The Jewish Case for a New Department of Public Safety

As Jews, we have inherited a tradition focused on justice. One of the central commandments in our texts is “tzedek tzedek tirdof – justice, justice you must pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:20).

The emphatic repetition of the word tzedek – justice – cements this commandment, this mitzvah, as a central tenet of Halakah.

Time and again, the Torah shows that this pursuit of justice can only be accomplished through major changes to the way we live.

This is clear from some of the very first stories within Genesis. When HaShem speaks to Avram, he does not ask him to make slight changes to the idol-worshipping practices of the Canaanites. He commanded him to start something new, to radically change how he lived, where he lived, and how he worshiped. He even changes his very name. 

The covenant he and his offspring create with HaShem is one that prioritizes the pursuit of justice over continuing the ways of the past.

We are commanded to do the difficult thing; to leave violent, misguided ways behind to cross the Red Sea to a new world, where justice could flow like a mighty stream.

Right now, a year and half after the murder of George Floyd, we are once again standing on the banks of the Red Sea. 

Right now, we stand on the side where our system of policing has systematically harassed, brutalized and killed Black and Brown people for decades. It’s a system that has failed at preventing and solving crimes, and has been incredibly resistant to reform or accountability.

The current Minneapolis charter includes a provision from a 1961 charter amendment campaign led by the police federation, which requires a certain number of police officers relative to the population. This provision means that more than 35 percent of our city budget is required to be invested into this unaccountable, ineffective department alone.

That is not justice. That is not a system that keeps us all safe.  That is why Jewish Community Action is part of the Black-led Yes on Question 2 campaign, supporting the amendment to the city charter that would create a new Department of Public Safety that would be more accountable and allow for greater investments in social workers, drug counselors, and other trained professionals – including armed police officers –  that can help respond to emergencies with expertise and care.

This question got on the ballot after 22,000 Minneapolis residents signed a petition demanding this change. We stand with them, because our Jewish values compel us to, and have been leading the conversation about public safety within our community. 

In our conversations with members of the Jewish community, some have expressed concern about what this new department of public safety would look like.

This diversity of opinion within our community is to be expected – as the old joke goes “two Jews, four opinions”. But our tradition holds that this is part of the process of moving towards justice. 

In the Torah, we are told of a moment where the Israelites, wandering in the Sinai exhausted, thirsty, and hungry, cried out to the Heavens: “It would be better for us to go back to Mitzrayim!… And they said to one another, “Let us head back to Mitzrayim” (Numbers 14:3-4)

In this moment, our ancestors were tired, and they were scared. So tired and scared that they begged to return to Mitzrayim, the Narrow Place, the House of Bondage, where they were subjected to slavery and incredible cruelty.

It was not a good place, but it was what they knew. And even the bad place they knew seemed comforting in that moment of change.

When they heard this from the community, our prophets Aaron and Moshe “fell on their faces before all the assembled congregation of the Israelites”.

In response to these Israelite cries, Hashem is upset. Because at that moment, the Israelites were spurning our duty to move from the narrow injustices of Mitzrayim to the open expanse where justice is possible. That is what we are commanded to do. Even when it’s hard. Even when it’s scary.

In fact, our tradition tells us that fear and difficulty are parts of the journey to a more just and safe world.

The Passover Haggadah states that every generation – b’chol dor v’dor – should view itself as if they themselves were journeyed out from Mitzrayim. 

This is a moment we can leave one kind of mitzrayim, one kind of narrowness, for the wide expanse where justice can flourish. 

Right here, in Minneapolis, in 5782/2021, we have the opportunity to leave the Mitzrayim of police-only attempts at public safety, to enter the wide expanse where justice can flourish by saying Yes on Question 2. 

Together, we can leave the narrowness of police-only attempts at public safety and journey to a more expansive form of safety that still includes police officers, but also social workers, drug counselors, and other trained professionals who can best respond to emergencies.

Saying Yes to Question 2 won’t immediately fix everything. After Minneapolis voters say Yes Question 2, there may be some wandering. But we will have changed the fundamental conditions that will allow us to get to a better place.  And we will get there together.

This election, let us say yes to justice. Let us say yes to expanded safety.  Let us say yes to the justice we are commanded to seek.

Let us say yes to Question 2.