Obama’s action not enough to end gun violence in the home

In the well-known story from the opening chapters of Genesis, we read the sparse narrative of an intimate relationship that turns violent.

Writing of the murder of Abel by his brother Cain, Russel Jacoby, author of “Bloodlust: On the Roots of Violence from Cain and Abel to the Present,” points out that victims are most at risk in their intimate relationships.

“Cain knew his brother – he talked with Abel – and [yet] slew him afterward,” Jacoby writes.

Statistics show not only that guns in the hands of those who commit domestic violence often lead to murder, but that violence is more often perpetrated by family members or intimate acquaintances than by strangers. Fifty-five percent of women murdered by intimate partners are killed with a gun. Yet current federal law fails to protect a growing population of victims and survivors of domestic violence, children as well as adults.

President Barack Obama’s recent effort through executive action to improve enforcement and clarify definitions regarding existing regulations on the sale of firearms is a welcome step toward changing the direction of the national discussion on gun violence. We support what the president has ordered: more effective enforcement of existing laws and a clarification of language that defines who is “engaged in the business” of gun sales.

But as welcome as these steps are, Congress still needs to address the dangerous and often lethal connection between domestic violence and guns. Federal law currently prohibits only some convicted abusers from buying or owning guns. Those convicted of misdemeanor domestic violence against a current or former dating partner, or misdemeanor stalking, can still legally buy and own guns. And the presence of a gun in an abusive relationship increases the homicide risk for a woman by 500 percent.

The Jewish textual tradition has long grappled with the roots of violence among intimates. But our tradition also understands that such intellectual wrestling is not enough – we also have an obligation to act.

That is why, as religious leaders, we are supporting two pending pieces of legislation – the Zero Tolerance for Domestic Abusers Act in the U.S. House of Representatives and the Protecting Domestic Violence and Stalking Victims Act in the U.S. Senate – that would prohibit the purchase or possession of guns by those convicted of any acts of domestic violence.

Perhaps Americans, still recovering from the shock of one mass killing after another and bruised by polarizing political rhetoric, will yet reach areas of consensus and cooperation. People of good will can and should find it possible to agree on small but significant steps that can reduce both the level of violence and the risk associated with guns.

By closing loopholes in existing laws, where the scope and intent of the act is clear, we are not engaging in polemics or in politically motivated rhetoric. Rather we are seeking to strengthen existing laws designed to protect victims of domestic violence.

Given what is known about how guns can quickly escalate domestic disputes into murder, we urge Congress to pass these bills. If Americans may still learn any lesson from the tragic story of Cain and Abel, it is that we are, in fact, our brother’s — and sister’s and partner’s and parent’s and children’s — keeper.

Rabbi Marla Hornsten of Temple Israel in West Bloomfield, Michigan, and Rabbi Ari Lorge, of Central Synagogue in New York, are co-chairs of Jewish Women International’s clergy task force on domestic abuse in the Jewish community.

Religion and prayer after San Bernardino

From almost the moment the news broke Wednesday about the shooting in San Bernardino, this tragedy became a debate about religion. As politicians took to Twitter to offer their “thoughts and prayers” for the victims, many responded that thoughts and prayers in the face of such a familiar horror were simply not enough. This sparked a debate about whether Liberals were “prayer-shaming” those who find comfort, meaning and hope in religion. Senator Ted Cruz responded to the tragedy by doubling down on his promise to safeguard our “God-given right” to protect ourselves, our families and our homes. And then we learned the shooters were Muslim.

Now we have moved on to a debate about how to make meaning of the religion of Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik, two Muslims who had never before shown a predilection for violent extremism. Some, like Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr., have betrayed their Islamophobia, saying that we need more citizens with concealed weapons to “defeat Muslims.” Others have discussed what this shooting might tell us about the spread of ISIS, the radicalization of some Muslims, and the need to keep guns away from would-be terrorists. 

There is an important debate to be had about the role of religion in this shooting and in our response, but we can’t let that distract us. The real debate is about guns and our nation’s unwillingness to address the mass violence that is all too common and predictable in our communities.

This is a problem that knows no religion, though all people of faith are its victims. It is neither a Muslim problem nor a Christian problem, nor a Jewish one. This is a plague that is wholly and uniquely American. The perpetrators of the tragedies in San Bernardino, Savannah, Colorado Springs, Roseburg and Charleston (to list only a few of the countless names on the map of national disgrace) share just one thing in common. Not race, faith, zip code, party affiliation, mental health, age, wealth, educational opportunity, employment, or knowledge of the Constitution. They are united only in their access to firearms. 

Religious extremism is a serious problem, we should strive to counter it with compassion, education and understanding, but we will never abolish it. Hatred, racism and bigotry are forces we must fight with every fiber of our beings – but they will always be with us. We cannot choose to get rid of the beliefs that feed violence, but we can choose to stop giving that hatred the tools for mass destruction.

I am a person of faith who finds strength, comfort and knowledge in prayer. I choose to pray for an end to this cycle of senseless violence and I hope others will join me. But one thing I know for sure is that ‘thoughts and prayers’ by themselves will not get us there. Praying after the fact for something preventable is an affront to God and humanity. Prayer without action is just noise.

Prayer works only if it softens the hardened heart and opens it to the message of healing and justice that flows through sacred words. Prayer works only if it leads to contrition and repentance. Prayer works only if it is not an excuse for self-justification.

