Jewish Community Relations Councilof San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin, Sonoma, Alameda and Contra Costa Counties


If All Hell Breaks Loose

July 21, 2016
Posted by: Abby Porth, Executive Director

Lately, it has felt like every morning begins with a news story that brings us to our knees. Weighing heavily today is the news from North Miami, where an African American therapist trying to calm his autistic patient was shot in the process by an active-duty police officer. Videotaped and broadcast widely, one can see the autistic man clutching a toy truck as the therapist, mindful of the possibility that police would not understand what was at play, lay prone with his hands raised to demonstrate to the police officer that he was not a threat. According to reports, when asked by the therapist why he shot him, the officer’s response was, “I don’t know.”

My husband and I have a game of worst case scenario contingency planning we play. I call it “If all hell breaks loose in America.” When we observe signs of democracy decaying, flashes of anti-Semitism here, and violent anti-Semitism abroad, we imagine how we might change our lives to ensure our safety. Sadly, we’ve had this conversation with increasing frequency in the past decade, and as parents, the conversations seem to have greater intensity and gravity.

Over the past year, African American friends and colleagues have confided being fearful for their safety because of traumatic experiences with law enforcement, the exhausting and anxiety-filled intricacies of parenting African American children to keep them safe and yet hopeful, and the need to comport themselves at a higher, always exemplary standard. One friend used the word “hunted” to describe how he feels. Another, an African American community leader, described to me over coffee how her mother used to tell her “If all hell breaks loose, find a Jew or a Quaker.” While oddly pleased that her mother implored her to “find a Jew,” I was struck that her family uses the same language to discuss and measure risk.

Paranoia isn’t intellectually healthy for any of us, but at a visceral level it feels prudent to think about the future and conceptualize benchmarks by which we measure our sense of safety as minorities in America. We Jews repeat the famous Reverend Niemoller quote, “Then they came for the Jews,” with a certainty that Jews are always among the first to go. To be sure, history has frequently shown that our compromised safety is the canary in the coal mine, a harbinger of what will come. And while I sense a chipping away at the very democratic systems in our country that make me a proud and secure American, I do not feel that Caucasian Jewish safety is generally compromised today.

In contrast, I have profound concern for African American safety. Each time an unarmed African American citizen is killed by police, I think of the son of friends, a beautiful and joyful child whose parents have faced heartbreak in describing to him why he must speak and act with precision, carefully, to avoid suspicion or worse. I watch the news reports of one shooting after another and worry that perhaps all hell has broken loose for this community.

For those of us who risk little, it is our responsibility to speak out. We Jews understand the power of empathetic allies who advocate for our safety. Last week, when a gay Christian friend, having learned about the practice of Palestinian terrorists using HIV+ and developmentally disabled Palestinian children as suicide bombers, asked me, “Why do the Jews act so nicely and not expose” the virulent and abhorrent values at play in this violence, I responded that we do speak about this but are very quickly dismissed. I explained that we need our allies to speak up and advocate for our safety, for they will not be so easily ignored.

Our rich and sacred Jewish tradition teaches us to meet challenges through education and action, and to help bring about the healing we envision for our world. This year, JCRC is focusing its consensus building work on issues of racial justice. Through Town Hall gatherings across the Bay Area, we are exploring race and the law, racial equity in education and voting rights, and environmental racism. Join us to become educated about the challenges our nation faces.

Come with us in August (date TBA) to the implicit bias training offered by our friends at the San Francisco Interfaith Council, in partnership with the San Francisco Human Rights Commission and University of San Francisco.

Call us if you are interested in volunteering in the African American community. We have important and strong allies whose work is critically important to creating a more just and equal society whom we will put you in touch with so that you can donate your time and financial resources to lift up their work.

Turn out to the hearings in your community, particularly at the San Francisco Police Commission and Oakland's Citizens' Police Review Board, where it is important that Caucasians actively encourage and champion trust building between law enforcement and communities of color. Reach out to friends, neighbors and colleagues who are African American and ask, “How are you doing today?” and convey your concern for their wellbeing.

Yesterday, I got together with an African American minister who shared this wise counsel: “What is the opposite of greed? It is sacrifice. What is the opposite of power? It is humility. And the opposite of fear? It is faith.” We are people of faith. Now, let’s walk with humility and serve our democracy.


PHOTO: Child at a protest against police brutality in 2014, by Rose Colored Photo, via Flickr.