Jewish Leaders Seen Absent On Toxic Political Climate

In wake of Giffords shooting, calls for ‘moral leadership’ as community retreats from gun issue.

01/11/11
Washington Correspondent
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The attempted assassination of a Jewish member of Congress from Arizona, Gabrielle Giffords, and the wanton killing of six others in Tucson on Saturday has revived the debate over whether Jewish communal and religious leaders are doing enough to combat a toxic political climate that many say threatens a new age of political violence.

The Tucson tragedy, which also resulted in the death of a congressional aide, a federal judge and a 9-year-old girl, could also put new pressure on Jewish groups that have largely abandoned the fight for tougher gun control laws — and, some say, the fight for social and economic justice.

“Thus far, the Jewish religious establishment has done virtually nothing to combat a political atmosphere that foments hatred and violence,” said Rabbi Joshua Hammerman, spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Stamford, Conn., and a columnist for The Jewish Week. “The closest thing we’ve got to that right now is a civility campaign being organized by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA). We need to go much further.”

Jewish groups have all but given up the fight for stronger gun control laws, he added, and the intensified focus on Israel has undermined the traditional Jewish emphasis on social and economic justice at a time when ongoing economic woes may be making Americans even more vulnerable to the tirades of talk show hosts and political demagogues.

On both issues — political incitement and the increasingly easy access to weapons of all kinds — the nation’s bitter partisanship has further muted the collective voice of the Jewish community.

“As 501(c)3s [tax-exempt nonprofits], we are very sensitive to the charge we are being partisan every time we speak up about these issues,” said a top leader of a national Jewish organization. “And frankly there is an element of intimidation, especially on the gun issue. Passions run so high, and people react so angrily when you raise these issues, that we tend to pull back.”

And Jewish leaders have retreated from the gun control fight because “the Democrats have essentially waved the white flag” on the issue, this activist said.

The brutal assault left Giffords, whose father was Jewish and who became committed to her Jewish heritage after a 2001 trip to Israel, fighting for her life — and shook the Jewish political community to its core.

“Gabby Giffords wears her Jewish identity on her sleeve — a conservative Arizona sleeve,” said Steve Rabinowitz, a top media consultant in Washington who grew up in Tucson. “I could care less when she first embraced Judaism or what the halacha is of her Judaism; she is among the most Jewish members of Congress I know, and I pray in shul for her recovery.”

While early reports drew connections between the alleged shooter, Jared Loughner, and extremist groups such as American Renaissance, at press time there was no evidence of a broader plot — or that anti-Semitism was a motive (there were also unconfirmed reports that Loughner’s mother may be Jewish).

Press reports paint a picture of a deeply disturbed, sometimes incoherent young man driven by a tangle of political ideologies linked only by their shared hatred of authority. His list of favorite books reportedly included both “Mein Kampf” and the “Communist Manifesto.”

An Anti-Defamation League analysis of Loughner’s writings “suggest someone who probably was not associated with any extremist group or movement, but who has a generic distrust of government and a vague interest in conspiracy theories,” said Abraham Foxman, the group’s national director.

Ascribing causation is difficult in cases involving both extremist ideology and mental illness, experts say. But there is little doubt that a national climate of unrestrained rage can trigger violence in those with emotional disorders, said Victor Schwartz, dean of students at Yeshiva University and a professor of clinical psychiatry.

Schwartz argued that “the fringe, intense communications by extremist groups can be appealing to those with psychiatric disorders. The feeling that things aren’t as they ought to be, that there are conspiratorial underpinnings and secret meanings that only the few can understand, can be very comforting to those who are vulnerable.”

And statements that are meant as political metaphors by politicians and entertainers — such as the image of a gun sight’s crosshairs — “may be taken as more concrete by those with psychiatric illnesses,” he said.

Schwartz did not attribute the Tucson massacre to aggressive talk radio, but he said it could be a contributing factor in fomenting political violence.

“Assuming there is a decline in civil discourse, for those who are hovering at the edge of holding their behavior together, if you increase their emotional temperature by two degrees, it may cause them to act and not just fantasize.”

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The ADL’s Foxman has been sounding alarms about the nation’s toxic political mood for several years, and in the wake of the Giffords shooting “the fear has become the reality,” he told The Jewish Week.

Foxman described a climate of political intolerance across the political spectrum, but had especially harsh words for talk shows that have made unrestrained political rage “a popular form of entertainment.”

Some commentators suggest the appalling events in Tucson could be a turning point in the nation’s plunge toward an angry, unforgiving mode of political discourse. Foxman isn’t so sure.

“Will this shake people enough to the point where they think twice and realize that you have to be careful of what you say because there will be consequences?” he asked. “We can hope so, at least for a short period.”

Reversing a climate of incitement, he said, will require a new level of “moral leadership.”

