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As Jews, we cannot abandon America’s cities

There is an old Jewish practice to pray for the welfare of the government under which they live. It dates back to the Babylonian Captivity, when tradition has it that the prophet Jeremiah urged his exiled Judeans to put in a good word, even for those who had burned their Temple to the ground. Why? Because chaos and lawlessness would be worse.

Better the far away Czar than the Cossacks barging through your door, vodka on their breath and murder in their hearts.

Ari Hoffman | Artist: Noah Lubin

Ari Hoffman Image by Noah Lubin

This wisdom is encoded in the Ethics of the Fathers, where the sage Rabbi Chanina teaches, “Pray for the welfare of the government, for were it not for the fear it inspires, every man would swallow his neighbor alive.”

I’ve been thinking about the wisdom of that prayer recently, as it has become increasingly clear that large scale violence and disorder are occurring in American cities at levels not seen in decades. Gut wrenching images of police violence are part of the troubled landscape of this moment, but so is widespread looting and vandalism, violence against police officers, and the transformation of a whole part of Seattle into something unrecognizable. Broken storefronts have given way to broken bodies, as police forces hit by waves of retirements and threats of defunding have seemingly receded.

In their wake has been an escalating and unconscionable spike in homicides. Images from Portland increasingly resemble footage from a B level dystopian sci-fi thriller. Dissenters to anti-racist dogma are screamed at by mobs.

This spasm of violence affects minority neighborhoods first and foremost, which is alone reason enough to decry it.

But it also threatens the viability and survival of cities as a whole: New York, San Francisco, Chicago, and others are less safe than they have been in decades.

This is not just an American tragedy. It is an acute challenge for Democrats, for whom these cities are the bastions of votes and proof of concept for their vision for America. Forget the crumbled “Blue Wall,” the supposed heartland Democrats who were supposed to stop Trump who decided to elect him. A future where America’s cities are unsafe is one where the promises of liberal politics are betrayed.

The notion promulgated by some on the Left that pointing out these facts is a distraction or betrays a fetish for things over people is increasingly hard to sustain as the violence has turned to brutalizing human beings. And this is why we pray for the welfare of the government, even if we definitely don’t plan on voting for it. The vandalism of a synagogue with “Free Palestine” graffiti confirms the old Jewish intuition that even as we must call out abuses of power, we have much to fear from the breakdown of order.

Jews have much riding on a society that improves and progresses, living more fully up to its highest promises. But we have everything to lose from a society that frays and fractures.

Of course, it’s not just Jews who are invested in holding back the chaos. Americans who are rightfully appalled by instances of police brutality are increasingly wary of what happens in a world without cops. And the more people see the protests up close, the less they support Black Lives Matter.

To take just one example, in Kenosha, net approval for the movement has cratered from 25% to 0% since the riots began.

People might be heated about social injustice, but they also don’t want their cities burning down. In refusing the choice, they are correct: Chaos makes everyone unsafe. Violence makes us all less generous and more skeptical of the promise of change. As one resident in Kenosha reported, “There’s people running all over with guns — it’s like some Wild West town… We are just waiting here like sitting ducks waiting to get picked off.”

This is Rabbi Chanina’s warning about cannibalistic neighbors come to life in the headlines.

We live in a politics and culture where too many people are seeing out of only one eye. Those on the left see only police brutality, and those on the right see only vandalism. A bifocal view of the moment would see a society that is too violent everywhere, where hate and anti-Semitism are increasingly making snug homes across the political spectrum.

The burning of a Chabad House is just the latest example of the reality that to be Jewish in America in 2020 is to be living in an increasingly flammable reality. With open eyes and clear hearts, we have to be able to name the violence that is tearing us apart, and with loud voices we need to demand that our elected leaders, whatever their party, put a stop to it.

Ari Hoffman is a contributing columnist at the Forward, where he writes about politics and culture. He is an Adjunct Assistant Professor at N.Y.U., and his writing has also appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Tablet Magazine, The New York Observer, and a range of other publications. He holds a doctorate in English Literature from Harvard and a law degree from Stanford.

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