A Jewish view on the British riots: who’s to blame?

Wednesday, 10 August, 2011 - 7:18 pm

A Jewish view on the British riots: who’s to blame?


A proposal for effective engagement with Britain’s disenfranchised youth

We have witnessed rioting in London and across the UK over the last few days on a level that those who grew up in London have never witnessed before. Wide spread looting, thieving, vandalising in broad day light with people watching is something that is just astonishing and shocking. It seemed to most English people that society had fallen apart and replaced by raw savagery of gangs and mobs.

The debate that immediately followed in the intellectual society of liberal Britain, even while the riots were still going on, was over whether this behaviour can be justified. Is it sheer criminality or is it social unrest due to deprivation of jobs and lack of any hope for the future amongst a neglected disenfranchised social underclass of Britain?

The Prime Minister of Great Britain David Cameron returned from his holiday and immediately called it ‘criminality, pure and simple’ and said that those involved deserved the full weight of the law. This was echoed by other government members, like Theresa May, the Home Secretary.

Some in the opposition party, Labour, have been suggesting the cause of the violence is due to the state of the economy, the austerity measures and neglect of the social underclass.

It is interesting that this debate has played itself out in numerous contexts in recent history. The fundamental question is: can you blame the victim for social unrest or does one only blame the criminal?

After the attacks on the World Trade Centre in NY of 9/11, American linguist and philosopher Professor Noam Chomsky wrote a book stating that American foreign policy was ultimately to blame for provoking 9/11. The same argument on a wider scale was made when Israel was hit by suicide bombings. British and other politicians declared that only utterly hopeless youth with no future horizon can reach such despair and blow themselves up as weapons killing as many innocent civilians as possible.

One well known politician who had this point of view was former Mayor of London Ken Livingstone. This was despite the fact that when his own city of London was attacked on 7/7 with the same methods, he became unbelievably inconsistent. He argued that while the reason for suicide attacks in Israel is due to despair, in London it is just outright evil. Interestingly, he further contradicted himself on the BBC regarding the recent riots in London when he first and foremost justified the acts as being caused by social neglect.

Clarity on issues of criminology such as theft and violence is an absolute necessity in a healthy society. A set of basic morals, known in Jewish teaching as Noahide laws, which includes categorically ‘do not steal’ and 'do not murder', would help with clarity in this regard. Moral relativism, a phenomenon that is too often seen as an ideal in the modern education system of the West, cannot possibly be a foundation to a stable society. Can theft ever be justified?

In Jewish teaching there is a difference between a thief and a looter in broad daylight. One is called a gazlan and the other a ganav. In a modern era a thief can be considered someone who steals from someone in stealth without them knowing. This is a ganav in Hebrew. This could include theft in business, when the buyer or investor doesn’t know he is being stolen from. A recent example is the Madoff scandal, when people were scammed without their knowledge. This is certainly an evil.

Another evil however is mugging or looting in broad daylight in full view of the victim and the public with no shame. One who perpetrates  this is called a gazlan.

Whatever evil form of theft we are dealing with, the causes for rioting and looting may be analysed from a Jewish point of view. In fact, the same debate above about the causes for thieving is found also amongst Jewish philosophers, going as far back as to King Solomon in Proverbs.

In Proverbs (30:8-9) it says, ‘Give me neither poverty nor wealth; provide me my allotted bread, lest I become sated and deny, and I say, "Who is the Lord?" And lest I become impoverished and steal, and take hold of the name of my G-d.’

King Solomon thus recognises that the principle cause of theft is poverty.

However, Maimonides on the other hand, sees theft as a result of pure greed. He writes in laws of theft (Ch. 1:11), ‘Desire leads to coveting, and coveting leads to stealing. For if the owner of the coveted object does not wish to sell, even though he is offered a good price and is entreated to accept, the person who covets the object will come to steal it, as it is written (Micha 2:2), ‘They covet fields and then steal them.' And if the owner approaches him with a view to reclaiming his money or preventing the theft, then he will come to murder.’

The practical application of this debate is whether there is a solution. If the cause of theft is neglect and poverty then a solution must be found and this might mitigate the punishment to a certain degree out of sympathy for the offenders. If however the cause is mere greed for other people’s possessions, this is a kind of social illness. In this case society needs a strict deterrent and punishment must be distributed.

Solutions – law and social justice

While the causes of theft are debated within Judaism, as in British society today, and both opinions are not necessarily mutually exclusive, some helpful solutions in Judaism can also be found for social unrest.

The need to help the poor is a fundamental value in Judaism. In fact, charity is one of the foundations of any society, according to Ethics of the Fathers (Ch.1:1). The recent riots certainly prove this point. Without social justice the fabric of society will fall apart.

Similarly a robust justice system is crucial for society. Ethics of the Fathers (3:2) states without fear of government or a strong justice system people would devour one another alive. These teachings ring as true today in 21st century as they did in 3rd century when these teachings were taught – the riots a case in point.

In Jewish law, there are two elements to deterrence through justice, one post theft and another prior to the crime. The punishment after the crime in Jewish law, although there is no imprisonment, is that the thief needs to pay a fine, usually double the value of the stolen item. If the thief is unable to pay, then they must perform community service.

