Why armed guards are the wrong response to synagogue shootings

Six months ago, just after Robert Bowers’ mass murder of Jews at a Pittsburgh synagogue, someone close to me asked me what I thought about armed guards at Jewish places of worship — an idea that was already gaining popularity (even government funding) in my own region of New Jersey.

In response, I wrote him a letter in which I explained my vehement opposition to the proposal, and even more to the unstated ideas I thought lay behind it.

In the wake of the recent attack on a Chabad synagogue in Poway, California, the issue seems more relevant than ever. So I am reproducing here what I wrote six months ago. I want everyone — especially Jews who, like me, are members of Orthodox communities — to realize that in arming our synagogues, and in telling each other how dangerous our environment is becoming, we are not solving the problem; we are contributing to it.

Here’s what I wrote:

“This isn’t the first time I’ve had occasion to address the question of posting guards at synagogues. I wrote a column on the subject some time ago, when [a synagogue in Passaic, New Jersey] — of which I was then a member — set up a volunteer system to put members outside the entrance, not with guns but with walkie-talkies so that they could alert police to any “suspicious” situations. At the time, the ostensible reason for concern was not the rage of anti-immigrant white supremacists but the possibility that local Muslims might blame Jews for Israeli atrocities and seek some sort of revenge. Whether those volunteers ever prevented any sort of attack on the synagogue is more than I know, but I argued in the column (which I attach) that the idea of posting guards — even unarmed ones — was a hypocritical way of attempting to assuage what I think should be called a collective guilty conscience. I have seen no reason to change that position since.

“Of course, the Pittsburgh scare is a little different, since the attacker in this case seems to have been motivated by anti-immigrant conspiracy theories for which the synagogue members he murdered cannot possibly be held responsible. However, I think it’s helpful to examine the current hysteria over synagogue ‘security’ in its historical context, because the people promoting it, particularly among Orthodox leadership, are consistently stressing the general sense of danger faced by Jews — a theme they’ve been sounding for years — instead of focusing on particular groups or ideologies from which threats might logically emanate. In fact, I’ve already seen social media postings suggesting that the Pittsburgh attack comes as no real surprise, given the ‘rising anti-Semitism’ these writers claim to have discerned throughout the country for some time. (Predictably, the New York Times chimed in with an article about whether it’s safe to be a Jew in New York City; to make her case, the author glibly skated from scuffles with pugnacious Muslim cab drivers to the prospect of another Robert Bowers, armed with an assault rifle, stalking a New York Jewish target — two things that, to me at least, seem to have little to do with one another.)

“Notwithstanding the recent atrocity, my own opinion is unchanged. In fact, if anything, I’m more certain than ever that armed guards outside Jewish sites is a bad response to a very serious problem, a response that only tends to divert our attention and energies from strategies that, I think, would be vastly superior.

“First of all, whatever the actual measure of the danger, we need to be realistic about the efficacy of the proposed solution. It’s not enough to ‘do something.’ The ‘something’ we do is bound to be useless, or worse than useless, unless it actually holds out some hope of improvement. Yet it seems pretty obvious that an individual guard in front of a synagogue would be utterly futile in any attack similar to the one that happened in Pittsburgh. Jews across the country were particularly horrified by Bowers’ assault — and rightly so — because he carried it out with an AR-15, the American terrorist’s weapon of choice. But a single security guard armed with a pistol would clearly be no match for any future Bowers: he would contribute to the carnage only by becoming its first victim. (Bowers himself wounded three Pittsburgh police officers before being captured; and don’t forget, those cops came to the scene knowing that an armed attack was in progress.) As long as crazed racists can get hold of semi-automatic assault rifles almost as easily as they can buy breath mints, it’s sheer lunacy to suppose that a synagogue, or any similar site, is immune from danger if some retired cop with a hand gun sits in the entrance.

“On top of that, there’s the radical difference in scale between the problem and the ‘solution.’ Even if a pistol here and there might protect some sites — and it won’t — such a policy can’t possibly protect every vulnerable gathering place for even a fraction of the time that would be needed to have any real impact. I have an email from [the rabbi] of [the synagogue I described in my column] boasting that New Jersey state money will enable the shul to post a single security guard at the door on the Sabbath and Jewish holidays. Assuming, for the sake of argument, that the sight of a guard might deter an otherwise homicidal anti-Semite, why should we suppose the attacker to be too stupid to wait for the guard to leave? The synagogue may be less crowded on a Monday morning than at 11 a.m. on Saturday, but anyone looking for people to shoot will find plenty of opportunities any day of the week.