Our right to protect ourselves and our families may be God-given, but man alone is responsible for guns. Man alone has the power to change the laws and culture that have allowed so many to perish in the name of gun rights. No God that I pray to values our right to bear arms over our right to live safely and without fear. The only thing more shameful than allowing this violence to continue is invoking God in its justification and offering prayer as its only solution.

It was just a few months ago – remember Yom Kippur, the holiest day on our calendar? — that I was among people of all ages committed to spending the entire day in thoughts and prayers. But before we uttered a single word, we were admonished by the words of the earliest rabbis who cautioned about this business of symbolic piety. Two millennia ago, generations before the invention of guns, they taught: a person who says, “I will sin and then repent, I will sin and then repent has no power to repent.”

Repentance is an option that is no longer available. We’ve gone as far as prayer and good will will take us. People of all political persuasions, every faith community, every philosophy about hunting and self-defense and domestic security and sports must put any thoughts and prayers ahead of these tragedies instead of after them. And then it will take our action to save innocent lives.

Religion is neither the cause of this violence nor its solution. The problem is guns, and the answer is not thoughts and prayers from anyone.

Rabbi Jack Moline is the executive director of Interfaith Alliance, an organization committed to religious freedom for all. Before that he served as a congregational rabbi in Alexandria, VA for nearly thirty years.

Ben Carson, the nutty neurosurgeon

What does it say about higher education that you can graduate from Yale and still believe that “>declare, “I never saw a body with bullet holes that was more devastating than taking the right to arm ourselves away”?

Along with Donald Trump, Dr. Ben Carson is way ahead of the pack for the Republican presidential nomination.  When Trump, an alumnus of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, “>denies that climate change is man-made, or “>blames gun control for the extent of the Holocaust, I think he truly believes it.

It’s conceivable that the exceptional hand-eye coordination and 3D vision that enabled Carson to separate conjoined twins is a compartmentalized gift, wholly independent of his intellectual acuity. But he could not have risen to the top of his profession “>without knowing that life on earth began more than 6,000 years ago (pre-meds have to take biology), “>spouting scientific nonsense?

This hasn’t hindered his campaign.  Participants in “>report, 46 percent of Carson supporters (and 61 percent of Trump supporters) think President Obama was not born in the U.S., and 61 percent of Carson supporters (and 66 percent of Trump supporters) think the president is a Muslim.  Carson’s being called brilliant by that base ain’t baffling. 

What I don’t get is how his rigorous scientific education and professional training gave Carson’s blind spots a pass.  Was it, in George W. Bush’s memorable phrase, “the soft tyranny of low expectations”?  Or was it the tyranny of fundamentalism over facts?

In the humanities, the equivalent conundrum is the failure of a deep appreciation for masterworks of art, literature and music to instill virtue.  I first came across this disturbing indictment when I was an undergraduate at the chief rival of Carson’s alma mater.  My field of concentration (Harvard’s pretentious term for “major”) was molecular biology, and I would have quickly flamed out if I’d maintained that science was consistent with creationism, or any of the other canards that survived Carson’s education.  But I was also in love with literature, and ended up with a doctorate in it.  On the way there, what troubled me about my studies was an essay called “To Civilize Our Gentlemen” by George Steiner. Its thesis ran so counter to the bedrock of an elite education – the belief that the humanities humanize – that I went to England for two years to study at Cambridge with Steiner, as passionate an embodiment of academic high culture as could be, in order to reconcile my love for humanistic learning with its apparent inability to prevent barbarism. 

My copy of the essay, and the book it appeared in, “Language and Silence,” is full of a 20-year-old’s underlining and marginalia (“right on!”).  These are some of the passages that jangled me:  

“We know now that a man can read Goethe or Rilke in the evening, that he can play Bach and Schubert, and go to the day’s work at Auschwitz in the morning. To say that he has read them without understanding or that is ear is gross, is cant…. The simple yet appalling fact is that we have very little solid evidence that literary studies do very much to enrich or stabilize moral perception, that they humanize…. Indeed, I would go further: it is at least conceivable that the focusing of consciousness on a written text… diminishes the sharpness and readiness of our actual moral response…. The capacity for [moral response]… is not limitless; on the contrary, it can be rapidly absorbed by fictions, and thus the cry in the poem may come to sound louder, more urgent, more real than the cry in the street outside. The death in the novel may move us more potently than the death in the next room…. [S]urely there is something terrible in our doubt whether the study and delight a man finds in Shakespeare makes him any less capable of organizing a concentration camp.”

When Wolf Blitzer asked Carson if he wanted to amend or take back his comparison of Obama’s America to Nazi Germany, he martyk@jewishjournal.com.   

Unrestricted gun culture needs to stop — now

This past year, I led an after-school class on argument and critical reasoning with a group of gifted eighth-graders in Compton. The final was an in-class debate on gun control. There were passionate arguments on both sides, which is what I’d hoped for, and as the kids prepared, I reminded them that all arguments needed to include evidence. We reviewed what counted as evidence: facts from reputable sources, scientific data, verifiable statistics and even something that you had personally witnessed, as long as it was an incident and not an opinion somebody had expressed.

A bright, friendly kid with spiked hair seemed to realize something. “Does it count as evidence that my family saw someone shot and killed at the park this weekend?” he asked me.

