Category Archives: Gun Control

On Hanukkah, Let’s Challenge Militarized Security Responses to Anti-Semitism

Cross-posted with Truthout

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(photo credit: Newsweek)

Amid the swirl of responses to the deadly Pittsburgh synagogue shooting in October was the New York Post report of a Colorado gun shop owner named Mel “Dragonman,” who publicly offered free guns, ammo and firearms training to congregational rabbis. According to the report, responses to his offer were “mixed.” One congregant appreciated the dealer’s intentions but added “arming people is … not part of the solution.” Another answered that while she was fine with the idea, she drew the line at the prospect of her rabbi carrying an AR-15 during services.

While this story is obviously a cheap tabloid throwaway on the surface, it does reflect a serious and increasing intra-communal conversation over the security of synagogues and Jewish institutions post-Pittsburgh. Indeed, it would not be an overstatement to suggest that the Tree of Life massacre is causing an American Jewish reckoning over the threat of anti-Semitic violence with a gravity we have not seen in generations.

According to press reports, increasing numbers of synagogues have already hired armed guards or are seriously considering doing so. The New York Post reports, “Rabbi Gary Moskowitz, a former cop who founded a group called the International Security Coalition of Clergy, said he has been inundated with more than 150 calls from ‘scared’ rabbis, congregants and non-Jews who want guns or self-defense training, which includes learning how to hurl weights and tomahawk axes.” The rabbi of a prominent Kansas City congregation explained his decision to hire an armed guard thus: “You have to be vigilant all the time, unfortunately. That’s just part of what it means to be a congregation at this moment in history.”

Other synagogues and organizations, however, are resisting the urge to resort to armed security, citing an unwillingness to let “fear-mongering” and “trauma-triggering” (embodied by Trump’s commentthat an armed guard could have prevented the tragedy) dictate their approach to their own communal security. As New York-based organization Jews For Economic and Racial Justice (JFREJ) responded in its statement:

We know that antisemitism is a pillar of white supremacy, and that as white supremacy rears its head more brazenly, so does antisemitism. In recognizing the very real need for safety in synagogues and Jewish communal spaces, we must be skeptical of calls made by Trump and others to increase police presence in our community spaces.

This issue is also fraught because the American Jewish community is more diverse than many often assume — and vulnerable minority groups within the Jewish community members are openly expressing their fears that an increased police presence or hired security would cause them to feel unsafe and unwelcome in their own houses of worship. This fall — even before the Tree of Life tragedy — one synagogue president wrote about this very issue after his synagogue board discussed congregational security during the High Holidays:

Not only do we believe that public or private police won’t keep us safe, we decided that these kinds of security measures could very possibly hurt our community in grave ways. Our congregants include people of color, trans and gender non-conforming folk, queers and their families, peace activists and others who have all been targets of police and state violence…. The risk to individuals and the fabric of our congregation outweighs any potential benefit.

In a widely read article following the attack, Bentley Addison expressed his personal feelings about the impact an armed police presence would have on him as a Black American Jew, pointing out that “with police officers in synagogues, Black Jews and Jews of Color won’t feel safer at all.” Addison concluded forcefully that, following Pittsburgh, congregations should “prioritize the safety of all Jews.”

As a result, some congregations and Jewish organizations are promoting decidedly different models of communal security. For instance, JFREJ, in partnership with Jewish congregations and organizations and allies in the New York City police accountability movement, recently released a “Commit to the Community Safety Pledge” in which Jewish institutions can commit to “develop a community safety plan that aims to honor all who come through our doors.” The text of the pledge further notes:

People targeted by state-enforced violence in our country have had to do this work for centuries, and we are grateful to learn from the wisdom they’ve developed. The strategies include interfaith collaboration and crisis de-escalation, as well as long-term interventions such as creating alternative safety teams, rapid response networks, and broader cultural education around antisemitism and white supremacy.

In a similar vein, Jewish Voice for Peace’s Deputy Director Stefanie Fox has stated that the organization is exploring the possibility of establishing an “interfaith security coalition” in which different faith communities would band together to protect each other’s worship spaces. “If we’re doing the work to deepen our practice and skills around safety outside of policing, that capacity can and should serve not only our Jewish communities but also our interfaith partners in the crosshairs of white nationalist and state violence,” Fox said.

