On Fear, Anti-Semitism, Abolition and Imagining

When we first saw the Christians who we didn’t yet realize were Christians, our reaction was annoyance.

“Why are they standing outside?” my friend muttered to me as we approached.

“I know there was a singing thing before service, but I thought it was indoors,” I said.

“Ugh,” Eli continued. “It’s too cold to be out here.”

We were walking arm in arm down 50th Avenue in South Minneapolis, toward kabbalat Shabbat services at Shir Tikvah. It’s a ritual that has not been especially regular for either of us lately, but that day we’d both been part of text threads with fellow young, radical, mostly queer Jews about going. It was the first Shabbat after the Pittsburgh shooting, the first chance for many of us to be in Jewish space.

It wasn’t until we had (cautiously) stepped midway through the circle of people outside that I registered what was happening: that the white faces and warmly dressed, candle-wielding bodies didn’t look like me, or familiar, and weren’t headed in. “Oh,” I blurted, a little too loud: “they’re Christians!”

By the time we got inside, it was standing room only: the crowd leaked out from the sanctuary and into the oneg hall. We were wending our way toward the back when we spotted our people, arms waved high from their perch on the bema. Once there, I embraced my friend Abbie (a moment bizarrely captured by local media) and let loose the full store of layered, complicated, conflicting emotion that had been building all week. (“The Christians,” I kept stammering. “I can’t believe the Christians.”)

For the duration of the service, as we mourned recent deaths and celebrated a new marriage and a new life, our little pocket of close and loose friends (what one Rabbi termed a “human tangle”) leaned and snuggled against one another like weepy puppies, weary from the weight of last weeks and relieved to be, for some moments, together.

**

As you know if you follow me on social media, I’ve been organizing lately with a coalition of folks pressuring Minneapolis to divest from our (historically mega-funded) police departments and invest in (historically under-funded) resources like low-income housing and other, non-police-led safety strategies.

In the last years, like many who have looked to the Black Lives Matter movement for leadership, (and like many locally who’ve benefitted from the scholarship and resources of MPD150) I’ve become persuaded by the logic of abolition: once you recognize that police departments descend from slave patrols, that when they kill black people without accountability they are in fact operating exactly as intended, that the history of police departments here and elsewhere is scaffolded with failed attempts at reform and persistent PR campaigns, it becomes pretty difficult not to make the concession: we can’t reform ourselves out of an oppressive machinery. We must imagine another way.

As you also may have seen, I made the (personal) decision to not attend a vigil earlier last week in St. Paul, in part because of police presence. To be clear: while that presence indeed upset me, I don’t hold judgment toward those who chose it, or toward my many community mates who decided to stay in spite of it. I recognize that, while some communities (often poor and non-white) have created alternatives to policing for centuries, much work remains to envision and create viable alternatives.

So it was striking, and surely part of what triggered my emotional reaction Friday night, that the assembly of neighbors holding candles–awkward stares notwithstanding–triggered what I am sure it is not a stretch to describe as the opposite reaction I felt upon seeing police earlier that week: in contrast to feelings of anxiety, isolation and stress, I felt warmth, connection, overwhelming gratitude and love.

***

Growing up in Brooklyn, being Jewish didn’t come with feelings of otherness. White, Ashkenazi, neurotic Jews are a core archetype of New York’s dominant culture, and my experience of the city was segregated enough that I rarely occupied spaces in which I didn’t feel I belonged.

Like many Jewish and non-Jewish Americans: I considered anti-Semitism historical.

In recent years, living outside New York and delving deeper into anti-oppression education and activism, I’ve come to learn more about anti-Jewish oppression’s pernicious pattern: how it’s cyclical instead of constant, how it enables Jews to achieve a level of power and prosperity in order to scapegoat us when things, as they inevitably do under white supremacy and capitalism, get bad.