The idea that this kid, whose energy and charm never failed to warm up the classroom, whose family of six includes a 9-year-old national debate champ, an adorable 5-year-old and two of the most devoted parents I’ve ever known, had had to witness a murder just because they went out on a picnic was so horrifying to me that I couldn’t speak.

“It was some guy at another table,” his 10-year-old sister explained, with her usual cheery, dimpled smile, as if the distance of a few feet made it all right. “Somebody just started shooting at him.”

I looked at the other kids in the group, fresh-faced brainiacs so earnest that sometimes I stayed an extra half-hour just because they liked a discussion so much. “Have any of the rest of you ever seen someone shot?”

Out of seven children in that room, only one had not witnessed a shooting.  

One girl had seen a woman shoot and kill her husband in the Food4Less parking lot. Another had seen a guy shot on her street. 

I found myself almost unable to speak. “That’s … unacceptable,” was all I could stammer.

Later that month, as I was teaching a creative-writing workshop at a nearby high school in South L.A., I asked the kids to write about a moment that had been a turning point in their lives. One of the boys, a friendly gossip with a 3.9 GPA, wrote about the time he was in middle school and one of his friends was run over right outside his house when somebody shot the driver of a car — the driver died, the car went out of control and slammed into a nearby tree, killing his 13-year-old friend.  

High-school kids are more in touch with their emotions than my eighth-graders. This time, we had to stop the class. Many of the students lived nearby; many of them remembered the incident. Some of them were nonchalant, but a couple of them were crying. We finished the class with silent writing. It was the only way I could think of to honor what had happened.

And as we all know, just days ago, a young white man walked into a church, prayed for an hour with a group of African-American congregants and then shot nine of them to death. 

We do not live in a war zone. But sometimes it feels as if we do. When are we going to stop the unrestricted access to guns that make this country rife with gang warfare, mass shootings and terrorist hate crimes? 

Why are we willing to live in a country where the gun-related homicide rate is by far the highest in the developed world, more than four times higher than the second-highest country, Switzerland?  Of the 644 million civilian-owned guns in the world, 42 percent belong to Americans.  And though most gun owners say they feel safer with a gun, statistically, those guns don’t protect the owners very well; of the 29,618,300 violent crimes between 2007 and 2011, only .79 percent of the victims protected themselves with a gun or with the threat of using one. 

Dylann Roof, despite being the author of a neo-Nazi website with a white supremacist agenda urging readers to take “drastic action” against Blacks, despite posting racist symbols on Facebook, despite even a recent prior conviction for trespassing and drug possession, was able to walk into a store and, after filling out some paperwork, buy a .45 Glock capable of loading 10 bullets at a time, yet small enough to tuck into his fanny pack. He could easily have bypassed the paperwork just by purchasing the weapon at a gun show, but clearly he correctly assumed that nobody would ever take that background check very seriously.

How many innocent people are going to die before we put a stop to this madness?

We need to enact real gun controls now. We need to demand a country where our children can have a picnic, shop for food or look out their living-room window without witnessing a murder, where their church, synagogue or mosque can be a refuge, not a terrorist site. The pope has stated publicly that gun manufacturers cannot be Christians, because their actions are in defiance of Christian values. I hope we can argue that this bloodshed, and the gun lobby that enables it, and the toothless laws that allow it, and our own inaction, are not consistent with Jewish values, either. We have seen the horrific results of unrestricted gun culture. What are we going to do about it?

Ellie Herman is a writer, teacher and life coach. She blogs at

Bring your gun to synagogue

Last week’s attacks in France should be ample evidence that the late Rabbi Meir Kahane was right when he popularized the slogans, “Every Jew a .22” and “Never Again!” 

Since 2008 I have been carrying a Glock 19 with me virtually everywhere it’s legally permitted – including the synagogue I attend in St. Louis. If, Heaven forbid, a Muslim or other anti-Semite were to enter the sanctuary and begin making threats, I’m confident the event would end rapidly – preferably peacefully, as just brandishing my weapon can defuse a situation. But if I had to engage to protect the congregation, I am confident I am prepared and trained to do so.

Of course, the “intelligentsia” says more guns mean more deaths. But as author Robert A. Heinlein put it, “an armed society is a polite society.” The point of more guns is not more shootings, but less. Since the institution of gun control, every single mass shooting in the United States save one has taken place in a “gun-free zone.” When America began restricting gun rights, the murder rate and other crime rates skyrocketed – though armed defenders continue to stop violent criminals.

While two police officers were killed at the Charlie Hebdo offices, none of the civilians present were armed. Of course, France has no gun-owning culture; civilians cannot purchase and carry pistols for self-defense. But if citizens at the newspaper’s office or in the kosher supermarket that was also attacked carried weapons – or perhaps more importantly, if the terrorists knew they might be carrying weapons – the episode could have turned out differently, if it happened at all. 

Along with an increasing number of my fellow Jews, I consider my weapon a vital tool for personal protection. Jews know – or should know – what happens when we face disarmament. In the last century, that process can be described in three words: Kristallnacht, Ghettos, Auschwitz.

French Jews now face the specter of a new Kristallnacht, and they certainly cannot just expect protection from the government that welcomed and coddled their attackers in the first place.

To their credit, this time the French people seem truly incensed, but it may be too little, too late. Europe’s current version of the Nazis (the Islamists) regularly convulse with anti-Semitism, with nary a peep of real outrage from official France. In many parts of Europe, Jews no longer feel comfortable wearing yarmulkes or otherwise outwardly Jewish garb in public, for fear of inciting Muslims (as if any effort is really needed to incite Muslims.)

