Rabbi Aryeh Bernstein

By George Castle, Special to Chicago Jewish News

Aryeh Bernstein has a notable precedent in presenting a video talk saying human rights and justice are rooted in a holy text like the Torah.

Ad-libbing much of his speech advocating a civil-rights bill, President John F. Kennedy told the nation live and in black and white in June 1963 that ending discrimination was a concept as “old as the Scriptures.”

Bernstein, a fifth-generation Chicagoan, Orthodox rabbi and now civic activist, knows his history. He recalls how the fair-housing provisions of the 1964 Civil Rights Act kicked in two years later, likely scaring local white Democrats to switch parties in electing Republican civil-rights backer Charles Percy to the Senate over three-term incumbent Democrat Paul Douglas.

Growing up in Hyde Park, one of the city’s few integrated neighborhoods, Bernstein also soaked up history as it went along. As a teen-ager, he was sensitized by the videotaped Rodney King police beating in Los Angeles in 1991. He heard black schoolmates at Kenwood Academy tell how their treatment at the hands of police was different than that of whites.

Now, as the city tries to pick up the pieces left by the Jason Van Dyke trial that ended in a second-degree murder conviction for his 16-shot killing of Laquan McDonald, Bernstein continues to strongly advocate for police reforms left unfinished.  At 43, he is Chicago Justice Fellowship Director for Avodah, an educational consultant for the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs and coordinator of the Social Justice Beit Midrash at Mishkan Chicago.

In a video address — accessed at part of the ELI Talk series of Jewish lectures, before the Van Dyke trial, Bernstein explained how the concept of police misconduct was antithetical to Torah teachings thousands of years before an organized police force.

Citing Deuteronomy, Chapter 16, Bernstein recounted a short but firm command: “Justice, justice you shall pursue.”  Although the text did not go on in-depth, the thought process was clear in establishing a criminal-justice system: “They shall judge the system with a just law.”

Explaining later rabbis’ interpretations, Bernstein said the original intent was about establishing a civil society. The “rhetoric is urgent, the stakes are very high… get it right, you will live and have a society. But get it wrong, you won’t (live). Law enforcement officers who mete out state violence should face harsh punishment if meted out wrongly.”

On the video, Bernstein recounts horrific numbers. In 2017, U.S. police killed 1,129 people in the line of duty. The total was “more than the number killed by mass shootings and Chicago gangs combined,” he said. Most victims were not the subject of violent crimes. Some 147 were unarmed. But only 12 officers involved with the shootings were charged with a crime.

So why should Jews be integrally involved in the effort to reform police procedures and union contracts?

“It’s a moral issue, it’s a life-and-death issue and it’s a Jewish issue,” said Bernstein.

In a statement, the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs, aligning itself with the Coalition for Police Contracts Accountability, said Jews are not far removed from official brutality and thus need to support long-deferred police reform:

“Jews around the world descend from people who experienced state-sanctioned violence, including pogroms, inquisitions and genocide. Some of us feel these consequences as social workers, lawyers and community organizers with relationships to heavily-policed and systematically divested communities.”

Bernstein has waded into an age-old problem that simply reached a crescendo in the Van Dyke trial, brought about only by the forced revelation of a police video showing the officer emptying his gun into McDonald, who appeared to not be directly threatening Van Dyke and other officers.

White police officers largely come from the tribal, ethnic neighborhoods of the city, bringing prejudices to the job that sometimes result in brutality. “White officers fear black men,” said a black retired former assistant police superintendent. But even black officers over the 20th century could be exceedingly violent to members of their own race. Most infamous was Sylvester “Two-Gun Pete” Washington, who was proud about gunning down nine men on the South Side in the 1930s and 1940s. Washington traded up from his .38 revolver to a .357 Magnum blaster.

As cooler heads try to prevail, the likes of Bernstein are needed for perspective.

“One of my value-addeds within JCUA’s police accountability committee is the literacy to enable Torah framing,” he said. Other rabbis like Suzanne Griffel, Megan GoldMarche, and Lauren Henderson are involved.

“Accepting the invitation by ELI Talks to give this talk on this topic is an effort to frame this coalition work in a Torah lens and uplift the work itself,” Bernstein said. “It’s through doing the tedious coalition work of community organizing that I was able to see the Torah framing that I might not have seen otherwise.”

Interestingly, Bernstein cites a statement by Rahm Emanuel, Chicago’s only Jewish mayor, as inadvertently giving the green-light to police miscreants.

“In 2014, Emanuel said the reason violent crime had spiked in Chicago while being down elsewhere in the U.S. was police had gone ‘fetal,’” he said. “The implication was clear – cops must be freed from scrutiny and oversight as not to be fettered by punishment.

“But Rahm’s Torah says exactly the opposite. Police can only do it right being chastened by fear of punishment.”

Changing the solid “blue code of silence,” oddly similar to gang-bangers’ anti-snitching commandments, will likely take decades to totally crack. But Bernstein said such changes in human behavior can only start with institutional reforms, some court-mandated and others legislated. Whistleblowers should not be ostracized or thwarted, bad cops should be punished and police-union contracts’ obstructionism must be changed.

Bernstein said since 2004, the city of Chicago has paid out nearly $700 million to victims of police brutality. The taxpayers are footing the bill in a city whose finances often were tottering.

Van Dyke was a poster boy in dodging discipline for civilian complaints. Bernstein totaled some 20 civilian complaints against the officer before his fateful encounter with McDonald. One resulted in a $350,000 settlement from the city for Van Dyke’s use of excessive force in a traffic stop. He was never  punished for any complaint, though.

“The Chicago Police Department knew it had a reckless and violent officer,” Bernstein said.

He added chief among the police-contract provisions needing changes include police having 24 hours to issue a statement to investigators after an officer-involved shooting, the ability to amend statements if a contradictory statement or video surfaces and the inability to investigate anonymous complaints against police.

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