Content Note: This blog-post contains mentions of white-supremacist and anti-Semitic violence.
As we mourn white-supremacist murders, places of worship need community defense, not more cops.
On Saturday, Robert Bowers walked into the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, shouted “All Jews must die” and opened fire into the Shabbat services, killing eight. This isn’t the only white-nationalist attack in recent days. Last week, the Iglesia ni Cristo church in Seattle was attacked with Molotov Cocktails in a likely hate crime. On October 17 in Ferguson, MO, activist Dayne Jones was found dead in a possible lynching. And earlier this week in Jeffersontown, KY white supremacist Gregory Bush attempted to enter a Black Church before driving to a local grocery store and murdering two black shoppers.
A few months ago, I wrote that Jewish communities should stand up to the growing threats of state violence and vigilante white-nationalists by divesting from police and investing in community defense. That shouldn’t change as our community grieves the murders at Tree of Life this weekend.
As we mourn this string of white-nationalist hate crimes, Jewish communities should protect ourselves and other vulnerable faith communities, like black churches, mosques, and LGBTQ congregations, by organizing local community defense initiatives– local, interfaith teams who work together to monitor, prevent, and resist and white supremacist violence.
We can’t rely on cops to keep our places of worship safe when they are actively spying on our Muslim neighbors. We can’t rely on cops to protect our communities when they are helping the Trump administration detain and deport immigrants. We can’t rely on cops to keep us safe when they are continuing to murder black folks, Native Americans, and disabled people. That shouldn’t change as we mourn the murders in Pittsburg.
For our synagogues to be safe for Jews of color, trans and queer Jews, and undocumented jews, we need to immediately end our relationship with the police and channel our resources into community defense.
There will, almost certainly, be groups who use the hate crime in Pittsburgh to argue that our communities should spend more money on police presence in synagogues.
Instead, we should take inspiration from the places of worship that mobilized hundreds of people in their neighborhoods to take shifts protecting undocumented families from deportation by law enforcement. We should make spreadsheets, hold trainings, and recruit volunteers to take shifts monitoring for– and if need be, resisting against– violence at vulnerable places of worship. We should look to local communities, like Durham, NC who recently mobilized to stop the KKK from marching– not through cooperation with the cops, but through mobilizing anti-racist, anti-fascist resistance.
In some communities, community defense might look like coordinating interfaith, grassroots patrolling for services and large events. It might look like neighborhood “rapid-response teams” or hosting self-defense training for congregants. Some local community defense groups– depending on context– may also look into teaming up with anti-racist groups who offer arms training, or who monitor white-supremacist activity and are willing to provide an armed, anti-racist presence.
Community defense initiatives take a lot of trust, coordination, and training to be dependable and effective. But as white-nationalists continue escalating their racist, anti-semitic, and Islamophobic attacks on our places of worship— and as police brutality continues against people of color— local communities urgently need to make plans for keeping our religious communities safe.
Now is the time to build alliances against white supremacy and state violence.
As our communities reel from Pittsburg and from the hate crimes in Seattle and Jeffersontown, we need to gather with other vulnerable faith communities to keep ourselves safe from white nationalist violence– without relying on cops.
Lara Haft is a rabbinical student and Jewish educator from Rockville, MD. They write about the intersections of art, ritual, and social justice at diaspora6000.com.