Cycles of Poverty

THE PORTION

By Daniel M. Jaffe

Published May 19, 2006, issue of May 19, 2006.

WASHINGTON, D.C. —A woman holding a placard stating “Behar, Leviticus 25” marched down the center aisle of the United States Senate, disrupting this afternoon’s session. As Senators scurried to hide beneath their seats, the protester paced before the podium for five minutes until Capitol police, guns drawn, surrounded her. Only after one Izzy Cohen, a lieutenant, subdued the protester with the mysterious phrase-in-tongues “Bevakashah,” did she set her placard down. Officer Cohen then handcuffed and removed the woman from Senate chambers.

The well-coifed and manicured suspect has been identified as Judy Frankel, a middle-aged mother of three, from Calabasas, Calif. Frankel is currently awaiting arraignment on charges of breaking and entering, impersonating federal custodial staff (her mode of sneaking into chambers) and disseminating biblical messages without a clerical license. “When I learned she was from California, the whole mishigas made sense,” said a Senator who wishes to remain anonymous.

“If you ask me,” volunteered another Senator, who also wishes to remain anonymous, “she should be interned at Guantanamo. Have you ever read Leviticus? She was implicitly summoning the wrath of the Almighty. Talk about your weapons of mass destruction!”

The World Jewish Congress has issued a statement distancing itself and all Jewish organizations worldwide from Frankel’s actions. “Every faith suffers from religious fanaticism, a cross we must all bear… so to speak.”

This afternoon’s Senate session had been devoted to debate on legislation proposing that the United States cancel all debts owed by the world’s most impoverished nations. Prior to the disruption, arguments against debt relief had been heard: “Just as children must be taught to manage their allowance, so poor nations must be taught not to borrow more than they can repay,” one Senator said. “Tough love. Be cruel to be kind.” At that point, Frankel withdrew the placard from a strategically concealed gray plastic trashcan, discarded her gray custodial smock and cap, and made her march down the aisle.

In an exclusive interview while in custody, Frankel explained the meaning of her placard’s declaration. “The Torah portion Behar is absolutely clear: When one’s brother is poor, richer siblings are morally obligated to bail him out and not take advantage. It’s a way of helping the poor get back on their feet so that they won’t need permanent handouts. Ultimately, everyone wins. But the imposition of crushing debt is not a way of helping at all; it’s a way of entrenching the poverty forever. That’s the point I was trying to make.

“Behar is partly about destroying cycles of poverty — richer relatives assisting poorer ones, owners freeing slaves each Jubilee and so forth. I’m not claiming to be an economist, so if it’s impractical to give debt relief entirely, then at least we could give a periodic exemption, the way Behar says we have to let the land lie fallow every seventh year. After all, aren’t we supposed to treat people better than dirt?”

“Oh, please,” responded a representative of the World Jewish Congress. “Behar is full of farkakte ideas, like giving landowners an entire year after sale to rescind the deal. What economy can function like that? The Torah gives great advice about an awful lot of things, but we all know that Moses never attended Wharton.”

When Frankel was asked whether circulation of an e-mail message to Congress might have made her point with greater clarity and less controversy, she replied: “Did you ever try to get through to a Senator? They treat constituent email like so much cyber-trash!”

Today’s arrest has sparked mass demonstrations and counter-demonstrations around the globe. Houses of worship from all faiths, as well as international banks, have been besieged by throngs alternately chanting “Free the Behar 25!” and “Show me the money!” The New York Stock Exchange has temporarily suspended trading, fearful of the potential chaos that will ensue if debtor nations cease debt repayment now that the Lord is allegedly on their side. Exchanges in Hong Kong, London and elsewhere are expected to follow suit.

When asked whether Frankel foresaw these consequences of her protest, she offered a silent, wry smile.

Frankel’s placard has mysteriously disappeared from the Senate floor, some witnesses insisting that it burst spontaneously into flames, others that it went up in a puff of smoke, others claiming it to have been whisked away by the Smithsonian’s special events promotion staff in preparation for an upcoming exhibit on separation of church and state. The American Civil Liberties Union could not be reached for comment.

Daniel M. Jaffe, author of “The Limits of Pleasure” (Haworth Press, 2001), lives in Santa Barbara, Calif.



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