I READ A HEADLINE
Governor Cuomo Directs New York State Police to Increase Presence in Jewish Neighborhoods in Wake of Recent Antisemitic Hate Crimes
AND MY HEART SINKS
My heart sinks because my community has been attacked again, and my heart sinks because of this message—only more police will make us safe.
It’s true, there has been recent antisemitic violence. There usually is somewhere. I’m a public Jewish professional, and while I’ve not personally been physically attacked, I receive threatening voicemails, emails, letters to my office and home. My face has been edited into gas chamber memes; I was added to a public list of Jews to “watch” on a list maintained by white nationalists. Others have been physically attacked—some during intense political unrest and others while simply existing while being visibly Jewish and riding public transit.
The lies that white supremacy tells about Jews artificially inflate our power and wealth. It portrays us as the ultimate controlling power, making us scapegoats for powers far beyond our control. We are the shadowy funders behind Black and brown activism, it says, or we are encouraging multiculturalism in order to undermine whiteness and Christian values. Or we are the landlords or the bankers or an imagined cabal between a Jewish mayor and developers. We are wealthy, sneaky, easy to blame.
When believed, these stories have been deadly. In October of 2018, a man who believed the Jews were behind a migrant caravan walked into a synagogue in Pittsburgh and killed eleven Jews on Shabbat, our holiest day. Antisemitism animates white nationalist groups around the country; it is at the core of conspiracy theories like Q-Anon; and it was foundational to the violence in Charlottesville in 2017 and this January at the US Capitol.
When believed, these stories have been deadly.
My organization, Jewish Community Action, works in coalitions to transform public safety and to improve the state’s response to incidents of hate. We know the statistics and are immersed in the triaging of white supremacist violence. We respond to regular attacks on Asian Americans and Muslims. The police killings of Black men dominate our discourse on racial justice in Minnesota. We know there are real threats and are not wrong to be afraid. But what are we losing in pursuit of safety?
What are we losing in pursuit of safety?
There are stories that play on repeat in the mainstream Jewish community. First: That the key to our safety is in relationships with law enforcement. This story says that these relationships are crucial—the Jewish community’s history has been punctuated and bloodied by state violence, as ancient as Egyptian taskmasters and as ruthless as the Gestapo. Recent studies show connection and collaboration between law enforcement and the white supremacist groups that target Jews. We recognize that this system was not made to serve us, but we seek out and form relationships because we believe those relationships will ensure that we are protected.
Next: Police and/or armed security makes Black Jews and Jews of color feel unsafe and unwelcome in synagogues and Jewish spaces, but are necessary in the event of a white supremacist attack. This is a setup: the story tells us “we understand that some people may feel unsafe, but we have to weigh those feelings against the real physical safety of the rest of us.” When you pit feelings and perceptions against real physical safety, how can the conversation even continue? We’re at an impasse. So we hold another educational program, push harder decisions down the road, and when the High Holidays approach, we throw our hands up and return to last year’s security plan.
We recognize that this system was not made to serve us, but we seek out and form relationships because we believe those relationships will ensure that we are protected.
There is a third story, much quieter.
I think it’s common in many communities. Those of us working to change the status quo in our communities are often seen as a threat, an aggressor. We become the safety risk, the call coming from inside the house. There is usually a backlash, the threat of being pushed out of the community.
My organization is supporting a radical transformation of public safety and the redistribution of a portion of the police budget to other services to prevent violence and care for people in Minneapolis. To some in my community, that sounds like we want to take their safety away. Like we wish them harm.
Of course we don’t. I don’t. I love my community deeply, I organize in my community because I have optimism and hope for us, I see a better future and want us in it.
The desire to be safe is natural, and I understand why what we propose is scary. I also understand trauma and fear and what they do in our bodies and how when we are triggered, we often react not just to what we perceive as true in the present moment, but to all of the experiences transmitted to us from our ancestors, the stories passed down to us as both legacy and warning.
I know how precarious safety can feel to a community triaging both generational trauma and a current danger. But what do we really mean by safety? What does security mean to people who carry insecurity in our cells?In workshops on safety and security, my staff asks our members to picture the last time they felt safe, then we ask them to share what the conditions were. Most tell us it was a new experience, to imagine the presence of safety. We imagine the presence of danger all the time. They answer things like being in community, knowing that someone has their back, connectedness, stability. Those are the things that make us feel safe. I don’t think we do that enough—imagine together, in community. Instead, we reach for familiar stories.
I see a better future and want us in it.
I think we can tell new stories. If we believe we need relationships with law enforcement to make sure they protect us, what if we instead sought support from the people we’re already in relationships with? What if we believed what Black Jews and Jews of color are telling us, that the presence of armed law enforcement in our religious spaces poses a real threat to their physical safety and puts them in danger in their own faith community, and then worked to change that? And what if we could allow everyone in our community, even those who challenge us to change, the security of having a place in the community, of knowing they will not be cast out?
A NEW STORY TAKES SHAPE
A community, targeted for centuries by lies about our mythical, fictional power, takes back the real power we get from organizing.
A better future is possible, and we are not just in it, we build it together.