Of all religious, ethnic, or other social groups, Jews in particular should understand the necessity of being armed, to protect the liberty we still, thank God, enjoy. 

But the Anti-Defamation League, the Union for Reform Judaism, B’nai Brith International, and most of the other prominent voices in the American Jewish community keep parroting left-wing talking points as usual, supporting nearly every gun control proposal. 

I imagine some of the hesitance of this country’s Jewish community toward guns is cultural – supposedly, “Jews don’t hunt.” In fact, when American Jews go to Israel, many are initially jarred by the fact that there are Jews carrying guns all over the place – but they soon get used to it and even feel reassured by it. 

In fact, Israel is considering loosening its strict regulations regarding carry permits, as one response to the attack on a Jerusalem synagogue six weeks ago. Israeli Jews seem to know what those in France and America need to – that guns in pews save lives.

Sad to say, we have a history of synagogue violence here in St. Louis. In 1977, during the luncheon for Ricky Kalina’s bar mitzvah at Congregation Brith Sholom Kneseth Israel (BSKI), a neo-Nazi shot and killed one guest and wounded two others. The murderer, Joseph Paul Franklin, had chosen BSKI at random from the Yellow Pages. He perched himself on a telephone pole and fired five shots, then fled.

To my knowledge, none of the Jews in attendance at Ricky’s bar mitzvah were armed. What if several of them were? Yes, maybe Franklin still could have pulled the trigger five times. But would he have wanted to, not knowing which of the men and women he faced was packing? And would he have gotten away? 

I certainly don’t want to find myself staging a gun battle in my sanctuary. But would I prefer a massacre of my fellow congregants? Never again. 

This essay first appeared in the Daily Caller. Matthew Chase is an attorney from St. Louis. He can be reached at matthew@chaseplanet.us.

Restraining orders on gun possession may be a new way to stop the killing

Two more young people are dead from another school shooting at Marysville-Pilchuck High School in Washington this week.  In California we had a mass near-school shooting in Isla Vista only recently.  But there is a new law in California that can help us prevent more shootings like those that took place in recent years and it is critically important that all Californians be aware of this law and how it works. Nancy Skinner and Williams’ Assembly Bill 1014 was signed by Governor Brown just a few weeks ago. It gives us the ability to prevent a psychologically unstable person from killing others or themselves by removing guns from their possession for as long as necessary. AB1014 allows anyone to seek a restraining order to remove firearms from a person who appears to be a threat to himself or others. We need to educate our networks about the new law so that parents, counselors, teachers, and friends of those who possess guns and are seemingly mentally ill will start using it.

Over 1,000 people a day are directly affected by gun violence in the United States.  87 people a day are killed by homicide, suicide, or by an unintentional shooting. Hundreds more are shot and injured, or are victims of assault and armed robbery. 

October was Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and a time to remember that more than two-thirds of those murdered by their spouses between 1980 and 2008 were killed with guns. By implementing smart gun laws, we can reduce the number of domestic violence incidents that end in firearm-related deaths or injuries. 

The new California bill can save many lives.  It can affect you if you are a parent or friend worried about a young person, if you are someone feeling that your own mental illness, fear, or aggression are causing you to have thoughts about harming others or yourself.      

In California, the law was inspired by the Isla Vista killings, in which a 22 year-old man, Elliot Rodger, killed six people and himself. His parents had tried over and over to seek help for their son. His mother had noticed that he was becoming more agitated and was making threats of violence. Sheriff’s deputies did not check on his gun ownership.  The man himself later stated that if they had checked his room, they might have found his guns. The new law will empower both parents and law enforcement officials to take action to remove guns from dangerous individuals. Often family members or law enforcement do realize the danger ahead of time, and this would enable them to prevent the slaughter.

Many gun owners claim that laws like AB 1014 will not reduce school shootings and that the main issue to deal with is mental illness, not gun ownership. However, statistics show that gun ownership plays a huge role in determining who perpetrates gun violence.  A 2001 UC San Diego study looked specifically at 34 adolescent mass murderers, all male. 70 percent were described as loners, 61.5 percent had problems with substance abuse, 48 percent had preoccupations with weapons, and 43.5 percent had been victims of bullying. Only 23 percent had a documented psychiatric history of any kind―which means three out of four did not. But all carried out their crimes with guns. With AB 1014, even those who do not have a history of documented mental illness can be prevented from harming others as those who know the person can now take effective actions to prevent gun violence.        

AB1014 is a balanced law. It provides protections for the rights of the person against whom the restraining order is sought. The person seeking the restraining order must sign an affidavit under oath.  There must be a hearing within two weeks, at which the gun owner could defend himself. And the restraining order only lasts for a year. If necessary, after that, the process could begin again.

As long as guns are so widely available, and at the same time our mental health system is so porous, there are going to be situations where someone with guns shows signs of using them irrationally, perhaps even planning a massacre. Up to now, parents who saw a danger looming, even parents who called the police to report the danger, were powerless, and so were the police.  But this new law makes it possible to take action, and prevent a tragedy.  Hopefully word will spread, in the mental health community, and among friends and relatives of those who are struggling to maintain their hold on reality.

