Identity, Justice, Peoplehood

On Jewish Safety

I recently returned to the Jewish Community Center (JCC) – Milwaukee from a summer-long lapse in my membership to find that the entrance had been entirely revamped.  There were new, electronically automated gates and doors; it was hard to figure out how to enter the place. The JCC employee behind the newly formidable counter informed me that I would need to obtain a new fob to get in.

My hurry to fit in a swim between multiple start-of-the-school-year obligations does not entirely explain the rage this provoked in me.  Nevertheless, I obtained the fob, the gatekeeper cheerily admonishing me that to replace it would cost $15. Fuming, I proceeded to the JCC locker room. I wondered once again if my enjoyment of the JCC’s excellent, chlorine-free pool, its multiple lap lanes and generous hours of operation, could continue to justify my membership there.  This ambivalence had precipitated my summer membership lapse, like when people in a relationship going downhill decide to “take a break for a while.”

These are terrifying times, the news incessant and bad. Incidents of white supremacist violence have become commonplace, from racially motivated assaults on places of worship, to mass murders in public spaces, to the hundreds of incidents of police murders of young people of color. This violence is fostered and rationalized by a sitting presidential administration, an administration that also casts aspersions on people’s loyalties and attempts to strip citizens of their rights.  The threats are broad, directly menacing so many people: foreign born, Jewish, Muslim, queer, people of color. The cadence of menace is deeply familiar to ears attuned to any notes of possible harm, to people always ready to grab their passports, if they have them, and head for the border, if they can.  Such attunement is innate to me, as much or more a part of my being Jewish as any kind of ritual observance.

In such times, we reach for shelter, for – to use a word that once meant a place of safety but that has itself become an epicenter of conflict – asylum. As a Jewish mother, I can’t tell my teenage daughters not to go outside. So, I imagine them safe, in suddenly vulnerable spaces like malls and movie theaters: as if my will alone could shield them.

The question of Jewish safety is vexed: historically, because Jewish safety has always been both temporary and conditional, in all of the places we have called home. And vexed in implementation, because any process of ensuring safety, particularly in an era of weapons-grade surveillance and security operations, creates its own violence.

To be clear: I have issues. Taking a public stance against the Israeli occupation of Palestine is costly; I have been told frequently that it puts me “outside the tent” pitched by organized, Jewish Milwaukee.

For example, the person in charge of security for the Milwaukee Jewish Federation once threw me and three friends out of a Federation Hanukah party, picking my husband up by the belt and hefting him out the door. Apparently, the Federation deemed having the four of us protest the refusal of then-Governor Scott Walker to admit any refugees into Wisconsin as more of a security threat than stranding desperate people in temporary camps around the world.  Such are the contradictions at play in creating Jewish safety.

As I swam back and forth that day, I parsed questions of Jewish safety. Of course, Jewish institutions have to respond to the terrifying rise in public displays and murderous incidents of white nationalism and anti-Semitism, from Charlottesville to Pittsburgh to Poway, California.  In 2018, the Milwaukee JCC was specifically targeted by a man who mailed letters threatening acts of “maximum carnage.”

In addition to its recreational facilities, the JCC houses a preschool and sponsors many large, community events.  The vulnerability of such “soft targets” could well attract more white supremacists like the one who mailed the threats in 2018. These terrorists are drawn to inflict pain and suffering on Jews because of a long history of anti-Semitism, including lunatic theories in which Jews are part of a “Great Replacement” scheme to bring down “western civilization,” replacing “white” EuroAmericans with people of color, Muslims, and/or refugees .  Enhanced security only makes sense in this context.

Or does it?  The connection between high-tech security and collective well-being is clearly axiomatic for the JCC administration.  But it matters who is kept out by the multiple gates and who is allowed in: whose safety is being ensured. Over the fifteen years I’ve been a JCC member, I’ve observed increasingly heightened infrastructure.  Accessing the pool and gym, for example, now requires not only passing through the entryway, but swiping through an additional, internal doorway. Forget your fob and you have to hang out in the hallway and hope for the kindness of strangers to let you in. While frustrating, that has mostly turned out fine for me, a middle aged, Ashekenazi member. But how does it work for, say, an African American kid, there to play basketball with friends?

Certainly, the new technology at the JCC announces itself as providing safety.  But so do border walls and checkpoints around the world. In places like Israel/Palestine, Fortress Europe, and the U.S.-Mexico border, similar security systems result in detention, delay, and harm for many.  Incessant updates to the JCC’s high-tech systems mirror ongoing surveillance and securitization in Israel/Palestine and, as the Jewish Voice for Peace Deadly Exchange campaign documents, are likely influenced by technologies and trainings done in partnership with Israeli security systems. Such security systems are costly, migrating with corporate entities like GEO group and G4S across oceans, creating inequality and repression.  Do such security systems honor the injunction of Torah to welcome the stranger?

They do not. When it is vouchsafed by surveillance technology, safety will always wind up being exclusionary.  Some people will sail past the checkpoints, even if they have forgotten the requisite ID.  Others will be stopped at the high-tech gates, searched, frustrated. Some of them will give up trying to come in.  In this case, practices of security actively undermine Jewish ethical principles.

In responding to safety concerns, many Jewish institutions, synagogues as well as more secular spaces like the JCC, are moving towards employing armed guards, or training staff in handling weapons.  Inviting firearms into our most holy spaces, a contradiction born of historical extremes, may not make these places safer.

In his essay, “Teachers with Guns,” Thomas Baxter writes about his experience as a teacher whose Ohio district voted to send school staff to weapons training.  Though initially skeptical of the claim that firearms would make his students safer, Baxter volunteers for a summer program.  He recounts his progress through the weapons course: his growing confidence with the Glock he is issued, his improving marksmanship. He and his wife discuss where they might hide the gun in their house.  While he is away at the weapons training, Baxter is also worrying about a student in his school, a kid in and out of trouble.  The essay concludes with an incident in which Baxter realizes that the person most likely to get shot by armed school personnel, himself included, is precisely the kid he has been worrying about.  Instead of making the school safer, the carefully trained, gun-toting teacher is likely to harm or even kill the very students he signed up to protect.

What does it mean that the entrance to the JCC increasingly looks like a fortress?  What kinds of safety is available there, and for whom?

I returned to the JCC because I missed its open, azure waters, its huge banner advertising the Talmudic rightness of teaching your children how to swim. I love swimming in the lane next to seniors grooving to the classics during their waterobics classes. I’ve struck up a non-verbal camaraderie with an older Russian man I used to think of as grouchy. He now beams at me and motions me into the lane in which he floats for hours, shrugging to himself, I imagine, over the American frenzy for exercise.  Life inside the tent pitched by the mainstream Jewish community can be quite lovely; something, indeed, to protect.

Though I may no longer reside within the imaginary tent of the Jewish federation, I am still Jewish; I still sleep with my family’s passports in the drawer next to me, just in case.

But the exclusions of incessant securitization mean that I no longer feel entirely welcome in mainstream Jewish spaces. That puts me in broad company, camped here outside the boundaries.  As the Jewish Year 5780 dawns, we hope for safe harbor and welcome for us all.

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