“And just suppose a would-be attacker does come along one morning (on, say, Sukkoth), and does lose interest in the synagogue as a likely target after spotting a security guard just inside the entrance. What then? What’s to stop the next Bowers — whose real enemy, remember, was dark-skinned ‘invaders’ undermining White America — from taking a few steps to the elementary school next door to the shul and exterminating a bunch of blacks and Latinos? Or strolling over to any of the local supermarkets with the same objective? Or, supposing he specifically hankers after Jewish victims, why not attack the kosher store less than five minutes down the street, an easy target on any day or night it’s open? Obviously, it’s a flat impossibility to post guards at all of these locations, to say nothing of the dozens or hundreds of others like them, all of the time or even most of the time. And if the presumptive attacker is a local (as seems most likely), why assume that he would be unable to pick out unguarded targets, even if we assume that individual security guards mean anything to him at all?

“I must add here that I’m unimpressed by the report — I haven’t heard this directly from police themselves — that local police precincts are telling rabbis their synagogues are safer with a security guard than without one. I hope I won’t sound cynical if I suggest that there are least two reasons police are likely to say this that have nothing to do with actual safety: first, no police commissioner would ever live down the political scandal of having pooh-poohed the suggestion of a security guard for a synagogue that later suffered an attack (whereas there’s no political cost for any kind of better-safe-than-sorry advice); second, the posting of a private guard means fewer nervous calls to the police from that location, and consequently fewer unnecessary trips for officers who probably have better things to do.

“And while we’re on the subject of selective guarding, what about the discrimination inherent in the idea? Is it fair, just for instance, for the state of New Jersey to pay for a security guard at [the synagogue I described], and not at the state-run public school situated right next door? In the scenario I sketched above, where a prospective attacker turns away from the synagogue and instead murders kids at the school, I think it’s obvious — though of course we all pray nothing like this ever happens — that, if it did happen, people might afterwards raise some very pointed questions about who got ‘protection’ with state funds, and who didn’t.

“This brings me to what I think is a central point imbedded in this issue, though it’s one I haven’t heard mentioned yet in all the frenzy about supposed danger to Jews, nor even in the sentimental appeals to solidarity — that is, Jewish solidarity — we’ve heard in the wake of the Pittsburgh atrocity. Since it’s obvious that posting guards will serve no useful purpose, and might in fact, as I’ve suggested, only add a grievance to a possible future tragedy, I think it makes sense to ask what drives people to favor the idea, when a moment’s reflection should have made them reject it.

“And here I think we have to be honest with ourselves. For all the soothing rhetoric about ‘coming together,’ the real purpose of arming our synagogues is to drive a wedge between our communities and everyone else, at precisely the moment we should be most intent on building bridges to our neighbors. This seems to me a fatal error. There is no ‘rising anti-Semitism’ in the United States — that’s a perennial lie that has been disproved as often as it has been hatched, only to appear again whenever Israeli crimes grow too large to ignore — but there is definitely a rising tide of xenophobia, energizing the extreme right that until recently lay just beneath the surface of American political life and now (thanks to Trump and his privatized propaganda ministry) is coming into the light. It isn’t pleasant to realize that there are thousands of Bowerses walking around America at this very moment, but it’s a fact — and if we want to prevent the next one from taking a loaded assault rifle into a crowd of victims, we need to understand what drives such people over the edge. And we need to take action, in any way we can, to prevent them from crossing that deadly threshold if at all possible.

“Guards are not the answer. They cannot deter the next attacker. All they can do — and this, I’m afraid, they do all too effectively — is to intensify the fears of the congregants, stressing their sense of isolation, of danger, of helplessness, of suspicion of outsiders. And these psychological effects all tend to lead us in exactly the wrong direction. Stoking a sense of impotent fear would be evil under any circumstances. But in these times, I think it’s downright criminal to atomize our communities at the very moment we most need to draw closer together. If we’re going to have any hope at all of reversing the tide of fear let loose by Trump’s rhetoric — abetted by flunkies at Fox News and, alas, many propagandists within our own ranks — we’re going to have to start thinking in terms of communal welfare, for Jews and non-Jews alike. There’s nothing obscure about the required calculations. How many people in our neighborhood are out of work? How many lack food? How many need medical treatment? Psychological counseling? Drug treatment? Someone to talk to? The more we do to help people who may be at the edge of desperation, the less likely we are to suffer the effects of an explosion of violent rage. And the benefits of those efforts are not only personal. At a time when the language of politics has never been more pathological, anything that heals can have political consequences along with the more immediate ones.