Laws similar to AB1014 have been passed in three other states, and New York and Washington DC are considering them too.  The rights of gun owners  are not compromised by our being vigilant and using our awareness of danger to prevent gun violence.  Our legislature and governor have given us this new tool, and now it is up to us to use it. Your life and those of your loved ones may depend on it. 

Jane Hirsch is a member of the Gun Violence Prevention Working Group of the National Council of Jewish Women/Los Angeles.

Letters to the editor: Drones, Tea Party lunches and the right to bear arms

Drone Issue Complicated Yet Simple: It’s About Ethics and Morality

Thank you for the great article “The Torah of Drones” (Nov. 8). It’s extremely important and well written.

My only concern is that the question regarding the morality of deciding who shall live and who shall die is mentioned at the end of the article, but not really explored at all. My suggestion would be for a follow-up article on why Israel takes the high road with no capital punishment for citizens yet why is “drone capital punishment” acceptable without trial? More simply, why is it acceptable to kill fellow neighbors (even if sometimes hostile) without trial, which Torah commands?

Again, thank you for a magazine as thought provoking as The Economist.

David Schlosberg via e-mail

If you consider that thousands of innocent people had been killed in wars in past decades, millions if you want to go back to World War II, killing 29 innocent people while taking out 45 bad guys in highly concentrated population areas during a 20-month period is an excellent result for reducing collateral damage. That’s a little more than one person every two strikes statistically. Any independent researcher of this data would conclude that the United States, Europe and Israel have gotten very good at limiting collateral damage.

Furthermore, not one American or Israeli battlefield soldier operating this type of weapon has ever been hurt or killed. That is just simply unheard of in warfare. How many U.S. soldiers do you think we would have sacrificed sending those 45 guys to meet Allah in standard special-ops missions into Pakistan?

Of course, despite Rob Eshman’s oversights, you can still make the case that one innocent death is one too many, but then you would have to be against war in general. It is virtually impossible to fight a war without some collateral damage. But then if you advocate getting out of this war and all wars in the future, how do you stop jihadists from killing infidels (us). For those of you who take that stand, I leave it to you to figure that one out.

Larry Hart, West Hills

If you were sitting in the left-hand seat of a Lancaster or B-17 bomber in the ’40s, you did not see the civilians. Your mission was to bomb the ball bearing factories in Schweinfurt. If your mission was a failure, you had to go back a second time, and you knew, in the back of your mind, that civilians were collateral damage. 

Here are your choices: 1) Don’t join the Air Force. 2) Don’t follow orders. 3) Don’t think too hard about the ethical issues, because war is not an ethical undertaking. In battle, decisions are instantaneous. Wars are won when your side has the least [number] of bloody noses. 

I only hope the leaders in Gaza have the same moral debates we have. 

Brian Freed via jewishjournal.com

One has to see the drones as just another step in the evolution of the tools of war. The morality of using catapults, gunpowder, arrows, bayonets, tanks, bombers, human spies or drones is on the same level as the morality of wars themselves. In many cases these are evil necessities, sometimes necessary for the survival of one side against another evil side.

Nahum Gat via jewishjournal.com

Tea Party Interview Not His Cup of Tea

What I find disturbing about your discourse with Mark Sonnenklar was your utter lack of engagement with the objectives and tactics of the Tea Party and its base of financial support (“The Tea Partier,” Oct. 25).  Why did you not challenge any of the many leading actions and objectives of the Tea Party, including shutting down the government, great financial cost to our citizens and trying to prevent paying debts we’ve already incurred by refusing to agree to raise the debt ceiling? The Tea Party promotes minority rule, through its actions in Congress, to its blatantly obvious attempt to disenfranchise citizens by requiring voters to prove their identity, while at the same time making it increasingly difficult for them to obtain the documents of proof they would require.  

I generally respect your writing, and perhaps it is unfair that I write to you only in criticism. But I find it especially disturbing that you would write such a kind article about someone, who despite his personal charm, supports a party that doesn’t just represent, but actually is a great threat to our democracy. I hope you will follow up with a piece that actually reveals the actual behavior of the Tea Party and the elected officials it supports that undermine our most precious values and our Constitution.

Jeffrey Ellis via e-mail 

Armed With Facts — and Anger

I disagree (“My Family’s Terror at the N.J. Garden State Mall,” Nov. 8). The right to bear arms is a fundamental right, and for a good reason. The founding fathers and mothers wanted to ensure that Americans would not live in tyranny as Europeans were doing. We have the right to overthrow a tyrannical government. We should not give that right away because there are nuts among us. There will always be mentally ill people. Just quit selling them guns!

Paula Bojsen via jewishjournal.com


ADL calls on conservatives to keep Nazi analogies out of gun debate

The Anti-Defamation League called on conservatives to keep Nazi analogies out of the gun control debate.

“The idea that supporters of gun control are doing something akin to what Hitler’s Germany did to strip citizens of guns in the run-up to the Second World War is historically inaccurate and offensive, especially to Holocaust survivors and their families,” Abraham Foxman, ADL's national director, said Thursday in a statement.

The statement cited the proliferation of such arguments among gun control opponents in the wake of calls for greater gun controls after last month's massacre of first graders in Connecticut by a lone gunman.

The Drudge Report headlined the White House's announcement of such proposals with mug shots of Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin and an array of conservative pundits have claimed that the Holocaust would not have been inevitable had Jews been able to bear arms.

