The murder of a dozen high school students and one teacher by two classmates in Colorado forced the Jewish community once again to find a balance between its support for civil liberties and desire to put its religious values in the cultural marketplace.
The killings were committed by Dylan Klebold, who had Jewish lineage, and Eric Harris, both of whom were reportedly influenced by neo-Nazi ideology and carried out their yearlong designs on Hitler’s birthday, April 20.
The tragedy thrust the Jewish community into a national debate over media censorship and gun control, freedom of expression and moral education in the schools. But there was little agreement this week on what a Jewish response should be to the mass murder committed by the pair of “trench coat mafia” teens at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo.
Statements by major Jewish organizations condemned the violence, and called for actions ranging from support for hate crimes and gun control legislation, to monitoring of Internet web sites and increased anti-bias educational programs. The Simon Wiesenthal Center recommended that President Clinton establish a “national curriculum” on tolerance and civility for all American schools, and Jewish Women International promoted its Prejudice Awareness Summit, a seven-year-old program that teaches conflict resolution skills in middle schools.
In the absence of a unified Jewish voice or a uniform religious answer to the questions raised by the latest public school killings, the Jewish community is again represented by a public figure who is neither a rabbi nor official of a Jewish organization — Sen. Joseph Lieberman.
The Connecticut Democrat, an Orthodox Jew, was the most visible American Jew, in Congress and on television interviews, preaching morals during the days following the shootings. His statements often echoed such conservative Christian groups as the Christian Coalition, which has played a leading role in attempting to return Bible-based values to public life.
The senator, who since 1995 has been an outspoken critic of the video games and musical lyrics that he says desensitize teenagers to the value of life, this week called for a summit on teen violence, to include law enforcement officials and members of the entertainment industry.
Appearing this week on “Meet the Press” with former Education Secretary William Bennett — who singled out Gerald Levin, head of Time Warner, and Edgar Bronfman Jr., head of Seagram Universal, for their role in perpetuating what he called “the culture of death” — Lieberman also called for a surgeon general’s report to study “the extent to which violence in the media contributes to violence among kids. … Something very wrong is happening. This is not the America we grew up in, and we have a moral and civic obligation to take action thoughtfully.”
In speeches during the last year in Congress, Lieberman criticized Time Warner, Seagram and SONY for the content of the music they sell, supported a “self-enforced” parental advisory system for coin-operated video games, suggested a Justice Department study on the relationship between media violence and juvenile crime, and questioned if “we in some sense … have … taken tolerance too far?”
Though he cautioned in his comments, prompted in part by last year’s wave of high school shootings, that “We’re not asking for any government actions or bans,” his campaign to put public pressure on the video game and entertainment industry received a minimum of support from the organized Jewish community. Many Jewish leaders are apparently frightened by the specter of government involvement in matters of personal choice, and by association with the Christian Coalition.
“That is a large concern with a major part of the American Jewish community,” said Michael Miller, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York.
“The Jewish community did extremely well in an America that supports individual aspirations,” free of government control, said Rabbi Michael Paley, executive director of synagogue and community affairs at UJA-Federation. “America is a country that is designed for individual responsibility. Anything that goes toward more [control of ] communal values is very hard to connect to.”
Rabbi Paley suggested that rabbis and educators should hold “public conversations” about such Jewish values as friendship and staying away from evil influences. The Jewish response to Littleton, he said, “should not just be support for gun control legislation.”
Such Jewish values, the rabbi said, are insufficiently taught in public schools. “The lack of values in our schools don’t make the killings,” he said, but it doesn’t “prevent the killings from happening.”
“We believe that we have to be engaged in what is going on in the broader community,” said Rabbi Raphael Butler, executive vice president of the Orthodox Union. The OU, Rabbi Butler said, has actively supported Lieberman “on many issues.”
But, added the rabbi, “Jewish organizations … have limited resources, It is very difficult for every Jewish organization to be active in every aspect of American life.”
Rabbi Jerome Epstein, executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, said schools should teach the “message that there are consequences to your actions. Our challenge is to help young people understand that ‘no’ is an appropriate word.”
While sympathetic to Lieberman’s campaign against violence in video games and song lyrics and television programs, that emphasis is unrealistic, Rabbi Epstein said. “The truth is, we’re not going to shut our kids off from it. It’s not realistic to say we’re going to change the culture in which we live. If we are to invest our time and energy, it’s not to stop what’s on television — it’s to help parents and children understand what they are seeing, help them to live in two worlds.”
“We need to be teaching kids that it is a mitzvah, that when someone is going to hurt himself or someone else, they should report it,” said Rabbi Alan Smith, director of the youth division at the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations.
“We need to be out there, active on school boards and parent teachers associations, to advocate on behalf of young people,” Rabbi Smith said.
“What we need to do,” said Rabbi Michael Lerner, editor of Tikkun magazine, “is create an education in which people learn to recognize every human being as created in the image of God. Instead, we have an education which teaches people how to succeed by themselves. This is totally mirrored by the distortion within the Jewish world.”
Rabbi Lerner is the author of “The Politics of Meaning,” a 1996 book that stressed the importance of adding a moral component to traditionally secular politics.
“We have abdicated the struggle for a better world,” he said. “The struggle for a more morally oriented society has been appropriated by the right, when it ought to be the center of the Jewish community. What happens when you don’t engage in this in Littleton.
“Jews could organize on the grassroots level to put economic pressure on those who teach violence, those who teach hate,” Lerner said, alluding to the video and entertainment industries. “We don’t want the state to be the regulator of the media.”
Tracy Salkowitz, executive director of the Northern Pacific Region of the American Jewish Congress, in a call for “public discussions about what is happening in our society,” said violence in public schools ranks among “core Jewish issues.”
Her region is the base for the Jack Berman Advocacy Center, a violence reduction program named for a former regional president who was fatally shot in San Francisco in 1993.
“I would suggest that the Jewish area of concern is the protection of democracy and the protections afforded us by the Constitution,” Salkowitz said. “The greatest threat to democracy today is not the Christian Coalition, but violence and poverty. We must mobilize and do our part to effect change, and we must act as Jews, not just as Americans.
“Rather than taking our children target shooting practice,” she said, “we should be teaching them safety measures, how to lobby, and how to work within the community to decrease the risk of violence. We should be holding forums in our community centers and synagogues, creating telephone and e-mail legislative alert networks, promoting mentoring programs and working with other community agencies to co-sponsor after school programs.”
Spokesmen for many Jewish organizations, however, said that a primary focus on the Jewish community and Jewish families is the proper response to the Littleton shootings. They emphasized the need for parents to make more time to spend with their children, make choices in terms of what children should be allowed to see on television and in the movies, and instruct their children in Jewish values.
“We have the obligation to be ohr l’goyim, a light to the nations,” said Richard Stareshefsky, director of youth and young adult activities at the National Council of Young Israel. He pointed to cliques, “in-groups” that shun such outsiders as the perpetrators of last week’s murders in Littleton. “The whole concept of having an ‘in-group’ and an ‘out-group’ is something that has to be worked on, in the school, in the shul. Maybe we’re not setting the right example for our kids.”