“And it seems obvious to me that these efforts should unite communities, not atomize them. True, an Orthodox synagogue can’t be responsible for the needs of everyone in Passaic. But as a synagogue community intensifies its efforts to help its own religious cohort, it can — and must — coordinate those undertakings with parallel charities in local churches and mosques. Surely there’s nothing exotic in such an idea. Yet how many of our rabbis even talk to the ministers and priests just blocks away from them about the needs of the poor in Passaic? Why not join with other local clergy to make the most of our resources, physical and political? I say ‘political’ because of the irony that New Jersey is willing to throw away money on armed guards, while at this very moment budget cuts are devastating the state’s poorest people and Newark residents are being told that even their drinking water isn’t safe. Instead of channeling state money into guards and guns, why shouldn’t religious communities, who are supposed to prioritize human needs, pool their influence and try to bring relief where it’s most needed? And if and when we can’t persuade the state to do it, why not do it ourselves?

“I don’t claim that charitable support would have cured the hate the festered in Bowers’ heart. No one can know that. But experience and common sense both suggest that what expresses itself as political rage often rests on an unhealthy psychological foundation. And it seems to me a matter of simple logic that we will do much more to prevent violent attacks on religious communities by doing precisely what religious communities do best — that is, addressing the physical and spiritual needs of the human beings nearest us — than by retreating behind guns and sinking ever deeper into an embattled and isolated apathy.

“But that’s not all. Communities respond to atmospheric stimuli no less than individuals do, and the idea of every Jew in Passaic (or Highland Park, or Lakewood) passing an armed guard on the way to prayers is — I cannot find a better word — loathsome to me. And please, let’s not pretend such a measure has been forced on us. We’re the ones choosing to mix weapons with prayer books, and the choice is not only foolish — for reasons I’ve already argued — it’s self-destructive. White supremacists like Bowers have wreaked terrible damage on the communal fabric of this country, but they cannot turn our synagogues into war zones. Only we can do that. And I’m afraid that is exactly what we’re doing right now — with lamentable and predictable results. When I published my column about synagogue guards over a year ago, I was bitterly assailed by self-described ‘liberal’ Orthodox Jews who — never even attempting to refute anything I wrote — insisted that I was ‘entirely out of the Jewish community’ because of my ‘self righteous accusations at Israel and Jews.’ These critics didn’t seem to notice that their own words were far more accusatory, and contained much more self-righteousness, than anything I wrote — to say nothing of the critics’ support for torture, mass murder and the confinement of an ethnic minority in the ghastly open-air prison called Gaza.

“But it doesn’t follow that their blindness was eccentric. On the contrary, I believe it was, and continues to be, the veil they need to keep out the knowledge that in their fear of people like Bowers, these Jews (and their equivalents around the world) are more and more coming to resemble him. Bowers thought his ‘nation’ was under attack; so do my critics. He thought the ‘danger’ justified mass murder of defenseless people; my critics insist on the same thing. He considered his violence defensive; my critics endorse violence (on a much larger scale) in just those terms. Bowers’ loathing of non-whites enlarged them in his mind until they resembled monsters. My critics have watched a video of a 14-year-old Palestinian child murdered in cold blood by a distant Israeli sniper and have shuddered, not with the horror of the crime, but in terror of what that child might have done with a pebble in his hand. Such is the way of hate. And putting guns at our synagogue doors is just one more step along that ugly path, a road paved not with good intentions but with the shreds of what once were our moral priorities.

