This is a guest post by Jeremy, a JUFJ volunteer leader on the team that coordinated the Whiteness, Jewishness, and Policing workshop earlier this month.
On September 2nd, we, a group of JUFJ leaders and involved community members, held a workshop on whiteness, Jewishness, and policing. The purpose of that workshop was to develop an understanding of the urgency to defund the police. Through hevruta / text study, critical reflection, and lecture, we explored how our complicity with police as individuals and as members of predominantly white Jewish institutions like JUFJ reinforces and sustains white supremacy. We connected the history of Jewish assimilation into whiteness in the United States and the evolution of policing as an anti-Black racist institution. I wrote this reflection to share my experience co-leading that workshop as a white Jew, and to share my hopes for how other white Jews can think about our roles in and obligation to the racial justice movement.
It can be difficult for white Jews to confront the ways that “systemic white supremacy has permeated our Jewish communities,” as Rebecca Pierce notes in her article “Jews of Color and the Policing of White Space.” We have at times acted on our internalized white supremacy by perpetuating the false narrative that all Jews in the United States are white. Subscribing to this idea harms folks of color, whether by questioning the Jewishness of Jews of Color or using police to bar people of color– and particularly Black people–from entering Jewish spaces. If white Jews like me and multiracial Jewish organizations that remain predominantly white like JUFJ wish to commit to racial justice, then we are obligated to examine our own conscious and unconscious white supremacist actions. If we do not unlearn and dismantle the intergenerational white supremacy inside us, we can never truly work in solidarity with Jews of Color. This work is our responsibility, and the burden of that learning must not be placed on BIPoC folks, both Jewish and non-Jewish, who are most harmed by our own white complicity.
While this internal work is necessary, we as white Jews must also realize that learning is only one step toward action and change. Workshops alone will not end white supremacy or stop police from murdering Black people. Hours before our workshop, DC police shot and killed a Black teenager named Deon Kay z”l. The police officer who shot him specifically sought Deon and his friends out. According to his aunt, Deon saw the officer and ran because he knew the officer would cause him harm (DCist.com). Roughly two weeks earlier in Kenosha, Wisconsin white terrorist Kyle Rittenhouse walked towards cops with an assault rifle around his neck, having just murdered two Black Lives Matter protesters who were fighting for justice for Jacob Blake, a Black man that cops shot and have left paralyzed. Kyle Rittenhouse received no threats. No guns aimed at him, no shots fired. Police protected Kyle Rittenhouse, and killed Deon Kay.
Oftentimes in predominantly white Jewish spaces, including in JUFJ, stories like these are met with horror and disbelief. We mourn the loss of Black life and are disgusted by the preferential treatment we receive as white people. And yet, when we asked workshop participants to listen and follow the calls of Black and Brown leaders to defund the police, some responded with resistance. White Jews in the workshop asked if there is another way: more police reforms, a different word than defund, or some other solution. But here is the reality that we must accept: attempts to water down or distract ourselves from calls to defund police prioritize white comfort over the safety and security of Black and Brown bodies. Police are an institution of white supremacy, and no amount of reform or sensitivity training will make them treat Deon Kay with the dignity, honor, or protection they showed Kyle Rittenhouse.
As much as I believe in defunding, sometimes I am terrified to imagine a world without police. In those moments, I reflect on the words of Mariame Kaba, a Black activist and abolitionist, from her op-ed in the New York Times, “Yes, We Mean Literally Abolish the Police:” “As a society, we have been so indoctrinated with the idea that we solve problems by policing and caging people that many cannot imagine anything other than prisons and the police as solutions to violence and harm.” I think about those words as a white Jewish person living under the threat of antisemitism. I think about how I am sure many other white Jews felt after the Tree of Life Massacre in Pittsburgh in 2018: If the police just punish all the white supremacists and put them away, we will be safe. But how can that ever happen, if policing as an institution protects and reinforces white supremacy? Police will ultimately not protect us from antisemitism. Our whiteness as white Jews will not protect us from antisemitism. Antisemitism is another part of the same oppressive machinery of hate and fear that police use to treat Black communities as threats instead of as people — and that machinery can always be turned on us to stoke hate and fear against Jews of all colors. If we truly want to achieve racial justice and support those most harmed by racist policing, we must prioritize our belief in collective liberation. We must dismantle the systems that perpetuate racism by fighting to defund the police.
This is uncomfortable, risky work. Conversations on defunding police could compromise relationships with family, colleagues, and organizations. But the risks for white people are manageable and surmountable when compared with the risks of violence facing Black folks. That is why, in the struggle to defund, white Jews need to meet ourselves and other white Jews where we are and engage that discomfort in order to overcome it. This workshop was one launching pad for us to continue our learning and our actions. Now we must move onto next steps. What are the conversations we must have with ourselves and those around us about defunding police? What actions can we support that are being put forward by JUFJ and/or our Black and Brown community partners? If we are part of synagogues or other Jewish organizations with police presence, can we start discussions to end those relationships and begin to seek alternatives?
Please look over the many resources and actions provided at the end of this post, consider attending the next iteration of our workshop, and begin to think about what this work needs to look like for you. With the High Holidays upon us, let us celebrate the beginning of a new year, while also reflecting deeply on our tradition of teshuvah, and how we can center an obligation to repair and heal the wounds of racial injustice. May we always remember “It is not incumbent on us to complete the work, but neither can we desist from it.” A heartfelt l’shana tova / happy new year to all.
Here are several resources from the workshop, including articles, definitions, and slides:
In each of JUFJ’s jurisdictions, there are ways that you can take action toward police accountability:
- JUFJ has joined more than 60 other organizations to push for meaningful statewide police reform and accountability. Join this effort here.
- Baltimore City
- Baltimore County
- Legislative work in Baltimore County related to policing is rapidly changing. To get the latest and take action, please visit this page.
- Montgomery County
- Washington, DC
- Support the DC Movement for Black Lives, DC mutual aid efforts, and the organizers who sustain it by making a donation to the M4BL Money Pot. Learn more and donate here.
- The DC Council will be holding a virtual hearing on Thursday, October 15 to discuss police reform legislation including prohibiting use of chemical weapons such as the tear gas we continue to see deployed against protestors. If you are interested in testifying live or submitting written testimony, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
- JUFJ is a member of the Community Oversight of Surveillance DC. This coalition is working with Advisory Neighborhood Commissions (ANCs) to pass local resolutions in support of legislation limiting surveillance technology that contributes to the over-policing of our city and residents. If you’re interested in joining an ANC outreach team, email email@example.com.