And still, as I cried that night during services, I felt shame: for my friends and neighbors who are black, seeing people killed for being who they are is nothing new. It is, in fact, routine. What right do I have to react upon seeing this happen to people like me for the first time in my country, in my lifetime? How many times have I failed to show up for terror enacted upon other communities–how could I expect or deserve any solidarity now?

Along with that shame, this coursed through me, too: a knowledge of the particular and ancient history of Jewish people being persecuted; how that memory lives not only in our conscious minds but in the fascia of our bodies, in the depths of our nervous systems. Memory that instances of anti-Semitic violence often trigger, and can manifest as intense, visceral fear.

Like many, I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the intensity of that fear, and about how we can hold and honor it without enacting more violence both within and outside our communities.

Without, in other words, replicating past and persistent patterns.

**

Looking around during services, I felt as though I could see our Jewish American community’s investment in whiteness and white supremacy on display.

In those of us stumbling through the longer, transliterated prayers, I could see the way in which our ancestors, in bargaining for entry into (the invented category of) whiteness, had assimilated: given up their traditions and practices so their children could be seen as American, not other.

In the fear writ on the (mostly white) faces, I could see the way in which that bargain’s promise–that we, white American Jews, would let our whiteness grant us not only a sense of inherent superiority, but of safety, of fundamental security and protection by the state–had been so powerfully ruptured.

**

Once, while teaching a writing class at the Stillwater public library, I implored a woman who was hesitant to share her work to do so. “It’s a safe space,” I told her. She looked at me like I had just assured her that ice cream would prevent cancer or cure colds. As I soon after realized, it was a preposterous thing to say. Who the heck am I to tell her, to tell anyone, that they feel safe?

Indeed, as I’ve now learned from POC scholars, the term “safe space” is particularly problematic in the context of racial dialogue: such spaces are never truly safe for POC, and the promise of safety for white people reinforces our learned entitlement to comfort—an entitlement that can translate to a forceful weapon of white supremacy. (Put another way: maintaining white people’s comfort means maintaining the status quo.)

Since then, when teaching or facilitating, I am careful not to invoke the term “safe space”: like many promises of safety, it is, in fact, misleading. Instead, I suggest that the extent to which each person will feel safe to share and be vulnerable will hinge on a combination of individual lived experiences and the degree to which we feel connected to one another.

This principle, of course, extends to the community at large: the more we feel connected to one another, the safer we are likely to feel, and to be.

It’s no coincidence, I don’t think, that racist capitalism perpetuates itself upon the activation of collective fear at the same time that it enables a culture of individualism in which we are taught to value self-sufficiency, not interdependence.

What was evident at Shir Tikvah that night is how deeply our bodies and hearts know better: how instinctively we, in fact, know that we are meant to live interdependently, that we are meant to lean on and support one another, that what fosters genuine safety is community.

And yet: “genuine safety” isn’t a thing. As Tara Brach reminded me the other day, some measure of fear is human and healthy; we can’t create an existence in which we don’t experience any danger or feel any fear.

Our challenge, then (as she also helped me remember), is to practice more mindfully and generously tolerating the uncomfortable, inevitable experience of fear. Our challenge is to hold our (sometimes rational, sometimes not) fear, to sit with it; not to avoid it by grasping for the false comforts we’re taught to seek: whiteness, isolation, police. 

Like many things, it is easier to tolerate discomfort in community. It’s also easier, and more joyful, to imagine radical possibilities with beloveds beside.

I don’t know any of the answers: I don’t know how we undo all the oppressions, what it will look like to find full liberation or how we will get there. I do know that for me, in this moment, amidst so much violence and injustice–the great majority from which I am safe, what sustains me is seeking communities committed to imagining other possibilities: whether they be alternatives to police, re-distributing resources in the community, or small ways to resist individualism and struggle toward interdependence.

It shouldn’t be a radical thing to say we need one another. But in many ways, in the face of the (increasingly menacing) dominant culture, leaning into that truth feels like the most radical thing we can do.