Originally published in The Forward.
Growing up, I remember regularly seeing cops at the door of my synagogue and patrolling in their police cars outside. My family and older members of the synagogue explained that our congregation hired the police to patrol during events due to past cases of anti-Semitism at other synagogues, like bomb threats and vandalism.
“The police are there to protect us,” they explained. “We hire these cops to keep the Jewish community safe.”
Just this week, an omnibus spending package included a whopping $60 million in security funding for schools and synagogues, thanks to efforts by the Orthodox Union:
And yet, I think this approach is flawed.
In the past year, President Donald Trump has made it clear that his administration intends to use the police and prison system as key tools for enforcing racist policies, like the Muslim ban and the repeal of DACA. The Trump administration has emboldened local law enforcement to detain thousands of immigrants in for-profit prisons, to surveil mosques and Muslim communities, and to use technology from the military in local communities.
Standing up to attacks on immigrants, Jews, Muslims, and Black people in our communities require us to stand firmly against police and prisons, including in our places of worship. Keeping vulnerable communities safe requires solidarity, not surveillance, racial profiling, or policing.
Black and indigenous folks and people of color (BIPOC) have been resisting racist policing for generations. In the 1960’s, the Black Panther Party fought racist policing with Cop Watch and their school lunch program. Today, groups like BYP100, Red Nation, Black and Pink, and Stop LAPD Spying are linking the struggles of BIPOC, sex workers, sexual assault survivors, queer and trans people, and immigrants against the police.
The Jewish community must be part of this fight.
There are, undoubtedly, some Jewish people who feel more secure in a synagogue that’s actively being patrolled by police. The messaging is coming from our institutions. Each year, the Anti-Defamation League —- an organization that’s been criticized for its close ties to law enforcement — pairs data on anti-Semitic incidents with a handbook for synagogues on “Security Strategies for Todays Dangerous World.” The handbook has over 160 references to collaboration with police, without acknowledging the risks that traditional policing poses to people of color, trans people, and people with disabilities. The ADL’s security handbook doesn’t have a single mention of interfaith coordination, community education on anti-Semitism, or crisis de-escalation.
Furthermore, the ADL lobbies for the robust use of policing in synagogues, yet provides no concrete data on the effects of that policing. In other words, we have no way to know if spending hundreds of thousands on police leads to even a tiny reduction in anti-Semitic incidents.
We can be sure, however, that a place of worship is not truly safe if Jews of color are at risk of police violence, or if our neighbors from a local mosque or black church are profiled on their way to an interfaith event.
Religious spaces are not truly safe if they bring more policing to our local neighborhoods or if they help fund the law enforcement agencies that are carrying out President Trump’s racist, anti-immigrant laws.
We’re in urgent need of strategies to keep our communities safe that do not rely on cops.
The Movement for Black Lives (M4BL) platform describes police and prison abolition in terms of a “divest/invest” framework: Cities should divest from policing by defunding police departments and blocking expansions of the police and prison system. We should then invest in the resources for that create real safety for Black people and people of color, like public schools, affordable housing and mental healthcare.
Many Jewish communities — often led by black Jews and other Jews of color — are using this divest/invest model to stand against policing and develop alternative visions for safety. When I talk with people at my synagogue about divesting from the police, we focus on community-based strategies for dealing with crises, from allergy attacks to domestic violence, from rowdy Purim crowds to anti-Semitic attacks.
Imagine if our synagogues divested fully from the police and invested instead in our communities. Instead of calling the cops, who often use lethal force against people with disabilities, we could fight for comprehensive healthcare and mental health services. Instead of promoting a culture of fear and surveillance, we could have trainings in every synagogue about conflict resolution, and crisis intervention. We could stand up to anti-blackness, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism, and gender violence through community education. We could more effectively make sure our synagogues into sanctuaries, where immigrants are safe from I.C.E. and local police.
Many places of worship are also beginning to have important conversations about community defense against neo-Nazis and white supremacists. In Charlottesville, it was anti-fascist protestors and clergy — not police — who stood up to neo-Nazis and guarded places of worship. In Durham, NC, it was hundreds of anti-Klan activists — not police — who organized to successfully prevent a scheduled KKK march this summer.
As we create safety plans for our local congregations, we should focus on building interfaith defense networks to support the places of worship that are most vulnerable to attacks by neo-Nazis and white supremacists, including synagogues, Mosques, Black churches, and LGBT congregations. By developing preemptive crisis-response strategies, we can defend our places of worship from racist, Islamophobic, and anti-Semitic violence and invest in real safety — safety without cops.