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Police Brutality Is Not “Repairing the World”: Why Jewish Institutions Must Divest From State Violence

The Seattle Jewish Federation outraged progressive Jews by giving a social justice award to the police.

Attendees listen during a march and rally in honor of Charleena Lyles at the apartment building in which she was killed on June 20, 2017, in Seattle, Washington. (Photo: David Ryder / Getty Images)

Attendees listen during a march and rally in honor of Charleena Lyles at the apartment building in which she was killed on June 20, 2017 in Seattle, Washington. Officers from the Seattle Police Department shot and killed Lyles, a pregnant mother of four, on June 18. (Photo by David Ryder/Getty Images)Attendees listen during a march and rally in honor of Charleena Lyles at the apartment building in which she was killed on June 20, 2017, in Seattle, Washington. (Photo: David Ryder / Getty Images)

In the weeks before the horrific murder of Charleena Lyles, a Black woman and mother of four killed by members of the Seattle Police Department (SPD) on June 18, we learned that the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle planned to present the SPD its “Tikkun Olam” award. Tikkun Olam, or repairing the world, is a central concept of Jewish social justice, and we shared outrage with many progressive Jews in Seattle that a police department — especially one currently under court supervision for excessive force and racially biased policing — would receive such an award.

Following Charleena Lyles’ murder, this organizing took on new urgency — the grassroots Seattle Jewish community mobilized, and more than 700 declared in this petition: “It is clear that we, as a multiracial Jewish community, need to stand in this moment with our fellow community members, not with the police forces whose activity systematically undermines the wellbeing of communities of color across our region.”

The Federation recognized that presenting this award just days after the police murder of Charleena Lyles would reflect poorly. They decided to table the award to a later date, and then postponed the meeting itself upon realizing that activists still planned to protest by holding a memorial service. They did not, however, withdraw the award, indicating that they were more concerned about optics than about the pervasive, deadly racism of the police department.

Many of us were appalled, and some were likely surprised, by the Federation’s insistence on giving an award to the SPD, despite its damning record and Lyles’ murder. But, it makes a lot more sense when we look at the deep relationships that establishment Jewish institutions have with police departments across the country, including here in Seattle.

Police Collaboration and the False Promise of Safety

One of the rationales cited in the Federation’s initial decision to award the SPD was its participation in a program called SAFE Washington. SAFE, and its partners like Secure Community Network, use a lot of buzzwords and vague statements about security that direct Jewish community members to always be on the lookout, report “suspicious activity,” and trust police and state agencies for protection. But who do police and the state protect, and who do they harm? Who is the implied “us” and who is the implied “them”?

The history and present-day reality of policing in the US is one of brutality, anti-Blackness and suppression of social movements to preserve the status quo and serve those in power. It is an institution fundamentally rooted in violence and racism, dating back to slave patrols.

When Jewish organizations and programs like SAFE promise safety, they are drawing on real fears rooted in trauma, including historical and ongoing anti-Semitism. But fighting anti-Semitism and all forms of oppression requires building grassroots movements and showing up for each other, rather than supporting or relying on institutions that inflict so much racialized violence.

When organizations like the Federation partner with the police through programs like SAFE, it’s clear that their leadership is casting their lot with the state, at the expense of people of color and other targeted groups — both within and outside of the Jewish community. This is made all the more clear by SAFE’s collaboration with the Department of Homeland Security, which has been terrorizing immigrants, especially those who are Muslim, Latinx and/or Black, since well before Trump’s election. By asking participants to surveil their own communities and neighborhoods, and then pass that information to state agencies with a record of violence, SAFE extends and deepens the harm of racist policing in Seattle.

The other program cited by the Federation to justify the award is the Law Enforcement and Society curriculum, run by another establishment Jewish organization, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). It’s marketed as curriculum for police officers to recognize and resist authoritarianism, a seemingly laudable goal in these times. However, the curriculum presents police participation with state violence as something that happens in exceptional times, such as in the Jewish Holocaust, when the reality is that communities of color in the US have long experienced state violence at the hands of police every single day.

The ADL’s collaboration with police extends beyond US borders, too — its National Counter-Terrorism Seminar (NCTS) is an exchange program between US and Israeli law enforcement and military officers. The program facilitates an exchange of worst practices: surveillance techniques, racial profiling procedures, and mechanisms for violent suppression of political dissent. Sadly, in a certain way, the US and Israeli governments — together leading the way in mass incarceration and repressive violence against targeted communities, all under the guise of “security” and “counterterrorism” — have much to offer each other, to the benefit of arms corporations and the detriment of the many communities they oppress. The Seattle Police Department, in fact, has participated in the exchange program at least twice, in 2013 and 2015, bringing home some of these latest methods and strategies to bear on local communities and social movements.

There’s a shared logic behind policing here in Seattle and state repression in Israel: A dangerous “other” must be contained, by any and all means, to make “us” safer — suggesting that safety for some requires violence against others.

But the reality is that certain state actors and large corporations — those creating weapons, building walls, creating high-tech surveillance systems — profit from this ideology, while targeted groups face unrelenting and horrifying violence, and none of it makes any of our communities any safer. These systems are sustained by “othering” specific groups through systemic racism, as seen in the violent histories of policing against Black, Muslim and Native communities in the US, and against Palestinians in Israel/Palestine. Fighting this set of violent state practices and institutions effectively requires undoing this zero-sum logic and dismantling the racism it relies upon.

So, Where Do We Go From Here?

As a start, locally, the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle must withdraw its award for the SPD immediately, and other establishment Jewish institutions must follow suit by cutting their ties to the instigators of state violence, from Seattle to Palestine. The Movement for Black Lives platform, which makes specific recommendations regarding divestment from policing and investing in communities of color, is a great place to begin making policy into lived reality. Jewish institutions and organizations need to take a deep look into what truly keeps Jewish communities — multiracial, multiclass communities — safe. In turn, these communities need to reject the false notions of safety that these institutions rely on: Policing and incarceration have not succeeded in keeping anyone safe, nor has bolstering the security apparatus and surveillance state. It is past time for all segments of the Jewish community to oppose state violence, and instead put resources behind alternatives to policing and incarceration.

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