Pursuing Justice for Military Women
Earlier this week, President Obama stood in front of a group of Marines and declared: “It undermines what this military stands for and what the Marine Corps stands for when sexual assault takes place within our units.” He couldn’t be more correct. Unfortunately, the safety of our soldiers and the integrity of our military risks being undermined by a system that permits or fails to adequately punish sexual assault. A Pentagon report released earlier this year estimated that there were 26,000 military sexual assaults last year. Just weeks later, the Air Force official in charge of the sexual assault prevention programs was arrested for sexual assault. And shortly thereafter, an army sergeant working in their sexual assault prevention office was investigated for similar charges.
Though it is unlikely that this represents an increase in sexual assaults, the confluence of these events that have permeated the national news cycle appears to have finally raised the profile of this issue so that politicians in Washington are forced to listen and respond. There are a number of legislative proposals that have been offered to help stem the culture of sexual assault and the ineffective system of punishment across the armed forces. As of now, the legislative fix with the likeliest chance of implementation can be found in the reauthorization of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA). The House has passed the NDAA, and the Senate Armed Services Committee passed its version in June. We expect the Senate bill to come to the floor soon. Senator Gillibrand intends to add the Military Justice Improvement Act (S.967/H.R.2016) as an amendment to NDAA on the Senate floor in order to ensure that professional military prosecutors, rather than the perpetrators’ commanding officers, are responsible for investigating and prosecuting sexual assault cases.
The other piece of pending legislation on this issue is the Sexual Assault Training Oversight and Prevention (STOP) Act (H.R.1593), which would take the reporting, investigation, prosecution, oversight and victim care of military sexual assaults out of the normal chain of command and place jurisdiction in an autonomous Sexual Assault Oversight and Response Office made up of military and civilian experts.
Here at the RAC, we often use the phrase “justice, justice shall you pursue” as inspiration for our pursuit of social justice. Yet the question of how to best achieve this goal – how to best pursue justice – is not always an easy one. In this week’s Torah portion, just before our hallmark “tzedek tzedek tirdof,” we read that the Israelites were commanded to set up a system of judges. We were cautioned that “you shall not judge unfairly: you shall know no partiality; you shall not take gifts, for gifts blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just.” From the earliest days of our tradition we knew the dangers of a legal system fraught with corruption. As we attempt to pursue justice and tackle the problems we face today – including, but definitely not limited to – military sexual assault, let us aim to do so with integrity, wisdom and righteousness, and to establish systems of justice that do honor to our Jewish and American values.