“Am I being unfair? I don’t think so. I can easily understand why Jews are frightened by anti-Semitic violence. Given our history, who wouldn’t be? But the dangerous steps we’re taking have not occurred in moments of panic. They’ve come little by little over several years, maturing gradually, orchestrated by rabbinic leadership with propaganda campaigns so carefully calibrated to each passing development that now, as the newest and most ominous changes are taking place, we hear no debate at all. I cannot think of a time when genuine religious leadership was more urgently needed in our communities — yet it seems to me we’re drifting towards self-marginalization, if not self-destruction, without so much as a word of protest from anyone with a platform. We arm our synagogues (for no rational motive), announcing to ourselves and to everyone else our hatred and fear of the world; yet we seem unable to grasp that we’re isolating ourselves from the only places real help is likely to come from — I mean other minorities facing similar threats.

“One can read in the press that Muslim groups have raised $50,000 for the Pittsburgh synagogue Bowers attacked. How much have Orthodox Jews given to the families of the unarmed civilians — more than 200 of them — massacred in Gaza just this year? To say nothing of the thousands more who have been maimed with live ammunition? How much have American Jews contributed to the mosques vandalized in this country over the last several years? Apart from the obvious moral motive, goodwill offerings to other communities are amply justified on pragmatic grounds, for when the U.S. ruling elites find it expedient to cut their ties with Jewish communities — and they will, sooner or later — a coalition of the disenfranchised will be the best hope for all of us. But if Orthodox leadership hasn’t thought of that yet, it’s not likely to wake up while a state-financed security guard stands between us and the outside world. By the time the rabbinate notices what is really happening, the guards will be gone and the community will be more alone than ever.

“Just one word more. I’ve mentioned several times the notion of communal solidarity, and I’ve done it fully conscious of the fact that calls for a kind of solidarity — between Jews — have already filled the air in the week since the Pittsburgh massacre. If I haven’t mentioned those calls, it’s because I believe the appeals I’m hearing, in their language and tone, to be fundamentally wrong, while the kind of inter-community solidarity I’m advocating seems to me the only reasonable one. I base this not merely on logic but on a Jewish source: namely, the well-known mishnah in Pirqei Aboth in which Rabbi ‘Aqiba states ‘Beloved is man, for he was created in the image [of God]’ before going on to stress, ‘Beloved is Israel.’

“In my view, this dictum establishes two inseparable elements. The love of fellow Jews can be built only on top of the fundamental, universal love of all human beings. Standing alone it is necessarily a fraud, a kind of fear or hatred masquerading as love. Thus, in my view, the notion of ahabath yisrael must be preceded (earned, if you like) by a full-bodied humanitarianism. Once we religious Jews show that we regard all human beings as embodying the image of God, we can go on — then and only then — to talk about a particularly intimate kind of solidarity between Jews. I have no objection to the latter in its proper place. But I can feel only anger when local synagogues circulate the names, pictures and ages of the Jews slain in Pittsburgh (even referring to them as q’doshiym [martyrs]!) while for months now, hundreds of Palestinians murdered by the putative Jewish state — in our name, with the Jewish community’s evident support, with the open endorsement of rabbis, Orthodox publicists and lay leaders — never even merited a passing mention.

“As I write this, our president is dispatching thousands of armed troops — supported by the Air Force — to the southern border of the U.S., with orders to shoot any of the half-starved, desperate refugees (fleeing countries devastated largely by U.S. policies, as we all know) who might dare to throw stones at them. Like Bowers, Trump justifies the threat of deadly violence with racism: the refugees, being non-white, are criminals who threaten our cities. Like the Israelis, he thinks mass murder of such defenseless people amounts to self-preservation. Not so very long ago, the same rationale was invoked to justify Hitler’s Final Solution. If we religious Jews really want to break away from the deranged path that leads, irresistibly and inevitably, to more Bowerses (a path also designated in the Mishnah as midath s’dom [characteristic of the evil city of Sodom]), there’s really no mystery about what we ought to do.

“Arming ourselves, or putting guards in front of our synagogues, isn’t part of the job. In today’s circumstances, the right position for us to take could hardly be clearer. We need to align ourselves with those in need and against the fearmongers, and we need to do it quickly and decisively — that’s all. And let’s stop with the whining, the self-pity, the self-imposed blindness, the embrace of things and people that are, or should be, anathema to us. There’s no time for any of that. We’ve got real work to do.”

About the Author
Michael Lesher is an author, lawyer and Orthodox Jew who lives in Passaic, NJ. His most recent book is Sexual Abuse, Shonda and Concealment in Orthodox Jewish Communities (McFarland & Co., 2014).
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