Monday, June 2, 2014

Why Gun Control Should Be a Jewish Issue

The most recent gun-related murderous rampage in our country has been greeted by the predictable outcry from families of the victims regarding the need for a more sane gun control policy.

The pleas about the rights of Americans to live in safety and not become innocent victims not to be murdered in cold blood are the most common.

But for Jews who take the Torah and its teachings seriously there should be a different and unique argument put on the table.

One of the most compelling and pragmatic commandments in the Hebrew Bible is found in Leviticus (Kedoshim) where were are forbidden to "place a stumbling block before the blind"  and we are reminded that we are to "love our fellow man."

For more than a thousand years our rabbis and sages have believed this prohibition is a metaphor compelling decent people to be  sensitive to the weaknesses and pathology of people who are challenged or have issues with self control or adequate intelligence to make responsible decisions.

The majority of mass murders in recent years have been committed by people who had a history of issues which were very challenging.  It would be hard to argue that the easy availability of mass killing machines helped them make the transition from being a troubled person to a mass murderer.

Rashi and other great Jewish sages normally speak in terms of this commandment forbidding us from engaging in irresponsible or predatory business practices where we take unfair advantage of our own insights and knowledge and exploit or tempt those who are "blind" in these matters.  

For example, according to the commandment a decent person is not allowed to buy a free cocktail for an alcoholic friend who is trying to quit drinking or to encourage an ignorant or unsophisticated friend to make a risky investment that he is not capable of fully understanding.

But an equally compelling case can be made that it also forbids us to make assault weapons and high-capacity magazines available without stringent background checks on the buyers to make sure they are not impaired or "blind" when it comes to issues of self control and civilized behavior.

The inclusion of the uniquely Jewish commandment would simply add even greater credibility to the arguments made by those of us who seek a saner policy and further discredit the already bankrupt arguments of those who hide behind a self-serving interpretation of our Constitutional rights to justify arming those who have killed far more Americans than terrorists in recent years.

As we know, most of those who oppose greater gun control are not motivated by Second Amendment rights or issues related to self defense.

When was the last time anyone ever heard of a person warding off an attacker with an AK-47 or a semi-automatic weapon capable of killing 30 people in 30 seconds?  

When people walk into a Wal Mart or gun show and buy a killing machine and unlimited amounts of ammo and clips capable of firing 30 shots in 30 seconds without regard to their psychiatric or behavioral history, they are never doing it to protect themselves.  We all know that.  But the NRA has twisted the narrative and used its immense power in Washington to make those of us who oppose their agenda feel thoroughly beaten.

When my friend Gabby Giffords was gunned down along with 18 other people in Tucson a couple of years ago, there was a man named Joe Zamudio in the crowd who did have a gun.  By the time he realized what was going on, raised his weapon, took off the safety and moved in, the killer was already on the ground being subdued and one of the heroes had taken his gun away.  

Here in Arizona, the pro-gun crowd had the chutzpah to name a bill after Giffords and her Jewish aide Gabe Zimmerman (who died in the attack) that would broaden gun availability and training on the theory that if everyone has a gun in all venues then there will be fewer victims of the bad guys.

The whole narrative of the NRA and the gun lobby is evil and self-serving and we all know it and hate it.  But the Jewish community just hasn't gotten passionate about it. 

The people who support the NRA and those who want to suppress a woman's right to choose on her own health and reproductive issues and ongoing discrimination against gays and illegal laws trying to keep Blacks and Hispanics from voting are passionate and they put their money and their power behind their passions. 

Isn't it time for Jews to go to spend more time, money, and energy on gun issues which are leading to the deaths of dozens of innocent Americans every year.  It sure seems like it is time to change or at least expand our priorities and change our behavior in this area.

Particularly in view of the uniquely Jewish narrative that we can add to the existing chorus of common sense and life-affirming arguments that should be compelling but are apparently falling on the deaf ears of so many of our legislators and Congressmen.  

The following news clip should have been the lead of the Washington Post article about the incident.  Instead it was buried at the bottom.

"Elliot Rodger owned three 9mm semiautomatic handguns, all legally purchased in his own name, and he had enough ammunition for a massacre — 41 magazines with 10 rounds each, Brown said. Two of the guns were Sig Sauer P226s and one was a Glock 34. 

Christopher Ross Martinez, a 20-year-old university student, died after being shot in the deli. His father, Richard Martinez, held a brief, emotional news conference late Saturday.

“Our family has a message for every parent out there: You don’t think it’ll happen to your child until it does,” the grieving father said. “His death has left our family lost and broken. Why did Chris die? Chris died because of craven, irresponsible politicians and NRA. They talk about gun rights. What about Chris’s right to live? When will this insanity stop?"
For Jews, one could argue that we have lost sight of our Jewish responsibility to each other as well.

Why is There Never Enough Anti-Semitism To Make Some Jews Happy?

