I was in my office when I received a text from the JCC: there was a bomb threat and the facility, where my son attended an after school program, had been evacuated. Everyone was fine. They’d let us know where the children were shortly.
As I catapulted my body toward him, I was concerned about my son’s safety, of course, but only nominally: the threat was “just” a threat; the evacuation was successful; everyone was fine. I could not help but think about the vast and various privileges afforded to my son, even as he comes under threat for his identity, for his social location, for his proximity to difference.
“It was a scare, but that’s all,” I thought. “Everyone is fine.”
I felt uncomfortable with my position, as it forced me to reflect upon a harder truth: the recent threats to our JCC were frightening and horrific, but they came in the form of a warning sign.
What of the children who don’t get a warning before they’re thrown against the grown or the bomb detonates? What about the children for whom risk assumes not a call for caution, but a brick or bullet? A body slammed against concrete? An actual bomb detonating? Will I write an essay for them?
In April 1984, in an essay for Essence titled “On Being White…and Other Lies,” James Baldwin described the problem of whiteness as such: “But this cowardice, this necessity of justifying a totally false identity and of justifying what must be called a genocidal history, has placed everyone now living into the hands of the most ignorant and powerful people the world has ever seen: And how did they get that way?”
By deciding they were white.
By opting for safety instead of life.
By persuading themselves that a Black child’s life meant nothing compared with a white child’s life.”
I bristle at this comparison, defensive. Have I persuaded myself that a black child’s life meant less than my own son’s? Have I opted for safety instead of life?
European Jews paid for our whiteness and the price of the ticket was the abandonment of our moral authority. But silent costs were enacted as well, which is what brought me to the JCC early and irritated on that Friday afternoon: I have been implicated by my attachment to safety.
When we are seeking our safety vouchers, it’s important to recognize that safety is not equitably dispensed. By virtue of race, class, and citizenship, I am possessed of a measure of safety that many will never be able to access. Still, I recognize something greater: my safety is predicated on the notion that this is what I deserve, even as it eludes others.
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Safety is an illusion as much as it is a function of privilege, and the current political moment does nothing if not unshield us. If we are to achieve anything, we must remove these masks which never protected us anyway. We must dismantle the systems that deny humanity to some, relegating communities to the margins while centering others, and we must disabuse ourselves of the notion that we are safe.
My son attends a Jewish school, and this should not frighten me. This should not be an act of bravery. But it is. And what am I owed for that particular risk, when there are parents whose children, for the bathroom they use or the language they speak, the embossment on their passport or the color of their skin are subjected to a daily threat, comparable to a thousand bombs detonating?
And what of the many children worldwide for whom bombs are not threats but geopolitical reality? My child is fine, but can I be settled when I think about the violence of everyday life that is enacted in my name? I am not to blame, but I am nevertheless responsible.
Anti-semitism is real and I decry it. But where are we when our neighbors are silenced, dehumanized, threatened? Where are we when our children’s classmates and our neighbors and our friends are expelled from school; pushed against the grill of their vehicle and told not to make a move; thrown down on pavement, unable to breathe; imperiled for existing?
What is the moral cost of accepting that for some, a bomb threat is not an abstraction or a hypothetical, an aberration or a scare, but the daily reality, the status quo, the violence of everyday life?
We can’t keep grasping at the illusion of safety when there are those who never had the luxury of this lie. We were never safe. And to the extent that safety or its lack can be quantified, there are many more who are even less so. And we never well be, so long as we acquiesce. I recognize that my risk, freely undertaken, comes from having the agency and the capital and the discretion to send my child to Jewish educational programs. I wake in the morning and I remember the words of Rabbi Nachman of Bratislav: “the whole world is a very narrow bridge; the important thing is not to be afraid.”
Only sometimes, fear is the bridge, and sometimes, I am afraid.
But fear is not the ending. We have an obligation to stand for ourselves, and this is no less urgent than our moral imperative to stand for others, for whom streets are never safe and cities are seldom sanctuaries.
More Radical Reads: When Internal and External Identities Conflict: On Being Jewish and White
I was not sure of the correct course of action as I sped toward my son on that day last week, and I was no more certain of it as I stood vigil in the freezing cold outside my JCC alongside my son and hundreds of others. I am not sure of the correct course of action now. What I know: we are in the depths of winter, but springtime will soon be upon us. And we are in the present, which is to say: the right place at the right time to do something.
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