The Daughters of Zelophechad take on the police

I’m moving house this week so am not leading services or giving a sermon for Parashat Pinchas. But if I was, this is the sermon I would give…

The story of the Daughters of Zelophechad (Numbers 27:1-8) is one of my favourites. Five women – named women – find a sexist injustice in the law, so they take on Moses and convince him to take on God, who finds in their favour and changes the rules. It’s a real text for Progressive Jews who find it impossible to view Jewish law, as recorded in the Torah, as infallible.

The injustice they found was that a deceased man’s property would pass to his sons. That was all very well (up to a point) so long as he had sons. But if he had no sons, there was a bit of a gap in the law, because the property couldn’t pass to his daughters. Apparently it had never occurred to anybody that a situation might arise where someone might die leaving only daughters. But that was the (admittedly very specific) situation in which Zelophechad passed away. And just because nobody had thought this scenario through, why should the women be denied justice?

There’s a midrash recorded by the 15th-century commentator Abarbanel, however, which takes the story to another level. He says that the women were being given the bureaucratic run-around. They went to Moses, who said, “Don’t bother me with this, take it to the priests.” They went to the priest Elazar, who said, “Don’t bother me with this, take it to the tribal chiefs.” They went to the tribal chiefs, who said, “This is above our pay-grade, you need to ask Moses.”

Eventually, Abarbanel records, the daughters put their heads together and came up with a creative plan, with cunning worthy of a Professor of Cunning at Oxford University. They waited until Moses, Elazar and the tribal chiefs were all in the same place – a public place, the entrance to the Tent of Meeting – and then went to make their demand before all of them. And then, only then, none of these men was able to dodge their duties as a leader.

Earlier this year, the whole scenario was repeated somewhat. The Centre for Women’s Justice had some concerns, about a very precise situation that nobody had really considered in detail before. Domestic violence committed by police officers.

If we think about it, it’s unsurprising that police officers are particularly disposed to domestic violence. They’re generally athletic and fit. Predominantly male. They’re used to using their bodies in their work. And they deal with aggression all day every day. I’d never thought about it before, but as I read about the CWJ’s work, I realised, of course this is going to be an issue.

But it gets worse than that – because when a woman is abused by a partner that happens to be a police officer, what happens next? She could make a report at her local police station… but all the officers there are friends and colleagues of the abuser.

The CWJ has tried raising these concerns informally for years, before Moses, before the priests, before the tribal chiefs. Everybody directed them to someone else. So eventually, they put their heads together and came up with a creative plan: a super-complaint.

Hardly anyone’s heard of a police super-complaint. It’s a very rarely-used procedure whereby certain campaigning organisations can submit a high-level dossier of evidence about “a feature, or combination of features, of policing in England and Wales that is significantly harming the interests of the public”, and demand an investigation and, within 56 days, a published response. The response must be jointly authored by the Office of Police Conduct, the Inspector of Constabulary and the College of Policing.

If approached singly, each of these bodies could try to push the complainants to each other and avoid dealing with the issue. But the CWJ gathered all three at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, made a super-complaint, and is currently waiting for the response.

The super-complaint itself makes dispiriting reading:

[There] is a risk of lack of integrity, of officers (both suspects and their colleagues) manipulating the system and acting in bad faith in a variety of ways […] A distinctive aspect of police-perpetrated domestic abuse is that the partners of such men feel doubly powerless. They experience the powerlessness that most domestic abuse victims suffer, but in addition their abuser is part of the system intended to protect them […T]hey feel a deep lack of confidence in the criminal justice system. Their unique position justifies special arrangements to ensure that this group of women have greater protections, better outcomes, and that justice is seen to be done.

The Daughters of Zelophechad found themselves in a unique position, caught by a gap in the law, and they found a creative method to ensure that the necessary change took place. May the Centre for Women’s Justice achieve the same.

The Centre for Women’s Justice is a registered charity and you can donate here.

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