The reaction to the recent Anti-Defamation League study on anti-Semitism has been swift and passionate.

Some believe that the study is a badly flawed and transparent attempt by the the ADL to make a case for its own importance and overstate the extent of real anti-Semitism in the world.  Forward columnist Jay Michaelson, a rabbi with a deep and lifelong history of commitment to Israel and the Jewish people, came to that conclusion.  He took the test himself and scored out as an anti-Semite—which he clearly is not.

Others believe that anti-Semitism in the U.S. and around the world is bad and getting worse. 

They seem less concerned with the validity of the survey than they are with emphasizing their belief that there are Jew haters all around us and that Jews should be as fearful as ever.  Jewish Federation professional Robert Horenstein wrote praising the study and offered this daunting conclusion:

"Not only has there been an uptick in anti-Jewish attitudes among Americans over the past 15 years, but even more disturbing, anti-Semitism has been gradually creeping out of the shadows into the mainstream.  The tragic murder of three people at two Jewish facilities in Kansas City in mid-April served as a stark reminder that anti-Semitism is alive and well."

Actually, one could easily conclude that the incident in Kansas City proved just the opposite.  It was a reminder that while Jew haters are alive and well and capable doing great damage, there is virtually no societal anti-Semitism in the U.S. any more.

Jew hatred in the U.S. is racism and bigotry felt and acted upon by individuals and small groups of hateful people.  Anti-Semitism--a condition where the behavior of those bigots is tolerated or even welcomed by the standards of the broader community is something very different. 

As we saw in Kansas City  there are very few places in our country where these people are welcome and where the entire community does not rise up and speak with a single voice to condemn, punish, and ostracize them if they speak out or act in a violent hateful way.

The most important conversation about anti-Semitism is the one that is not taking place—and which no Jewish funder has shown interest in sponsoring.

The real question for American Jews is why so many cling so tightly to the belief that Jews have always been and will always be hated and hunted victims—people who are supposed live in suspicion and fear of non-Jews? 

After all, we live at a time and in a country where non-Jews overwhelmingly and actively are seeking us out as neighbors, club members, business partners, friends and spouses.

Why do so many Jews believe that Israel is a victim of unfair bias in our mainstream media even though we live at a time and in a place where Israel has never been more widely supported or admired by Americans and when an important study by Robert Putnam showed that Jews are the most widely respected religious group in the U.S.?

The real question for American Jews is why so many cling so tightly to their addiction to their belief that Jews have always been and will always be hated and hunted victims—people who are supposed live in suspicion and fear of non-Jews? 

So why do so many of  older Jews still obsess about anti-Semitism at a time when few American Jews under the age of 50 can ever cite a personal experience or situation where they suffered in any way from Jew hatred or even minor religious discrimination?

Most of what all we feel and believe is based on our personal life experiences.  We are all human and can only change our narrative so much.  So it is understandable that older American Jews who grew up in a society where discrimination against Jews was widespread and accepted by broader society would cling to the time-honored mantra that "if you scratch a goy, you'll find an anti-Semite"  long after that slogan was based on fact and experience.

Growing up in St. Louis 50 years ago, I knew people who were getting nose jobs and changing their names so they would appear to be less Jewish. There were clubs, neighborhoods, professions, and private schools where Jews were not welcome. Today, most Jews are very proud to be Jewish.  I don’t know any Jews who are changing their names or appearance anymore--at least not for THAT reason.

Today, most non-Jews seem very anxious to befriend, work with, partner with, and marry us--so much so that many Jewish leaders have declared intermarriage to be a crisis.

Intermarriage is certainly a challenge, but let's be honest. The main reason that there is so much intermarriage is not because Jews are less Jewish--it's because non-Jews are so much more willing to marry us than ever before. It's because our parents fought bigotry and intolerance for decades to create a society where we would be fully accepted and have freedom to choose where we want to live, go to school, play golf, work, and socialize.  And, to fall in love with and marry anyone we want.

Teaching about the Holocaust and the persecution and genocide that Jews have suffered over centuries is critically important.  It is also important to realize that there are still places in the world where anti-Semitism is alive and well and to appreciate how blessed are Jews who live in the U.S. or Israel.

Jews should never forget our past and be informed about the challenges that remain in an often hostile world.  But let's keep it in perspective.

Instead of arguing over frightening studies and wringing our hands over how many people hate us, we should be getting on with the conversation about how to build a pluralistic, values- and wisdom-driven Jewish community that is both sustainable and compelling.

A narrative that than can thrive in a world in which Jews have unlimited choices—a situation that we fought to create for a very long time.

We need to find the right balance between the importance of Tribalism and Aspiration as we define what it means to be Jewish and how to best help and relate to Israel.

The choice is ours and we control the outcome.  

Not the anti-Semites.  Whether there are hundreds or billions of them out there.  They are not the biggest challenge in a world where so many Jews have so much power and unlimited choices.