The instances in which Jews managed to obtain arms, as they did in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of 1943, were symbolically important but would not have headed off the Nazi machine, the ADL said.

“Gun control did not cause the Holocaust,” it said. “Nazism and anti-Semitism did.”

Reform, Conservative rabbis: step up gun control

Reform and Conservative rabbinical leaders called for increased gun controls in the wake of a spate of shootings.

“Our tradition teaches: ‘Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor’ (Leviticus 19:16),” said a statement Thursday issued by Rabbi Julie Schonfeld, the executive vice president of the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly. “As people of faith, the Rabbinical Assembly unequivocally calls upon lawmakers to take all available measures, to ensure the safety of the public to limit the availability of guns and the permissibility of their concealment.”

A statement the same day by Rabbi David Saperstein, the director of Reform’s Religious Action Center, noted the shooting attack Wednesday by a man on the Family Research Council, in which a guard was injured, and alluded to shootings this summer at a cinema in Colorado and a Sikh Temple in Wisconsin that have claimed 18 lives.

[Related: Who will protect us from the NRA? by Rob Eshman /
Jews and Guns by Dennis Prager]

“Guns are too pervasive in our society and too easily obtained by those with mental illness, nefarious goals – or both,” Saperstein said. “Abiding by the principles of the Constitution need not be incompatible with sensible gun control.”

Saperstein’s statement also noted increasingly vicious political rhetoric as an element; the FRC attacker reportedly opposed the group’s opposition to gay marriage, and the Wisconsin shooter was a white supremacist.

“This trend of violence threatens us all and violates the values of respect for others that must be paramount in American civic and political life,” he said.

Jews and guns

It is a given among liberal and progressive Jews that gun ownership among the general population is a bad thing. The ideal is near-universal disarmament with only a handful of individual exceptions and, of course, the police.

The majority of Americans have the opposite view. They believe that gun ownership is a fundamental American right, and that the more law-abiding Americans who own guns, the safer the society. This view is so widely held — even among many Democrats — that few Democratic politicians take anti-gun positions.

Like the great majority of American Jews I grew up in a home with no guns, no hunting, no target shooting or any other use of guns. Moreover, no one I knew had a gun or even knew how to use one. Diaspora Jewish culture is almost pacifist. And the general Jewish view is that non-Jews play with guns, not us Jews. A home with guns is as foreign to a Jewish liberal as gefilte fish is to a Mississippi Baptist.

Over the course of my lifetime I have come to side with the majority of Americans. I would hope that Jews are open to rethinking what has become, like most liberal beliefs, an essentially religious position.

I support gun ownership for two reasons — one American and the other Jewish.

First, I have come to admire the American value of the armed citizen. It is part of the great American value of independence and self-reliance. If I am armed, I can better protect myself, my loved ones and my neighbors.

America is great in large measure because Americans relied much less on the state than any other nation.

Jewish and other progressives see the state as a much more wonderful thing than do Americans who believe in traditional American values such as a small state and gun ownership (it would take a rewrite of American history to deny that gun ownership has been a traditional American value). Of course, the state can and must do good things. You cannot protect a country with armed militias; you protect it with a national army, navy and air force.

Progressives, taking their values from Europe, came to regard the state as the vehicle to a nearly utopian society. Gradually it displaces individual responsibility, parental authority and communal institutions.

But the traditional American view was that the state should do as little as possible, while the individual and the community should do as much as possible — including having the ability to protect ourselves against those who would do us harm. Of course police are indispensable. But the police almost always show up after an innocent has been murdered.

My Jewish reason largely emanates from the Holocaust.

Just as it amazes me that Jews can believe that people are basically good — after the Holocaust and all the other unspeakable evils inflicted on us Jews (and so many others) — it also amazes me that Jews can believe that it is a good thing that the state prohibits any of us from owning arms.

Both beliefs show how dogma trumps reality.

How many Jews the Nazis would have murdered if most European Jews had guns is impossible to know. But common sense suggests that the number would have been much lower. The Warsaw Ghetto revolt was begun with 10 old pistols and very little ammunition. Later a few hundred pistols and rifles and a few machine guns were smuggled into the ghetto. Himmler told Hitler he would quell the revolt in three days. It took four weeks. Many hundreds of German troops — perhaps a thousand — were killed or wounded.

If the Nazis knew that Jews refused to go to roundup areas and that many Jews were armed, awaiting Nazis to enter every apartment, it is difficult to imagine that the Nazi genocidal machinery would have been nearly as effective. And, vitally important, even had the number of Jews murdered been near 6 million (which I doubt), not all ways of dying are equal. There is a world of difference between being gassed or shot to death while standing naked beside the mass grave you were forced to dig and getting killed while shooting a Nazi.

The first thing every totalitarian regime does is confiscate weapons. As long as evil people have guns, good people will need to have them. This is true for nations (which is why it is so important for America and for the world that America have the strongest military) and it is true for individuals.

Dennis Prager’s nationally syndicated radio talk show is heard in Los Angeles on KRLA (AM 870) 9 a.m. to noon. His latest project is the Internet-based Prager University (prageru.com).

Rob Eshman: Who will protect us from the NRA?

The National Rifle Association (NRA) claims it exists to protect our rights. My question is this: Who will protect us from the NRA?

The gun lobby is not responsible for the tragic shooting in Aurora, Colo., last week that has so far claimed 12 victims. 

