SEATTLE — Last week, the death of Charleena Lyles, a 30-year-old black woman, at the hands of police caused the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle to postpone its annual meeting along with a planned award ceremony for the Seattle Police Department. The killing also prompted a public petition from members of the Seattle Jewish community to rescind the award completely.
In May, the Federation announced that its annual Tikkun Olam Award would be given on June 22 to Seattle Police Chief Kathleen O’Toole, on behalf of her department, for incorporating Holocaust education into police training and collaborating with Jewish groups on a real-time communications tool developed after a shooting attack at the Federation’s headquarters in 2006.
The Federation said in a written statement on June 21 that the postponement of the award ceremony came at O’Toole’s request “due to the fragile state of the Seattle community and the raw emotions around the police’s actions in connection with the death of Charleena Lyles.” The statement also affirmed that the award still stands, a decision at odds with an online petition drafted in the immediate aftermath of Lyles’ death that garnered over 750 signatures in 48 hours.
Calling themselves “Concerned Seattle Jews,” petitioners on the online platform Change.org wrote, “It is difficult to reconcile honoring Chief O’Toole with an award for tikkun olam — the idea that Jews share responsibility for repairing the world — while the Seattle Police Department is under a US Justice Department order and federal court supervision because of a history of excessive use of force and mistreatment of our fellow citizens, especially people of color. In the wake of Sunday’s police killing of Charleena Lyles, an African American mother who called the police for assistance and ended up dead, the idea of the Jewish Federation carrying through this award is especially appalling.”
Lyles, a pregnant mother of four with a history of mental illness, called the emergency line 911 on June 18 to report a burglary. Two officers responded to the call and their dispatch system noted her mental health history. Inside her apartment, with her young children present, officers allege that Lyles became incoherent, threatened them verbally, and brandished a knife. The officers reportedly demanded that she drop the knife, and when she instead lunged at one of the officers, they opened fire.
Much of the public debate in the week since the incident has focused on whether or not the officers should have been carrying Tasers as a non-lethal force option. The officers, who said they left their Tasers in their lockers, were not wearing body cameras but there are audio recordings of the encounter. The investigation is expected to take at least several months.
Rabbi David Basior, who leads the Kadima Reconstructionist Community in Seattle, said that there had been immediate discomfort in his Jewish circles about the Federation’s decision to publicly acknowledge the police department since it was first announced, but that opinions were mostly confined to internal conversations. He called Lyles’ death “an awful catalyst” that forced the issue into the open.
His congregation has been studying the Movement for Black Lives and its manifesto — which controversially used the terms “genocide” and “apartheid” to describe Israel — for over a year. That text study, he said, led to an immediate consensus that “it’s not okay to give a tikkun olam award on behalf of the Jewish community in Seattle to the Seattle Police Department.” But, he continued, “The tightrope to walk was how to do that gently while being kind and strong to our brothers, sisters, elders, and youngsters at the Federation and not demonizing humans in police uniforms.”
Basior said there is no “rift” between the Jewish community and the Federation, but rather an opportunity for more robust dialogue between decision-makers and the community at large. “The Jewish community in Seattle needs to give each other tochecha,” Basior said, referring to the Jewish term for rebuke, or “criticism with love.”
“The Federation is still the only address in town where a Chabad rabbi, a Reconstructionist rabbi, someone who thinks Israel should annex the West Bank, and someone who thinks the occupation should end can sit in the same room and have a conversation about some Jewish topics — but not all,” he said.
Basior noted that the current disagreement over the tikkun olam award comes in a local climate where leftist activists, like the local chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, feel excluded from the Federation because of their politics. The Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle declined to comment for this story.
Those opposed to the award said they saw the merit in the specific Seattle Police Department programs that formed the Federation’s rationale. For example, the Seattle-based Holocaust Center for Humanity now hosts trainings using a national curriculum called “Law Enforcement and Society: Lessons of the Holocaust” that examines how police were complicit in Nazi atrocities. Every Seattle police officer is expected to have completed the training by October. Basior called this partnership “a big win.”
Ultimately, however, the petitioners felt that those initiatives were overshadowed by the structural issues surrounding the department’s treatment of racial and ethnic minorities, which some felt reflected the Federation’s own blind spots.
“We need to be incredibly vigilant around anti-Semitism in our communities,” said Simone Adler, a community organizer on food justice issues. “We need to take seriously keeping the Jewish community safe, but that Jewish community includes people of color.”
That concern resonated strongly with Daniel Eliyahu, an Israeli-American student at the University of Washington whose mother is descended from the Jewish community of Cochin, India. He identifies as a Jew of color.
“The label of tikkun olam means so much to so many people about creating justice and working towards a better world,” Eliyahu said. “To see such camaraderie with a police department that has such a track record of violence against people of color shows something that many Jews of color have seen with the Federation, which is that the Federation doesn’t see themselves as representing a multiracial community.”
Eliyahu’s concerns come at a time of rapid demographic change for the local Jewish community, which has grown 70 percent since 2001 in what is now the fastest growing city in the US.
The Federation, meanwhile, should expect the award activists to keep up the pressure.
“Awarding the police department for working on fighting anti-Semitism while not also challenging the police department on fighting racism is an incredible loss of an opportunity,” Eliyahu said.
Adler does not view the annual meeting’s postponement as a victory, but rather as “backing out from an opportunity to engage.” She and other activists had called for the meeting to go on — without the award ceremony, but with a prayer service and an opportunity to say the kaddish prayer for Lyles. Instead, a group of about 30 said prayers before a vigil on June 22 that attracted hundreds to downtown Seattle.
“In this moment there is nothing to celebrate when we are mourning a black pregnant mother of four who was killed in our city,” Adler said. “A victory would have been rescinding the award altogether.”
The Times of Israel covers one of the most complicated, and contentious, parts of the world. Determined to keep readers fully informed and enable them to form and flesh out their own opinions, The Times of Israel has gradually established itself as the leading source of independent and fair-minded journalism on Israel, the region and the Jewish world.
We've achieved this by investing ever-greater resources in our journalism while keeping all of the content on our site free.
Unlike many other news sites, we have not put up a paywall. But we would like to invite readers who can afford to do so, and for whom The Times of Israel has become important, to help support our journalism by joining The Times of Israel Community. Join now and for as little as $6 a month you can both help ensure our ongoing investment in quality journalism, and enjoy special status and benefits as a Times of Israel Community member.