Safety and (in)Security

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Jamal Juma’ – Palestinian activist, freedom fighter and our group leader

I’ve been struck by the number of people who’ve expressed concern for my safety while I was away. From close friends to congregants to the kind man who cooks me kabobs every Saturday. Again and again, with genuine concern in their voices, people let me know that they have worried about me. Setting aside the illusoriness of “safety” in the first place, I simply respond, “Yes, I’m home safe, but I now carry with me the names and faces of many for whom safety is an unaffordable luxury.”

I’ve also been asked countless times how safe I felt when traveling. At first, the question is surprising – while in Palestine I was surrounded by welcome and warmth everywhere I went. In fact, it was for the purpose of bringing safety that we spent a day with olive pickers (harvest time can be quite dangerous for Palestinians without an international presence providing witness to potential violence). Far from fear, I felt a deep connection with the people I visited – a sense of unity, friendship, and joy.

But then, I remember the guns – massive guns in the arms of Israeli soldiers throughout the area. I remember the checkpoints, the people I witnessed being harassed by soldiers, and the times we were sternly warned about our behavior lest we attracted attention. I remember my own fear while traveling of Israeli airport security who had the power to deny me entry or detain me for questioning. I remember the fear in a young woman’s eyes as she was forcibly removed from our bus in Qalandiya.

Questions of safety can be tricky. Who determines safety, what constitutes security, and how does fear get manipulated in the argument? When appeals for safety are made, it is important to ask: safety for whom and at what cost? Too often it is in the name of “security” that governments enact unjust practices, ensuring long term insecurity.

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Arguments for safety typically use fear as a weapon to control people, behavior and thinking – a frequent tactic of both Israeli and U.S. governments. Throughout the West Bank we passed giant red signs warning us of the dangers of entry into Palestinian villages. These signs were symbolic of the many invisible walls that separate Palestinians from Israelis, lest fraternization lead to friendship. These signs reminded me of my own beloved Oakland, and its notorious national reputation that is anything but an accurate depiction of the people who call it home.

Fear is powerful, working on multiple levels to alienate people from one another, from our humanity, and from our ability to think and act ethically. At the mercy of fear, we allow ourselves to be divided into subgroups that separate us into “good” and “safe” people versus “questionable,” “bad,” or “dangerous” people. At the mercy of fear, we forgo our shared humanity, allowing false dichotomies to distort reality. At the mercy of fear, we allow ourselves to transition to survival ethics, thinking only of personal or in group safety. Ironically, it is fear itself, with its ability to separate, alienate and dehumanize, that carries with it the self-fulfilling prophecy of creating situations for violence to erupt.

Appealing to the rhetoric of fear, the U.S. government has been able to increase military spending on activities that threaten our long-term safety, the Department of Homeland Security has promoted racial profiling and intrusive surveillance, incarceration rates of people of color and mass deportation have skyrocketed (becoming a modern U.S. form of ethnic cleansing), and a few powerful people have made obnoxious amounts of money in the process.

It’s not that we don’t have things to be truly afraid of, but there is a very real danger of selling our collective souls to the devil of safety, destroying our ability to care, to connect, to befriend and love. Creating “safety” for one group at the expense of another never leads to peace. As fear levels continue to rise in the United States – going to a concert or movie theater no longer feels safe, walking the streets of an urban center or running a marathon no longer feels safe, attending school or a place of worship no longer feels safe – let’s be cautious of the ways in which these emboldened fears will be used against us to create further walls that separate us from one another, our humanity, and our ability to know, understand and work for real peace.

May our faith in connection, kindness, justice and mercy be greater than our fears for safety.

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