On a strictly practical level, Jewish institutions are actively considering institutional safety strategies such as evacuation plans that have the potential to save lives more effectively than police or armed guards. They also stress the need for these plans to be collectively developed and shared and not simply left to “trained professionals.” As one Jewish organizational consultant recently put it, Jewish synagogue security functions should be “de-siloed,” advising that “safety and security needs to be shared by clergy, operations staff, those responsible for community engagement as well as lay leaders.”

For contemporary Jews of course, this conversation is nothing new. In the post-Holocaust world, the issue of Jewish safety and security is complex and fraught — particularly with the establishment of a Jewish nation-state whose very raison d’etre is to safeguard Jewish lives. In many ways, it might be claimed that Israel itself embodies Trump’s response to the Pittsburgh shooting: that the only true form of protection comes from the barrel of a gun.

However, the 70-year history of the state of Israel has demonstrated the fatal fallacy of this response. In the 21st century, the state founded with the ostensible mission of ensuring Jewish security has ironically become the one place in the world where Jews feel the most unsafe: an over-militarized garrison state that is literally building higher and higher walls between itself and its “enemies.” And of course, the establishment and maintenance of an ethnically Jewish nation state has created an even more unsafe environment for the millions of non-Jews who happen to live there.

On a final note, it’s worth noting that this current conversation is taking place as the Jewish festival of Hanukkah approaches. For many, this holiday is a celebration of Jewish armed might against the anti-Semitic persecution of the Assyrian Seleucid Empire in 168 BCE. This is largely due to the influence of its observance in Israel, where this relatively minor Jewish festival has been transformed into a celebration of military might by Zionist founders who identified with the Hanukkah story’s central characters, the Maccabees — the priestly Jewish clan whose military victory over the Assyrians resulted in the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem and a brief period of Jewish independence.

However, while many might reflexively accept Israel’s framing of the Maccabee narrative, the history of Hanukkah is not nearly as simple as this version might indicate. As it would turn out, the Jewish commonwealth established by the Maccabees (known as the Hasmonean Kingdom) quickly became corrupt, oppressing its own Jewish citizens and waging ill-advised wars of conquest against surrounding nations. In the end, it didn’t take long for the Romans to move in and mop up. All in all, the last period of Jewish political sovereignty in the land lasted less than 100 years.

The Talmudic rabbis who developed classical Jewish tradition as we know it were not, to put it mildly, huge fans of Judah Maccabee and his followers, and they were loath to glorify the Books of the Maccabees (which was never canonized as part of the Hebrew Bible). In fact, the festival of Hanukkah is scarcely mentioned in the Talmud beyond a brief debate about how to light a menorah and a legend about a miraculous vial of oil that burned for eight days. Notably, the words of the prophet Zechariah, “Not by might and not by power, but by my spirit, says the Lord of Hosts,” was chosen to be recited as the prophetic portion for the festival.

In the end, it’s altogether appropriate that this current Jewish communal conversation about the true nature of Jewish safety and security is taking place as the holiday of Hanukkah approaches. In the aftermath of Pittsburgh, American Jews find themselves considering these age-old questions anew: How will we respond to those who seek to do us harm? Can we depend upon the physical force of state security to save us? Or will we answer with a deeper vision of communal security — that none of us will be safe until all of us are safe?

On the Killing of Children and the Price of Our Freedom

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Last night Hallie and I watched President Obama’s eloquent and moving speech at the interfaith prayer vigil for those killed in the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings. About halfway through, when Obama discussed our nation’s collective responsibility to our children, a certain cognitive dissonance popped into my head – a pesky, but familiar distraction that remained with me for the rest of the speech.

Obama concluded by reciting the first name of each of the 20 children killed. When it was over we both sat silently looking at the screen. “Don’t say it, just don’t say it” I thought to myself.

“What did you think?” she finally asked me.

“Very moving” I said, “but..”

“But what?”

