January 6, 2012 admin

Sadness and shame

Stephen Lawrence’s parents Doreen and Neville wept when they heard the verdict; many others wept too. I heard one of the most telling comments on the radio: Stephen was eighteen when he was murdered in that disgusting racial attack in Eltham in1993; it took more days to bring his killers, and then only some of them, to justice than he ever lived on this earth.

‘All I now feel is relief that these racist men can no longer think that they can murder a black man and get away with it’, said Doreen outside the Old Bailey.

But it was a very long road indeed to reach that relief. As Stephen’s friend Duwayne, who was with him at the time of the attack but managed to run away, said, from the first moment everything went wrong. Stephen lay bleeding to death on the pavement, but people walked away. The ambulance didn’t come for a long time. He had to tell the police again and again that this was a racist attack; he was virtually left feeling as if he, and not the attackers, were the accused.

The history of the case is familiar: the police delays in seeking evidence and making arrests; the failed prosecution; the courageous campaigning by Mr and Mrs Lawrence; the establishment of the enquiry by Jack Straw (his ‘single most important’ decision as Home Secretary) and the eventual publication of the Macpherson Report with its seventy crucial recommendations all aimed at ending institutional racism, not just in the police, but, in a profound sense, in the country as a whole.

I wanted to find a Jewish way to mark the verdict and those long eighteen years, but wasn’t quite sure how. So I took down the relevant volume of Maimonides’ 12th century code of law, the Mishneh Torah and turned to Hilchot Shoftim, Laws relating to Judges: ‘It is a positive commandment that judges conduct the process of judgment in a righteous manner’. One plaintiff may not be allowed to sit, while the other stands; one may not speak at length while the other is told, ‘Be brief!’ One may not wear rich clothes, while the other is dressed in rags, but the judge must say to the former: ‘Either dress your fellow litigant in garments like your own, or wear rags like him’. (Hilchot Shoftim, 21:1-2) If there has to be equality in dress, how much more so must there be equality in that which no person can ask another to change, the colour of our skin, whether we are black or white, Asian or Jew.

I remembered too how the rabbis understood the instruction in Deuteronomy to establish ‘judges and officers…in all your gates’ to mean that every tribe must be represented in the police. (Deuteronomy 16:18) One assumes that the reason is the same as that given in the Macpherson Report: only thus can there be trust across the whole population that every ethnic group will be treated fairly and equally before the law.

I remembered too how each of my parents spoke about the institutional hatred they encountered in Nazi Germany. That’s why any kind of racism is always a Jewish issue, always everyone’s issue.

Later today I’m going to write to Mr and Mrs Lawrence on behalf of the community to express our solidarity with them.

But more than anything else I still feel anguish; pain that they have been made to suffer so terribly; sadness and shame that the kind of hatred which lead to their son’s death should exist at all, that it should enter anyone’s heart and ruin the lives not just of Stephen but also of those who attacked him; determination that we should live out in our own values and actions that basic Biblical teaching that all people are created in God’s image and that every life is therefore both equal, sacred and unique.

Get in touch...