The Seattle Jewish federation had planned to hold its annual community meeting tonight at the University of Washington Hillel. At the event, it planned to give several awards to various groups and individuals for their contribution to the life of Seattle’s Jewish community. One of these was to be the Tikkun Olam Award, to be bestowed on Seattle Police Chief, Kathleen O’Toole, for her force’s protection of local communal institutions. The blurb accompanying the announcement of the awards said this:
When we honor people who give of themselves for the betterment of our community, it reminds me of the impact that one person can make on many lives. And, it reminds me of the good we can accomplish when we work together collaboratively – amplifying each individual’s impact by sharing ideas and pooling resources.
But there was one problem. Unfortunately, this week two police officers, answering a burglary call, killed Charleena Lyles, the mother of three young children who was also pregnant with a fourth child. She had mental health issues, which the police were aware of, yet they had flagged her in the database of a potentially dangerous individual. Lyles was less than 5 feet tall and weighed less than 100 lbs. The police initally reported she had a knife in her hand (which later turned out to be shears), though that could be due to the fact that she feared her home was being burglarized. There was no attempt to involve mental health professionals in the encounter, which tragically led to yet another SPD killing of a mentally disturbed individual.
In the past, the police have killed a Native American artist, and several Black citizens who were mentally ill. This led to a federal takeover of the department and its placement under a Justice Department monitor. Supposedly, this led to the reform of deadly force procedures and re-education of the department. But the results have not been promising as far as the minority community is concerned.
That’s why the federation award was particularly ill-timed. Members of the local Jewish community affiliated with the Kadima progressive congregation made their displeasure known to the federation. It initially refused to respond to the concerns expressed, which led the activists to plan a Minha-Black Lives Matter prayer service (sign petition) outside Hillel during the federation meeting. This got the federation’s leadership’s attention and it went into full defensive mode.
The federation doubled down on its decision to give the award.:
We greatly value the Seattle Police Department and their work to help address the security concerns of the Jewish community, and stand by our decision to bestow the award on the SPD for its support of the Jewish community and its dedication to improvement.
It ignored the killing of Charleena Lyles (which it antiseptically called “a death”) except as an asterisk that appeared to cause the community inconvenience. Instead of rescinding the award, it would postpone giving it and the meeting itself to a later date. Of course, this didn’t answer the question: why the leadership of the community is so insensitive to the concerns of the local Black community? Why did it need to be embarrassed into changing its plans?
Instead of pondering the concerns of the Jewish community members protesting the award, the federation treated them the way Donald Trump treated Black Lives Matter:
…Activists persisted with plans to protest at tonight’s annual meeting. Given the intent to disrupt the meeting, out of respect for many award honorees as well as the need to conduct the regular business of an annual meeting, we are postponing. Our decision is not in any way a response to protesters’ demands but one borne of safety, timing, and prudence. A new meeting date has not been scheduled.
Unfortunately, either the federation are amey-haaretz when it comes to Jewish traditions or they were lying outright about the intent of protesters. So here’s a lesson in Yiddishkeit: Minha is a prayer service, not a protest. Nor is prayer ever a “disruption.” That is, unless you have such a guilty conscience that a prayer meant to remind you of your obligation to honor social justice becomes an irritant rather than a cause for contemplation (as it should be).
Readers of this blog may’ve read the posts I’ve written earlier here critiquing the quality of local and national Jewish leadership. This incident only reinforces those posts. In addition, I wrote an essay, The Closing of the American Jewish Mind, on this same subject for the collection, Israel and Palestine: Alternative Perspectives on Statehood.
Another issue worth contemplating is the participation of U.S. police departments in security training in Israel. Seattle’s department has participated in such junkets (which I may start calling “blue-washing”) paid for by the ADL, where officers are shown how Israeli police suppress Palestinian unrest. Given the hostile, even homicidal attitude of Israel’s security forces toward Palestinian protesters, it’s no wonder that U.S. police who return take these attitudes back to their communities. Israeli policing is as militarized as it could be. And as violent and confrontational as it can be toward Palestinians. Is that the lesson and model we want our officers to use back home? And should we be surprised when the Charleena Lyles’ of the world are the victims?