Synagogues faced with impossible choices after Tree of Life
In the aftermath of the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, safety is at the forefront of the American Jewish psyche. In the name of preventing attacks such as this from happening ever again, a number of proposals have been raised. Many of these proposals are practical and reasonable, others, not so much.
The political responses to the Pittsburgh shooting are, for example, eminently reasonable. It is quite obviously a good idea for American Jews to double down on participation in campaigns for gun control legislation. One of the guns used by the Pittsburgh shooter was an AR-15, a rifle which would be illegal, and harder to access, under an assault weapons ban. Fighting gun violence is worth our time and political capital, regardless of what happens with the midterms.
In a similar vein, it is quite important that the American Jewish community continue to call out the Trump administration for its insultingly apathetic approach toward combating domestic terrorism. The Trump Administration the grant that funded Homeland Security’s Countering Violent Extremism program, and has overall It is imperative that the American Jewish community continues raising alarm over both issues.
What is less clear-cut is how synagogues should respond to individual security needs. It is quite understandable that police officers were present at synagogues around the country in the immediate aftermath of the Tree of Life shooting. What remains uncertain is what law enforcement presence will look like at synagogues in the months and years to come.
The Atlantic’s Franklin Foer in an Oct. 27 article that “in response to [the Tree of Life shooting], every synagogue will protect itself with great security, with more cameras and more guards.” Individual synagogues will likely determine for themselves whether increased security presence is truly necessary long-term, but this general prospect raises a number of issues. One of these issues, as Foer points out, is that the presence of security officers changes the social tenor of the synagogue itself. Increased security, he writes, will “invariably inhibit the sense of escaping from the secular world,” which undermines in turn the spiritual capacity of a collective Jewish prayer space. A second issue is the message this sends to communities of color, including Jews of color: police presence may contribute to a sense of security for some, but certainly not for all. Synagogues ought to be maximally inclusive spaces; concerns such as these deserve careful consideration.
There are some who have suggested, though, that police or guard presence is not going far enough, that it’s time for American Jews to begin taking up arms and “.” The psychology behind this idea is quite understandable — people want to be able to protect themselves from violence — but the reality it belies is quite frightening.
There are a number of reasons for this. First, lots of people will feel deeply uncomfortable knowing that someone around them might be concealing a weapon; this will make synagogues feel less sacred to many people, of whom a good number may even decide to stop going to synagogue altogether. Second, increased presence of weapons is in and of itself a safety hazard; accidents with guns are quite common and are impossible to fully prevent. Third, good guys with guns aren’t actually able to stop bad guys with guns — what’s most likely to happen instead is that more people get caught in a crossfire. Fourth and finally, feeding into a culture of violence is simply a bad idea.
Perhaps it is true that the idea of arming yourself is appealing on an individual level. As the Cherev Gidon Israeli Tactical Training Academy, a firearms boot camp in Pennsylvania, tells us on its , “Police and security personnel can’t be everywhere at all times … today’s reality demands that the average citizen take responsibility for the security of himself, his family and his community.” But promoting this message creates a feedback loop: Individuals are told that it is in their rational interest to go out and get a gun, but as a result, we as a society end up with even more guns, leading to a higher risk of gun violence on the whole. This approach lends itself to a massive collective action problem —- and it explains why in the decade following the passage of the Stand Your Ground law in Florida, . Surrendering to this feedback loop is the wrong move for American Jewry. We cannot respond to fire with fire.