Don’t repeat the Maccabees’ mistake — safety through solidarity, not surveillance

This week, Jewish people around the world will light Hanukkah menorahs and commemorate the Maccabees, Jewish rebels who fiercely resisted the anti-Semitic violence of the Greek empire.

According to the Book of Maccabees, in the year 168 BC, the Hellenistic emperor Antiochus brutally conquered Jerusalem. His troops massacred the Jewish people and ravaged the center of Jewish life, the Temple. The conquering Greek empire made laws outlawing Jewish religious practice. They declared that anyone found observing Shabbat or circumcising a child would be put to death. It was these conditions that led to the Maccabean revolt, in which a small band of Jewish rebels used guerilla tactics to force out Antiochus and to re-light the lamps of the holy Temple.

The Hanukkah story is a miraculous triumph, but it has a dark side. The Maccabees, following their successful revolt, took the throne.  They, and their descendants, known as the Hasmonean dynasty, are known for their brutality and violence as leaders. The Hasmonean Dynasty not only ruled harshly over the Jews of Palestine, but also conquered surrounding areas, murdering dissidents and forcing non-Jews to convert to Judaism (which is illegal under Jewish law).

Each Hanukkah, the story of the rebellious Maccabees and the cruel Hasmonean dynasty reminds that that we must fiercely defend our communities from anti-Semitism– but that doing so doesn’t give us a free pass to commit violence ourselves and to transgress the Torah.

Like many people who work at synagogues, day schools, Jewish Community Centers, and Jewish summer camps, one of the things that keeps me up at night is making sure everyone in my community is safe from anti-Semitic violence. But what is also becoming increasingly clear is that, ultimately,  we have a choice when it comes to our places of worship and communal spaces: Do we repeat the Maccabees’ mistakes and perpetuate repression in the name of safety? Or do we find safety through our community solidarity work?

The Boston Globe reports that several Jewish organizations in the area have taken “security” grants from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). But DHS, which runs both T.S.A. and I.C.E., certainly has a poor track record of keeping neighborhoods safe from White Nationalism and religious discrimination. As the parent organization behind the Muslim Ban, the incarceration of asylum seekers on the southern border, and the wide-spread surveillance of mosques and other places of worship, DHS is a prime example of the sort of racist policing that we need to keep out of our holy places.

In fact, a growing number of Jewish clergy are concerned that the presence of cops at synagogue can be dangerous for Black, disabled, trans, and/or undocumented congregants. Jewish communities who do interfaith programming or who are part of sanctuary networks don’t want to put their neighbors at risk by partnering with police, who have a long history of spying on Muslim communities, collaborating with I.C.E., and targeting communities of color.

As our communities open our doors for Sufganiyot fry-offs and Hannukah Sing-a-longs, many activists, lay leaders, educators, and clergy are looking for ways to protect our holy spaces from anti-Semitic violence while keeping surveillant and racist policing out.

A couple of months ago, on Erev Rosh Hashanah, I walked to my neighborhood shul in Boston for services. Instead of armed police standing outside of the synagogue (as is common at many synagogues during the High Holidays), I was greeted by smiling volunteers.  They stood outside the doors, wearing hot pink name tags that declared: “Community Safety Team.” During the afternoon on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, I put on my own pink name tag, joining a local pastor and two university students for our shift watching the synagogue.

My congregation is one of several Jewish communities in Boston that piloted Community Safety plans for the High Holidays this year through the organizations Kavod and Hashkivenu, collectives of Jewish organizations exploring principled strategies to pre-empt and counter attacks by white supremacists.  Dozens of volunteers– elders and college kids, EMTs and teachers, activists and street medics– went through careful training and coordination for their shifts, preparing to deal with any safety needs that our congregations might face, from medical emergencies to neo-Nazi intruders. Kavod’s Community Safety project in Boston is part of a growing trend; this year the Hashkivenu network included synagogues and independent minyanim in Philadelphia, the Bay Area, Washington D.C., and Chicago, all who chose Community Safety teams in various forms over police and private security for their High Holiday services.

It’s inspiring to watch this movement growing. From large congregations with hundreds of families to small organizations on a shoestring budget, every Jewish community can and should be developing a concrete, community-based strategy for defending against anti-Semitism. We don’t need to follow in the footsteps of the Maccabees, who fought bravely against anti-Semitism, but then turned away from Torah and towards violence.

We commit to keeping our communities safe through solidarity. Not cops.

This piece was originally published on Mondoweiss on December 26, 2019. 

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