Commentary: There's no safety without safety for all

By Rebecca Subar

Last weekend, after hundreds of Jewish gravestones were desecrated at Mount Carmel Cemetery in the Wissinoming section of Philadelphia, I drove to the graveyard to see Jewish tombstones broken and forced to the ground. On the drive out, a memory of another damaged cemetery came back to me.

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A visitor looks at a few of the 100 or so damaged gravestones at Mount Carmel Cemetery.

My great-grandparents fled anti-Semitism in Lithuania and Poland around 1900, ultimately joining relatives who had settled in what was then called Palestine.

When I first visited Jerusalem with my family as an American Jewish kid in 1968, Israel had just taken over East Jerusalem in the 1967 war. We were able to visit our family graves, which had been desecrated under Jordanian control. The photos of that cemetery visit were iconic in our family; we were honored that our graves were among the first restored.

On Sunday, looking at the broken tombstones of some other Philadelphian Jews' long-gone great-grandmothers, I felt fear - fear that I knew was shared with fellow Jews and the Muslim, black, and immigrant Americans who have found themselves increasingly targeted in the era of Trump. But the strongest feeling I had was astonishment at the fear of powerlessness that the perpetrators would have needed to topple row by row of century-old, 400-pound slabs of granite. I thought about the power of their fear.

Cemeteries are powerful places, and this violence feels destabilizing. Visiting the desecrated graves at Mount Carmel and thinking about the cemetery in Jerusalem where my ancestors are buried, I reflected on what it means to live in fear and what makes us feel, let alone be, safe.

Many in my family still hold up the Jewish state as a beacon of safety. But the state that emerged in 1948 was built at the expense of those it displaced - the Arab Palestinians, who were the majority then, and who are projected to become the majority again this year. In the 50th year of Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territory added to the land claimed at its origin, it is readily evident to me that safety that comes at the expense of others is not safety at all.

We live in a world in which some are safe at the expense of others. Fear prompts many into erecting walls and funding militaries that do more to harm others than to keep people safe. But looking at the broken tombstones at Mount Carmel reminded me that the kind of safety I need and the world I want to build is one dependent on community, relationships, and solidarity. Our humanity ought to prompt us to resist cultures, systems, and governments that secure some at the expense of others.

In this political moment, our government is encouraging people to fear each other, with racially coded language and discriminatory policies. How could I imagine a safety for myself that keeps refugees, black men, and transgender kids from having basic rights? How could I imagine a safety for my beloved Israeli family that keeps Palestinian families from freedom of movement, access, and basic lack of physical security?

I find my Jewish expression today with Jewish Voice for Peace, an organization of 200,000 mostly Jewish Americans that recognizes that the fate of Jews is intertwined with those of Muslims, black and brown people, immigrants, transgender people, and all others threatened by the Trump administration.

In Philadelphia and around the country, JVP is committed to fighting racism and xenophobia in all its forms. We are inspired by the solidarity of Muslim-American leaders Linda Sarsour and Tarek El-Messidi, who raised more than $100,000 to help repair the gravestones in St. Louis and are directing extra funds from that effort to Philadelphia.

Without safety for all, there is no safety. Over the next few months, the Philadelphia chapter of JVP will continue our work canvassing in solidarity with Muslims, advocating for Palestinian human rights and fighting legislation that threatens to defund sanctuary cities, including Philadelphia. We welcome progressive Jews and allies to join us in these efforts.

We also invite Jewish institutions to work in solidarity with Muslim organizations and to connect the fear and threats against Jews to rising violence against other oppressed groups. In this spirit of solidarity, we will continue to show up not only for ourselves, but for each other, whenever mosques are attacked, cemeteries are desecrated, or immigrants are detained.

We will stand with the most vulnerable here and abroad until every descendant of slaves and refugees lives in peace and unafraid.

Rebecca Subar teaches peace and conflict studies at West Chester University and advises advocacy groups on strategy. @rebeccasubar

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