of Torah texts.