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In the 2005 landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Kelo v. New London Justice John Paul Stevens, in rationalizing the taking of private property for use by private developers – as opposed to the classical interpretation of the Fifth Amendment in which eminent domain may only be invoked if the confiscated land is to be taken for public use – wrote: “For more than a century, our public use jurisprudence has wisely eschewed rigid formulas and intrusive scrutiny in favor of affording legislatures broad latitude in determining what public needs justify the use of the takings power. Promoting economic development is a traditional and long accepted function of government.”
In other words, it may be assumed that government is better at determining how other people’s property should be used than the owners themselves. As predicted by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor in her dissenting opinion, in which she rightfully criticizes the Court’s abandonment of the limitation on such government power, “Under the banner of economic development, all private property is now vulnerable to being taken and transferred to another private owner. The specter of condemnation hangs over all property. Nothing is to prevent the State from replacing any Motel 6 with a Ritz-Carlton, any home with a shopping mall, or any farm with a factory. As for the victims, the government now has license to transfer property from those with fewer resources to those with more.”
Since the 2005 ruling, the threat of eminent domain, especially for the “redevelopment” of areas with an alleged dearth of ratables, has become commonplace. In brief, consider:
The Washington Times, in an October 3, 2005 story, described a plan to revitalize a Riviera Beach, Florida, community that could end up displacing approximately 6,000 residents, much to the dismay of several long-time homeowners.
The Boca Raton, Florida Community Redevelopment Agency recently stated (April 25 online edition of the Palm Beach Post) that “No one on this board is the least bit hesitant on using eminent domain to complete [a project to link the southern and northern ends of the downtown area].”
In Bridgeport, Connecticut, the superior court just ruled that eleven acres of a power company’s property could be seized for an economic development project. And the list goes on (and on and on).
Is this something the Jewish community should be concerned with, or, should we keep our noses out of such matters – at least until it affects one of our homes or businesses? I think the answer may lie with an oft-quoted, yet perhaps underutilized, commandment from Leviticus: Lo ta’amod al dam rayecha: Ani Hashem – Do not stand [idly] by the blood of your neighbor: I am God (19:16).
Most of us do understand the plain meaning of this verse; that is, if a person’s life is in jeopardy, one must not stand by in indifference, allowing that person to drown, be attacked, bleed to death, etc. Thankfully, many Jewish communities around the country operate dedicated volunteer first aid squads, and there is little need for the average person to make use of this commandment in such a fashion.
But it is rarely noted that the Hebrew word for blood, dam, and the word for money, or value, damim, share the same linguistic root (tartei mashma). In reality, though, this makes perfect sense. The Torah commonly identifies the blood as the transporter of life; see, for instance, Leviticus 17:11, where it states, “For the nefesh [usually translated as 'life'] of the flesh is in the blood” Certainly, one’s physical life is at risk when there is a great loss of blood. If one loses too much and dies, one’s physical existence is nullified. (Of course, it goes without saying that physical death does not negate one’s achievements or spiritual worth).
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New Delhi would do well to remain aware of the predicament of Israel today.
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