“Some have spoken out in our own community, but I don’t think enough have made this an issue of major concern,” he said. “The fact that this tragedy hit our community inadvertently — we do not believe [Giffords] was targeted because she was Jewish — should encourage our moral and spiritual leaders to take this up.”

Simon Greer is president and CEO of the Jewish Funds for Justice, a progressive Jewish group that waged a fierce media campaign against commentator and talk show host Glenn Beck last fall.

In the wake of the Giffords shooting, Greer argued that talk show incitement is “a significant factor” in generating at least the potential for political violence. “You hear this rhetoric day in and day out, and it has to impact peoples’ way of thinking,” he said. “I’m hesitant to fall into the direct causality camp and say this piece of rhetoric led to that piece of violence. But we know from history that when hate speech goes up, some people will make the connection and act on it.”

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA), is trying to do something about it. Last year the group launched a campaign centered on a “statement on civility” now signed by more than 1,500 Jewish religious and political leaders who pledge to “treat others with decency and honor and to set ourselves as models for civil discourse, even when we disagree with each other.”

Critics say that the JCPA initiative will be toothless without a willingness to call out those who are guiltiest of the kind of political incitement that may have been a factor in the Arizona shootings.

Rabbi Steve Gutow, the group’s executive vice president, said JCPA is now working on responsible ways to do just that, although the difficulties are enormous.

He said the group is using op-eds and working with clergy groups to advance the argument that political rage ultimately undermines democratic values.

What about naming the names of the worst inciters?

“That’s difficult. You have to have a general consensus, or it will be taken as partisan,” he said. “If you do that there will be a circling of wagons, and the talk show host may get even better ratings.”

But he said the group isn’t averse to talking to “boards of directors and the people who run [media] companies.”

Rather than become the self-appointed judges of what is civil and what is not, JCPA hopes to encourage activists across the spectrum to police their own political segments.

“Republicans need to speak to Republicans when they cross the line, Democrats to Democrats,” he said. “Part of our goal is to have that broad spectrum so we have people who are respected within their own worlds who can address these issues.” This week, Fox News head Roger Ailes implored his anchors to cut down on the overheated political rhetoric.

Rabbi Gutow said that the gun control issue, which was propelled back into national headlines by the Giffords shooting and the fact the alleged killer apparently had no trouble obtaining a sophisticated semiautomatic pistol despite clear signs of mental disorder, remains a strong JCPA interest.

But like other Jewish leaders, he conceded that the issue no longer has the priority it once had.

“There haven’t been a lot of calls for us to be engaged on gun control,” he said. “We can be engaged in only so many issues. I guess this points to a weakness in our community.”

JFSJ’s Greer sees a broader problem.

“Every time I hear the hateful rhetoric, I can’t help but think that we live in a country that’s stuck with unemployment at 9 percent ... and we know dire economic conditions are the conditions in which hate speech takes root and begins to be manifested in actions,” he said. “The Jewish community was once a major stakeholder in the domestic issues facing the country. As I look around now, I just don’t see us at the table where these issues are being debated — with a few exceptions.”

Last Update:

01/14/2011 - 13:58

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That some Jews back "gun control" - a public policy that cleared the way for several major genocides in the 20th Century - should not surprise. That some of these Jews survived the Nazi genocide, but still back "gun control", should surprise even less. Jews have a long history of missing the obvious. A quick reading of the Book of Exodus - and the basic commentary on it by Rabbi Solomon son of Isaac (Rashi) - shows that 80% of the Jews did not leave Egypt. Even after the A-mighty crushed the Egyptians, these Jews could not bring themselves to leave. They died, by Hand of H-aven, during the three days of darkness (Ninth Plague). Of the Jews who left, only two of the 603,550 adult men, merited to cross into the Promised Land. All the rest, who looked back to Egypt with longing, died by D-vine decree, during the 39 years of travelling in the desert. It is worth noting that Jewish women - who understood that Egypt was a sewer and so did not look back at Egypt at all - were not subject to this Decree. Only Caleb and Joshua, amongst the 603,550 adult Jewish men, merited to cross the Jordan. From this, it should not surprise that many Jews embrace a public policy - "gun control" - that helped to ensure the mass murder of some six million Jews (and seven million Gentiles). It should not surprise, that the word most Jews (and Gentiles) use to describe the Nazi genocide - "Holocaust" - is a viciously anti-Jewish word. "Holocaust" means, "to sacrifice by fire". Jews - at least those who accept some form of the Law that Moses brought down at Sinai - are expressly and severely forbidden to engage in human sacrifice, or anything resembling it (See, for example, n Leviticus, Ch 18, v. 21 and Leviticus, Ch 20, v. 2-5.). There is a far better word - Shoah ("catastrophe" in Hebrew) - yet most reject this term, in favor of a term that must please the few remaining Nazi murderers. In sum, Jews' embrace of "gun control" is a recent example of an impenetrable intellectual blindness. Our ancient ancestors were bedazzled by Egypt's great buildings and chariots, to the point that they could not imagine not being away from those things. In our era, some are bedazzled by ideas, that seem appealing, but hide - thinly - tremendous horrors. Even when those horrors are exposed, the bedazzled deny reality. "Gun control" - even if it were not mathematical idiocy (there are 310 million US residents and some 250,000,000 fireearms - is a policy that has no place in a civilized country. The biggest murderer has always been governments gone bad. For a Jew to promote a government monopoly of armed force, is tantamount to promoting genocide. No Jew - or anyone else - should want to do this. Yours, faithfully, Jay E. (Simkin) Nashua, NH USA
More blathering from the Jewish Left- those who cannot understand the lessons of their own history when it comes to victim disarmament. Their contention that more legislation denying a weapon to a murderer will somehow dissuade a killer is patently absurd.
 The shooting of Representative Gabrielle Giffords and others in Arizona is truly tragic, but does anyone remember even a few years ago how many web sites, blogs, newspapers, handouts, and postings in the USA showed President George W Bush with shooting targets painted over him, some with blood flowing from his face and body, wanting him dead and some wanting a shooter to finish him off?  Some of them are still around!
Rather than calling for the disarmament of honest citizens the presence of armed citizens would more likely have prevented the carnage that took place. Those who want to do harm to others have never lacked the ability to acquire the means to do so and the police can never be everyplace at one time to prevent these acts. They are only good for picking up the pieces after the damage has been done. The evidence of history proves unarmed people are too easily victimized by those who have no moral values. It is a fact that people kill people and not inanimate objects, a person is always the fault. The nazis and their like all through history were essentually cowards who preyed on those unable to defend themselves. Just think if Israel were to disarm what would be the result?
1) Consider how Jews have trusted their security to governments in Germany, Russia, Latvia, Ukraine, Lithuania, France etc... 2) Consider how much a rifle/pistol was worth in the Warsaw ghetto uprising. 3) Consider the story of the Bielski brothers and how they survived and were feared by the Germans. Considering 1, 2 & 3 above, why would any Jew be in favor of gun control?
The lowlife that murdered 6 and left 14 wounded including Congresswoman Giffords has LEFT leaning politics. His copy of the Communist Manifest proves his leftist leanings, which the Left is too craven and too dishonest to admit. If one wants to blame the tragedy upon political leanings, then the truth be told about the shooter’s political predilections were Left. The veracity is that the shooter was a misfit, a punk who wanted to be the center of attention. His bizarre behavior reported at school and other places was his attempts to be the center of attention. So, he acted as a pest at the school where nobody could tolerate him. His eventual solution was to murder people to ensure notoriety, whereby he unfortunately succeeded. Like that miscreant Lee Harvey Oswald, who assassinated President Kennedy and later the same day, murdered Dallas police officer J.D. Tippet on November 22, 1963; Oswald was also a loser and an utter pest who used the gun to gain attention because nobody could stand him. The Left comprises mostly of immature men and women who still are stuck in adolescence who were, and still are, awkward and socially timid. These lefties resent those who could succeed or at least have a probability to succeed. Unfortunately, these leftists have gained power and have had the legal rights to use that power. What separates these leftists from the shooter is what is considered legal use of power versus the horrific illegal use of power, which the anti-social 22-year old employed to effectuate a tragedy. It is years of Liberal tolerance and the stupidity of the courts that have allowed aberrant people to flow freely through society. The tragedy has not devolved from right wing types because right wing--Conservatives, have fought for personal responsibility and recognition of anti-social behavior as dangerous, not something to make an industry to engage social workers and create careers for some in the media that pity and to strive co-dependently understand those who perpetrate harm to others. The disgraceful Pima County, Arizona Sheriff who has blathered nonsense is nonetheless emblematic of the inanity and the irresponsibility that pervades the left. Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, and the other Conservatives have promoted personal responsibility for years versus that insufferable errand boy for the late Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill—Chris Matthews—who has spewed lies about the tragedy by blaming the Conservatives. It is Matthew’s ilk and its Liberal permissiveness that has infected the social order for decades with excuses to label as tolerance for the perpetrator of the just inflicted horror. Moreover, for years, the Liberals wished George W. Bush and especially Dick Cheney death and every form of harm imaginable without braying a dissenting word of the inappropriateness of the inflammatory rhetoric from Matthews, from his Liberal comrades, and from other Liberal bloviators like Frank Rich. The reality is not political divisiveness over the years that caused the assassin to act in Tucson. The reality is that the shooter is an anti-social narcissist, anti-Semitic, socially maladjusted, and emotionally immature all of which amalgamated to his being a psychopathic killer, but fully responsible and legally sane.
Thank you for bringing some sanity and honesty to this discussion. I agree completely and wonder where was the outcry against Obama's "If they bring a knife to the fight, we bring a gun"..? The silence is deafening.
Good and well thought-out analysis

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