In addition, the law can empower home and shop owners to protect their livelihood from thieves in self defense. Society may want to evaluate whether deterrence prior to the crime is necessary, as reflected in the book of Leviticus ‘If a thief is found breaking in and is struck so that he dies, there shall be no bloodguilt for him (the killer).’ This is the concept of self defense, though this may not be necessary in British society where gun crime is still minimal compared to other countries.

It could be argued that this two pronged tough approach to theft makes sense according to the theory of greed and sheer criminality as the cause for theft, rather than desperation due to poverty.

Big Society approach

The problem of poverty as a possible cause of theft must however also be addressed, whether or not it is applicable in this particular case of the riots. There is an urgent need for social responsibility towards the underprivileged classes of Britain and other societies that have similar problems. Judaism is not an insular religion; it cares for society as a whole.

A report in May in the Financial Times, outlined one of the root causes for unemployment in the UK, albeit one of the lowest in Europe. It said that the UK has one of the largest shares of young people amongst countries affiliated with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) not in education, employment or training - the so-called NEETs. This lack of knowledge or skill is a root cause for unemployment.

Who is responsible for this phenomenon? In Jewish teaching there is an emphasis on the role of parents in this regard. In the words of the Talmud (Kiddushin 29), there are certain obligatory responsibilities that a parent must provide for a child in order to be considered a responsible parent. Among these are teaching a child a trade by which the child can eventually earn an income.

Interestingly, the Jewish view is compatible with the aims of the current UK government for the creation of a kind of ‘big society’. It is not sufficient to blame the government for unemployment but parents must rise to the challenge of ensuring that their children don’t grow up without knowledge of a trade. Some of the greatest Jewish sages were simple craftsmen by which they supported their family, in addition to their study, as indicated by the name of a sage of the Talmud, Rabbi Yochanan the Sandal-Maker (Ethics of the Fathers 4:11).

Community engagement amongst students

A broader and more elementary approach of engagement however must also be considered. In particular, students who are privileged to go to university should think about the sections of society who are not so privileged. There needs to be an engagement between peers from different segments of societies to ensure that sections of society are not worlds apart resulting in neglect, while one segment excels and the other is left behind to struggle.

If students, while they are 18 to 21 years old, are encouraged to reach out to their underprivileged peers through focused discussion groups and stimulating programming, this interaction and care will hopefully continue when they leave university.

Engagement itself would be a start towards the cure. In the words of Jewish teaching, if you are distressed or feel dejected at heart, talk it over. This should begin by different sections of society starting to speak to each other. It can go a long way to cure the ills of society that we have may just have seen boil over. 

Channelling energy constructively

An interesting homiletic question arises in Jewish thought about positive lessons that one can derive from a common thief. The Talmud (Berachot 63a) states that a thief displays characteristics that can be very useful in other areas of life if developed positively. One example is the fact that a thief must have considerable belief in what he or she does in order to succeed.

In fact, 18th century Chassidic Rabbi Meshulam Zusia of Anipol in the Ukraine stated (Hayom Yom 3 Iyar) that there are seven things one can learn from a thief, if harnessed positively: humility, self sacrifice, care for detail, hard work, efficiency, hope and resilience.

Perhaps this attitude can be helpful in seeing the class of society that we call underprivileged as a potential source of talent. We could throw into the debating pot a challenge to the government to use some creative thinking around how to channel these talents constructively rather than destructively.

As with all moral crises that occur in society, the display of unity that came to the fore with the ‘clean up London’ campaign by ordinary hard working people who respect the law was very encouraging. This same unity should come together to clean up the social problems of society through some of the above practical proposals of engagement and help make this world a more stable, moral and peaceful place to live in.

Comments on: A Jewish view on the British riots: who’s to blame?

katarina wrote...

The society as a whole is guilty. That is the starting point.

Where to start? Repentance as nation and then individually. Israel has a history when it sinned against the G-d; they were called by the prophets to repent, rebuild their temple and get together and read the Moses books. And everybody did, bad and good.
Britain needs G-d, a Jewish G-d.
Hence, we always think that the world is our personal narrative and that by sheer force of will, we can bring it around to our way of thinking.
Thank you for the article.


Mr John B. Leonard wrote...

'World Society Well Being and Quality of Life' should be: What we all should strive for? Capitalism is in general the World norm. This in turn preaches 'Winner Takes All', hence 'Fat Cats high pay', MEPs, MPs, Bankers overpaying themselves pay and expenses legally. (They vote/write the Laws/Rules that apply). Then when they cheat very few are brought to task but at the other end of the scale, Benefit Fraud etc by the underclass, is treated very harshly. The majorityof Society, that have a job in the UK, are poorly paid when compared with the Peer Group. This is not only unfair but creates tension in the country. Worse than this is the uneducated underclass (Whole families have never worked) who either can not find a paid job or are better off on benefits. These uneducated families produce more uneducated feral children, who know nothing different than a low paid job at best, at worst become thieves, drug runners/dealers etc.
The UK Peer group must change and ensure that the wealth created is distributed in a much fairer way than currently. The 'Arab Spring' should be a warning to the current 'Peer Groups' that People are realising that they can unite and force change. Until this happens there will be a continuing risk that the underclass could revolt against the unfairness in Society.