But its consistent and effective efforts to thwart common-sense laws to reduce gun deaths have turned the NRA into a public health threat. To the mayhem of Aurora, it adds its own brand of madness.

I’m not saying the NRA doesn’t have a right to do what it does. I’m not saying gun laws are a panacea that will stop spree killings or gun deaths — more on that below. I’m saying that by standing up to the NRA and passing a handful of sensible gun laws, we can prevent thousands of gun-related deaths each year.

I say this as a former NRA member. I still enjoy shooting guns, and I probably know more about them than your average concealed-carry diehard. There are Red Staters who drive Leafs and Blue Staters who shoot skeet. We can have both guns and common sense in this country – right now we only have the former.  

“Aurora was a tragedy,” Adam Winkler, author of the book “Gunfight: The Battle Over the Right to Bear Arms in America,” told me by phone when I called him just four days after the shooting. “But since Aurora, 240 people have died from guns in this country. Two hundred and forty.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, guns claim 35 victims each day in this country — a statistic that does not include suicides (as Winkler’s number did). About 86,000 people are either killed or wounded by firearms each year, of which 12,612 people die. That means that 10 days after Aurora, guns will have killed another 350 people.

The key to driving these numbers down, Winkler said, is to enact federal laws that address the most egregious flaws in gun legislation.

Winkler, like me, is not anti-gun. He’s a professor of constitutional law at UCLA, a Westside native (and yes, the son of legendary film producer Irwin Winkler) who has focused his considerable intellect on the Second Amendment, which has resulted in America’s patchwork of state laws regarding guns. Because of the inconsistencies across state lines, restrictions are bound to be ineffective, as guns are easy to conceal and transport.

I asked Winkler to name one or two federal laws that sensible people and courageous politicians could support.

He suggested new laws aimed at improving criminal background checks to make it more difficult for criminals and the mentally ill to buy guns. New federal laws should also require these checks for all gun sales. Right now, they only apply to sales by licensed gun dealers, who only account for 60 percent of all gun sales. That means 40 percent of all gun sales—via private parties and gun shows, for example—take place with no background check.

That’s a good place to start, President Obama.

Even such a law, Winkler acknowledged, still might not prevent the next Aurora. Twisted men (it is almost always men) intent on killing will find a way to procure one of the 200 million guns in this country, as well as the millions of large-capacity ammunition magazines.

People who really want to wreak havoc will find a way. Norway has strict gun laws, yet still one of the worst mass shootings in history took place there a year ago this week. And in America, the problem of violence goes far beyond guns. Our homicide rate is four times that of France and the United Kingdom — the highest of any advanced democracy. Switzerland and Israel both have a high percentage of gun ownership but low or negligible amounts of gun-related homicide.

The causes of such carnage may be spiritual, sociological, economic, historical or all of the above. 

But smart, universal background checks could save two or three or five lives each week.

“You could say you’re just addressing the margins,” Winkler said, “but those margins are human lives.”

To save those lives, people have to funnel their outrage over Aurora into two things: contributions and votes.

“Gun control supporters don’t do that,” Winkler pointed out. “Gun control opponents do that.”

He’s right. The NRA, whose founding vision has been hijacked by people with a maximalist agenda, is flourishing. Meanwhile, gun control advocacy organizations flounder. Last May, the Los Angeles-based Women Against Gun Violence held a fundraiser honoring New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck, and the event brought in much less money than expected. Foundation grants have also slacked off, the group’s executive director, Margot Bennett, told me. The economy may be partly to blame, but so are politicians from across the spectrum who lack the courage to confront the NRA, and people like you and me who have given up the fight.

The annual budget of Women Against Gun Violence is $300,000. The NRA’s annual budget? $220 million.

“Mayor Bloomberg said we need more leadership on this issue,” Winkler told me. “But he’s got it exactly backwards. We don’t need more leadership, we need more followership.”

This is a fight between those willing to sacrifice American lives for a maximalist political agenda, and those who want to find the right balance between our constitutional rights and the sanctity of human life. 

To all those in favor of balance: It’s time to step up.

Ronni Chasen update: Gun is a match in ‘person of interest’ suicide

From The Beverly Hills Courier:

The Beverly Hills Courier has learned exclusively that preliminary ballistics analysis of the bullets that killed famed Hollywood publicist Ronnie Chasen came from the same gun that the “person of interest,” suicide victim Harold Martin Smith, used to kill himself.

Beverly Hills Police Department: ‘Ronni Chasen killed by lone gunman on a bike’

Go ahead, make my High Holy Day

From NYPost.com:

It’s high noon for the high holidays.

Fearing jihadists will attack synagogues during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, a group of badass rabbis has developed a program to turn your average shul-goer into a lean, mean fighting machine.

The group, which calls itself the International Security Coalition of Clergy, was founded by Rabbi Gary Moscowitz, who boasts a black belt in karate, teaches martial arts and was an NYPD cop for nine years.

Read the full story at NYPost.com.

GOP platform offers strong support for Israel, veers right domestically

MINNEAPOLIS (JTA)—John McCain’s Jewish supporters characterize him as a Republican maverick who shares his party’s bedrock support for Israel and combating anti-Semitism. Critics dismiss him as the standard-bearer of a staunchly conservative party at odds with the Jewish community on a host of issues.

