Former Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal’s recent call for a global day of jihad on October 13 spurred safety concerns for American Jews, who petitioned for an increased police presence around synagogues, religious schools, and communities, to deter potential attacks. These measures illuminate an uncomfortable truth: by spending years asserting that social concerns like persistent racial disparities are just as important as the harms caused by physical violence, we’ve made it harder to handle, or even talk intelligently about, violence when it arises.
This mindset has led us—disastrously—to deemphasize security spending in American cities; and it has seemingly rendered many Americans incapable of saying why Hamas’s intentional violence is both different from, and worse than, any unintended harms that result from Israel’s targeted military actions. Alarmingly, our ability to rank harms has so deteriorated that our universities, streets, and social media spaces are full of the voices of privileged Americans insisting that the mere existence of the Jewish state is just as bad as Hamas terrorists raping women and slaughtering children.
Two years ago, on a criminal-justice panel at a liberal synagogue, an ACLU moderator posed a question. Given worries about police racism, he asked, do we even want cops outside synagogues? Do the police actually make congregants feel less safe? One panelist (who had led a citywide #DefundNYPD campaign and whose work focuses on “cultivating fierce, powerful Black communities”) preached about how “we often invisible-ize the experiences of Jews of color.” Another panelist, now chief strategy officer at an advocacy group for black “collective liberation,” explained that synagogues in Crown Heights make their black neighbors uncomfortable when they station police outside for protection. The synagogue took these comments seriously, convening a committee to weigh whether to reduce security presence, and sending out community-wide emails deploring “that even the presence of security at our doors, whether it be the uniformed NYPD officers or our own security team, feels threatening to some who enter the building or who are simply walking by.”
Why did a hyper-educated, affluent Jewish community provide a platform for such views? Why did it entertain ranking these concerns above the real threat of violence facing synagogues? And why couldn’t they just state the obvious: if a black congregant feels uncomfortable, officers on duty can work to establish trust, without requiring the congregation to give up on-site protection. Indeed, the debate itself implicitly acknowledged that the police are at the synagogue to protect Jews—not to menace blacks.
Even before the increased terror threat resulting from the outbreak of war in the Middle East, the belief that violence presents a lesser harm than racial disparity (however defined) was already hurting New Yorkers—and black New Yorkers most of all. Policies that handicap police, that release dangerous people from jail, and that prevent the prosecution and conviction of violent offenders dismantle our mechanisms for keeping people safe. In 2017, New York City recorded approximately 150 black murder victims, about 56 percent of the homicide total. In 2022, after years of eviscerating policies in the name of combatting “systemic racism,” 63 percent, or 216, of the city’s murder victims were black.
Does racial disparity in the criminal-justice system—not proven racial discrimination—really pose greater social harm than the criminal violence that killed so many black New Yorkers last year? Only those living in environments of assured physical safety could say such a thing.
Americans—and American Jews, in particular—need to redevelop the moral muscles necessary to point out that some kinds of victimization are indeed worse than others, and that it’s incumbent on us to address them accordingly. For instance: Hamas’s intentional slaughter, torture, and kidnapping of innocent Israeli children is worse than Israel’s destruction of Hamas strongholds after warning civilians to evacuate the area. Hamas’s self-professed mission to obliterate Israel and its Jewish inhabitants is worse than Israel’s military occupation to defend against that same threat. And no matter how many times one recites the mantras about “colonization,” the relentless anti-Semitism that fuels organizations like Hamas and the massacres of Jews that it perpetrates is worse—far worse—than the existence of a Jewish state (assuming, for the sake of argument, that one sees the existence of the Jewish state as a bad thing).
Even in the best of times, ranking harms is an essential function of living, a fundamental moral responsibility. In our current climate, the cost of trying to shirk that responsibility is apparent.
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