“What the hell,” I thought to myself, “go ahead and say it…”

“I don’t know, it’s hard for me to listen to Obama talk about our responsibility to keep our children safe knowing that he personally approves the drone strikes that kill hundreds of innocent children in other countries.”

Hallie rolled her eyes at me. But before she could say “Oh my God, can’t you give it a rest just this once?” I said it myself: “I know, I know, I can’t help it..”

Over the weekend, I thought of a certain moment in the Michael Moore documentary “Bowling for Columbine.” Toward the outset of the movie, Moore pointed out that the Columbine shooting took place during the largest one day bombing by the US in the Kosovo war.  He showed news footage from that day which showed the bloody aftermath of the bombing that killed numerous civilians, including those in a local hospital and primary school. The news footage also included President Clinton telling reporters that the US military was trying to “minimize harm to innocent people.”

Then Moore flashes the words “One Hour Later” and there’s Clinton again: “We all know there has been a terrible shooting at a high school in Littleton, Colorado.” Moore’s point was clear: there is an important connection to be made between our killing of Serbian civilians and the killing of students in Columbine.

So too, I believe there is a similar connection between the killing of innocent children in Newtown to the killing of innocent children in Pakistan.  Both are the product of a uniquely American culture of violence, insecurity and fear – and both are the consequences of a national penchant for manufacturing, selling and profiting from ever more sophisticated weapons of death.

Might it be that our Constitutional right to bear arms reflects a national sense of entitlement to create and sell weapons and to use them wherever and whenever we see fit?  And if so, might we be ready to limit this right for the sake of our children both here and around the world?

In this regard, I think the most telling moment in Obama’s speech was when he asked the rhetorical question:

Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?

Would that our President would ask himself that very question before he approves his next drone strike.

(Please read this recent report by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism that determines over 160 children have been killed in seven years by US drone strikes in Pakistan’s tribal areas.)

Collateral Damage

As this week’s Torah portion opens, a prominent Israelite named Korach ben Yizhar, together with two hundred and fifty chieftains, publicly revolts against the leadership of Moses and Aaron. Korach’s grievance is is expressed thus:

They combined against Moses and Aaron and said to them, “You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the LORD is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourself about the LORD’s congregation?” (Numbers 16:3)

The rebellion does not go well for Korach, to put it mildly – at the climax of this episode, the earth opens up to swallow him, his followers, their families and all of their possessions.

One of the most common issues folks have with this troubling story has to do with the “collateral damage.” Even if we assume (as many commentators do) that Korach and his followers were self- serving charlatans who deserved what they got in the end, why on earth did their “wives, their children, and their little ones” have to be swallowed up as well?

It is ironic that Korach, who purports to have the good of the people at heart, ends up destroying them. Indeed, though he speaks the rhetoric of the masses, his actions ultimately lead to a tragedy of massive proportions. In this regard we might claim that Korach’s primary failing was not hubris per se, but his willingness to let his zealous attachment to a single principle endanger the safety and well-being of his community.

This lesson has particular relevance this Shabbat, coming as it does one day after the US Supreme Court struck down a gun-control law in Washington DC, ruling that the Second Amendment protects the right to possess a firearm unconnected with militia service and to use it for “traditional lawful purposes.” It is clear that this landmark ruling – the first time in 70 years that the High Court has ruled on the Second Amendment – will lead to widespread challenges to gun control laws across the country.

It is equally clear that this ruling will have a real effect on public safety in our nation. An editorial in today’s NY Times put it aptly:

Thirty-thousand Americans are killed by guns every year — on the job, walking to school, at the shopping mall. The Supreme Court on Thursday all but ensured that even more Americans will die senselessly with its wrongheaded and dangerous ruling striking down key parts of the District of Columbia’s gun-control law.

This is a decision that will cost innocent lives, cause immeasurable pain and suffering and turn America into a more dangerous country. It will also diminish our standing in the world, sending yet another message that the United States values gun rights over human life.

There already is a national glut of firearms: estimates run between 193 million and 250 million guns. The harm they do is constantly on heartbreaking display. Thirty-three dead last year in the shootings at Virginia Tech. Six killed this year at Northern Illinois University. On Wednesday, as the court was getting ready to release its decision, a worker in a Kentucky plastics plant shot his supervisor, four co-workers and himself to death.

