No greater tragedy can befall parents than having to bury a child. This is
especially true when the child is killed and the perpetrator gets away with it.
In this sense no American can but feel the double pain of the parents of Trayvon
On the other side of the equation, however, is the interview
given by the father and brother of George Zimmerman, the shooter, who have
spoken of a son and sibling who shot an assailant in self-defense but who is now
being so pilloried and demonized that he cannot leave his home for fear of
Who is right?
Well, we don’t yet know all the facts and it
would be wrong to prejudge the outcome. What is clear, however, is that a
young African-American teenager, wearing a hoodie against the rain, died,
seemingly, for carrying a can of iced tea and a bag of skittles. If that isn’t a
tragedy than the word has no meaning. He was unarmed.
Zimmerman was told
by 911 that it was unnecessary for him to pursue Martin. So why did he continue
to give chase? Was it, as so many, especially in the African-American community,
believe because Trayvon was black and thus racially profiled by Zimmerman as a
menace? It seems impossible not to arrive at that conclusion.
transpired after that – and Zimmerman is claiming that Martin assaulted him –
the question remains why Zimmerman didn’t heed the advice of the 911 dispatcher
he himself contacted and stand down.
Race continues to divide our great
nation. Truth be told, I hate the very word. There is no white race and there is
no black race. There is only one human race that diverges into far more
tangential considerations like ethnicity and skin color. Trayvon Martin was not
a black teenager. He was an American teenager.
He was our son, he was our
brother. He belonged to all of us. And he died, seemingly, for no reason except
that he was trying to protect himself from the rain with a hood on his
The hoodie got me thinking. When you speak of a hood in the context
of race the first thing that comes to mind is the hood of the Ku Klux Klan,
which is used to allow Klansmen to appear frightening and menacing and to
conceal their identities.
That’s the kind of hood we should have a
problem with, not a hood worn by a teenager against the rain.
I’m a Jew
and I wear a hood. It’s called a Yarmulke, or a black Hassidic hat, and, like
Trayvon Martin, it allows others to make snap decisions about what I represent.
If the assumptions were only positive – Shmuley has a commitment to spirituality
and ethics, he is open-minded and tolerant – I would be flattered. But often the
assumptions are that I am a right-wing religious fundamentalist who looks down
at non-Jews and is part of a religion that oppresses women. I hate when people
judge me by my garb and not by my heart and I understand why African-American
youth would feel the same.
To be sure, just as there are things in the
Jewish community that must change, there are things in the African-American
community that should as well. In my community materialism can sometimes trump
spirituality, as when a Bar Mitzvah or wedding becomes more about impressing
guests than a holy celebration that brings us closer to God. Among African-
Americans a 75 percent out-of-wedlock birthrate runs against the values of a
community that is deeply religious and has always cherished marriage, family and
children. This is something must definitely be addressed. But wearing a hoodie
ZIMMERMAN MAY have fired in self-defense. We just don’t
know the facts yet. But even that confrontation, if it’s accurate, came about
because he saw a hooded black man walking through a neighborhood at night and
immediately thought, in the words of Zimmerman himself, that the youth was “up
to no good. He is on drugs or something.” I live in a community comprised
largely of Orthodox Jews and African-Americans. People have a right to
walk through a neighborhood and look at homes, which is what Zimmerman is
alleged to have said of Martin.
That’s why the dispatcher at 911 told him
to stay in his car. What he was being told, in essence, is that Zimmerman’s
suspicions alone were not sufficient to pursue the teenager. It was for the
police, who were on their way, to make that judgment. I am a white man.
But I understand completely the feelings in the African-American community that
this was the most senseless death, predicated on the conjecture of a
neighborhood watch volunteer that a black man walking through a neighborhood
presupposes ill intent.
Neighborhood watch volunteer means just that. You
watch. You study. You report. You don’t take the law into your own hands. You
don’t become judge and jury as to a person’s intent. If it were a Jew murdered
in similar circumstances for simply walking around a neighborhood at night with
a bottle of Coke and a black hat I would hope that our community would likewise
be up in arms. No doubt people with white skin can appreciate that when you have
darker skin and you go out to buy some candy it’s outrageous for others to
assume that you may be a criminal.
Then there is the Florida “stand your
ground law,” which gives people wide latitude to use deadly force rather than
retreat during a fight. Is it a just law? I am not a lawyer. But I am a rabbi
and I employ my Judaism and its values in determining justice. Jewish law is
clear. One may only take a life when it is evident that an assailant has
murderous intent. Could Zimmerman have reasonably surmised that Martin had
murderous intent as he walked with a hood through his neighborhood? Certainly
not. Did it happen later, when, as Zimmerman claims, Martin assaulted him?
Perhaps. But once again, had Zimmerman left the matter in the hands of the
police as he was instructed to do the confrontation would never have
I want to repeat. George Zimmerman may be innocent of murder. I
am not a law-enforcement professional and I do not know all the facts. Besides,
he retains the presumption of innocence as justice and our legal system
stipulate. One injustice does not deserve another. We have to wait for all the
facts of the case to be made clear. But to say Zimmerman is innocent of bias –
certainly as his actions of that terrible night indicate – seems a real
If I were Trayvon Martin’s parents I would feel an absolute
obligation to go to the ends of the earth to demand justice. If justice
determines that Zimmerman walk, then so be it. But who could fault parents
demanding that they get to the bottom of why their son, who went to buy a can of
iced tea, is now in a grave.
The writer, a Rabbi, is a bestselling
author, recently of “Kosher Jesus.” He is a candidate for the United States
House of Representatives in New Jersey’s Ninth Congressional District.