In the last few weeks, I have witnessed anti-Semitism resurge in this country to levels unseen in more than half a century: Jewish cemeteries vandalized; Jewish Community Centers receiving bomb threats; the windows of the Chicago Loop Synagogue smashed; gunshots through the windows of a synagogue in Evansville, Indiana.
These events have left many Jews across the country feeling raw and vulnerable. In this uncertain time, some of my Jewish peers have expressed to me a sense of relief that they can call on the police for protection and security.
But what if we could not fully trust those police? What if we had seen video of an officer shooting a Jewish teenager 16 times while he lay face down in the street? What if we knew that a family in our community had called the police for help in defusing a mental health crisis – and their 55-year-old neighbor was shot and killed by the police as she opened the door for the officers? And what if those killings, and many others, were systematically covered up, or when exposed resulted in no meaningful investigation or accountability? How might we respond then? Would we be as confident in calling 911 to ask for help?
I am a Jewish physician who has lived in Chicago with my family for most of my life. I love this city. At the same time, I recognize that I am privileged by being seen as white, and as a result, public institutions like the police are responsive to my concerns and generally treat me with respect. For blacks and Latinos in the city, though, the experience is often drastically different. In 2016, the U.S. Department of Justice found a repeated pattern of using force, including deadly force, by some members of the police department in situations involving black residents of the city. The Justice Department documented a code of silence that implicitly covered up many of these events. The DOJ concluded that these repeated incidents of police violence against persons of color undermined public trust. Most importantly, the DOJ found that Chicago lacked basic systems of police accountability for the use of force, and failed to take corrective action for repeated patterns of racial discrimination.
Accountability is not a threat to the police, it is not a cudgel to beat public servants. As a physician, I am accountable for my decisions, as are many of us with professional or fiduciary responsibility toward others. Accountability is an essential structure in a democratic society. It establishes norms that govern both public and private services. It requires that we take all possible steps to prevent violations of those norms — and also ensures that corrective actions are taken when those norms are violated.
Disturbingly, on Tuesday of this week we read of two high public officials waiving aside the notion of accountability. First, Attorney General Sessions rejected concerns about police brutality raised by a Department of Justice report that he acknowledged he had not bothered to read in its entirety. The next day, the president of the United States, after weeks of silence about rising anti-Semitic attacks, questioned the cause of those attacks by publicly speculating that perhaps such attacks were, in his reported words, “the reverse,” orchestrated “in order to make others look bad.”
As I read about our executive branch’s tacit acceptance of police misconduct and anti-Semitic hate crimes, I recognize that these two injustices are inextricably connected. The vulnerability I feel in this moment as a Jew gives me greater understanding of the vulnerability felt by people of color across the United States when they encounter the police.
One of my favorite teachings comes from the Australian aboriginal activist Lila Watson: “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” Organizing for police accountability in a time of heightened anti-Semitism has given me newfound appreciation for this quote.
As Muslims and Christians help Jews rebuild our sacred spaces, I know that we too must stand in solidarity with others facing racism. Even though I have never been directly affected by police violence, I have been harmed by it — all of us have. As we approach Passover, I recall my ancestors’ liberation from slavery in Egypt. The legacy of this liberation requires me to work with others in a common struggle for justice in our community.
I look forward to the day when we can all celebrate our shared achievement in building a safer, more just city.
Steven Rothschild is a family physician at Rush University Medical Center and a member of the Jewish Council on Urban Affairs.
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