I have written before on the importance of gun control from a Jewish perspective. According to halacha, pikuach nefesh – the preservation of life – is the most sacrosanct commandment, taking precedence over all other commandments, obligations, or even “rights” (as we would say here in America). As such, I would argue that gun control is a critical spiritual imperative for our national community.

If you agree, check out the Brady Campaign for more info and actions you can take in the wake of this latest ominous ruling.

Tools of Lawlessness

22482971.jpgSimeon and Levi are a pair/Their weapons are tools of lawlessness. Let not their person be included in my council/Let not my being be counted in their assembly. (Parashat Vayehi, Genesis 49:5)

In my commentary on these verses last year, I suggested that Simeon and Levi represent the Torah’s paradigm for unchecked, unmitigated violence. This past week, we received the good news that our nation had made one small step toward alleviating Simeon and Levi’s legacy from our midst.

On Wednesday, Congress passed the first major piece of legislation to reduce gun violence in over a decade. The “National Instant Check System (NICS) Improvement Amendments Act of 2007” (HR 2640) was passed by unanimous consent in the House and Senate and will now go to President Bush for his signature. You may recall that this legislation was passed in response to the Virginia Tech massacre last year. (It was widely reported that the VT gunman was able to obtain a firearm because the court order that should have blocked his gun purchase was not reported to the national background check system.)

In the spirit of this week’s Torah portion which disavows “tools of lawlessness,” let’s call President Bush at 202.456.1111 and urge him to sign the NICS Improvement Act immediately.

Chazak, chazak, Ve’nitchazek: May our shared resolve strengthen us to create a world of justice, safety, and peace.

Night of Our Disavowal: A Sermon for Kol Nidre

Here’s an excerpt from the sermon I gave this past Friday on Erev Yom Kippur:

In the end, I believe the path set out for us by our tradition guides us still. The violence in our midst cannot be ignored or wished away. We must acknowledge it, we must face it, and yes, we must respond to it. For our own sake, for the sake of all who dwell on earth, we must disavow the use of violence to solve our conflicts. Whether it be the violence in our own homes, or the use of military force to address complex political situations, we must be ready to confront and repudiate the violent impulses that reside deep within each and every one of us if we are ever to find a way toward a truly just and peaceful world.

If you’d like to read the full text, click below:

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Guns and Our National Sickness

gun1.jpgThe young man who killed 31 people at Virginia Tech was a paranoid delusional psychotic. But there is something equally sick about a society that allows such a person to walk into a gun shop and buy two deadly firearms as easily as he would a candy bar.

According to my spiritual tradition, the most sacrosanct religious value is something we call Pikuach Nefesh – “Saving a Life.” Pikuach Nefesh means that saving lives is absolutely paramount in our world. Halacha, or Jewish law, stipulates that Pikuach Nefesh trumps virtually every commandment, obligation (or even “right,” as we would say in America.) Yes, it might be argued that according to this principle handgun ownership is a personal safety issue – but on a much more fundamental level, it also means that gun control is an absolute necessity in order to keep guns out of the hands of those who might present a threat to public safety.

Orthodox Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz, in an important discussion of the Jewish legal approach to gun control writes,

(Because) a gun is a dangerous object, halacha (like many current gun control laws) requires that owners and vendors of guns take all possible precautions to prevent their guns from causing any harm.

Even by this benchmark, our nation’s gun control laws are failing us miserably. In Virginia, it is easier to obtain a Glock than it is to get a driver’s license.

Like many illnesses, this national sickness of ours’ only manages to catch our attention when it actually presents itself in an overt way. Shame on us. Shame on us that even though over 10,000 people die every year in our country from gun inflicted homicides, it has taken a singular tragedy of such proportions to put this epidemic back in the national spotlight.

The answers are as plain to us as they have always been. We know that there is much we can do to keep guns out of the hands of people such as Cho Seung-Hui. Please, please visit the websites of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence or the Brady Campaign. It will give you more information about how you can easily contact our nation’s leaders and contribute to a real and lasting solution.

For the sake of Pikuach Nefesh, it’s time to treat our national sickness once and for all.