They’re both right, judging from the platform approved this week at the Republican convention in St. Paul and Minneapolis.

The platform includes a call for an end to all government-funded embryonic stem-cell research and a ban on all abortions—positions that, polls show, are contrary to those of most Jewish voters. Of course, they also do not conform to the views of McCain, who has said that he would revoke President Bush’s restrictions on federal funding for stem-cell research, permit abortions in cases of rape, incest and threats to the life of the mother.

On immigration, McCain, the U.S. senator from Arizona who is the presumptive Republican nominee for president, has pressed for legislation that would provide undocumented workers with a path toward citizenship, but the platform declares: “We oppose amnesty.”

The McCain campaign reportedly decided to avoid significant fights over the platform rather than upset leaders of the party’s conservative base, many of whom have expressed concern over the GOP nominee. His supporters argue that the platform is irrelevant to understanding McCain and that voters will make their decisions based on how they view the candidate.

Texas state Sen. Florence Shapiro, the only Jewish female Republican in her state legislature, said that the platform is “not what guides my everyday” decision-making and doubts voters will be using it to make decisions either.

They will and should be “looking at John McCain and his positions and record,” she said.

Another Jewish delegate from Texas, Houstonian Stuart Mayper, said the strong “pro-life” language in the platform could be a problem for some Jews. But, he quickly added, the platform contains language strongly supportive of Israel that should be attractive to the Jewish community.

Sources familiar with the formation of the platform say the language dealing with Israel and fighting anti-Semitism was drafted in consultation with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and other Jewish groups.

The platform echoes AIPAC’s position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, calling for a two-state solution but placing the onus on the Palestinians to take several key steps and calling on nearby Arab countries to play a more constructive role. It also declares support for “Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel and moving the American embassy to that undivided capital of Israel.”

Both McCain and Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), the Democratic nominee, have said that the status of Jerusalem ultimately would be decided in negotiations between the two sides. McCain has pledged to move the embassy to Jerusalem right away—a promise that the Obama campaign rejected, essentially calling it a lie.

The GOP platform calls for the isolation of Hamas and Hezbollah and vows to maintain Israel’s qualitative edge in military technology over its enemies—all positions shared by Obama and McCain.

In several contexts, the platform stresses the need to combat anti-Semitism—on university campuses, in Europe and across the world—and declares that “discrimination against Israel at the U.N. is unacceptable.”

It says that Iran cannot be permitted to obtain nuclear weapons, calls for a “significant increase in political, economic, and diplomatic pressure” on Tehran and insists that the United States “must retain all options” in dealing with the situation.

Without naming Obama, the platform draws a contrast with the Democratic nominee’s previously stated willingness to meet with the Iranian president. It states: “We oppose entering into a presidential-level, unconditional dialogue with the regime in Iran until it takes steps to improve its behavior, particularly with respect to the support of terrorism and suspension of its efforts to enrich uranium.”

VIDEO: Girls of the Israel Defense Forces (IDF)

Girls of the IDF—Israel Defense Forces.  Video photo montage plus music lovingly crafted by YouTube member , a Floridian named Pilman.

Jewish Hot-Button Issues

After a summer marred by anti-Semitic violence, Jewish lobbyists are vowing to push lawmakers to enact stricter laws to combat hate crimes and control guns.

As Congress returns from its August recess, both efforts are likely to garner a high profile, although it remains unclear whether meaningful changes will be adopted.

Ensuring greater protections for free religious practice and maintaining current spending levels for social-service programs are also key domestic concerns for the Jewish community, while efforts to contain Iran and secure funding for Israel and the Palestinians to implement the Wye River land-for-peace deal will be the focus of activity in the international arena.

Gun control, meanwhile, is shaping up as the toughest battle.

The Senate has already adopted a juvenile-justice bill that would subject individuals purchasing guns at gun shows to background checks, ban the import of magazines with a capacity of more than 10 rounds and require that trigger locks or other safety devices be sold with handguns.

But the House of Representatives, following a fierce lobbying effort by the National Rifle Association, rejected those proposals in June.

While most Jewish activists continue to back those proposals, some are urging Congress to go much further, particularly following the recent spate of deadly assaults across the country — including shooting rampages targeted at Jews in Illinois and California.

One effort, led by the American Jewish Congress, seeks to build grass-roots support for sweeping federal gun control legislation.

The group hopes to rally the religious community and members of Congress around proposals for requiring all gun buyers to pass background checks and for all guns to be licensed and registered, much like cars.

“The problem is that Congress has failed to enact effective gun control legislation, and we believe, as many do, that there are a substantial number of lawmakers who would support meaningful gun control legislation if they had the chance to do so,” said Matthew Dorf, director of the AJCongress’ Washington office.

The organized Jewish community has been calling for more stringent gun control measures for years, but what was once considered something of a low-priority issue has taken on a new sense of urgency.

“There were lots of members of the Jewish community who had glazed eyes when we talked about gun control and gun safety issues in the past, and, unfortunately, I think Buford Furrow and Benjamin Smith have gotten the attention of the Jewish community as to why gun control is a Jewish issue,” said the Anti-Defamation League’s Washington counsel, Michael Lieberman, referring to the white supremacists suspected in the shootings of Jews and other minorities in California and Illinois.

At the same time, recent hate crimes have also generated momentum for legislation aimed at strengthening the federal hate crimes statute. In July, the Senate unanimously approved the Hate Crimes Prevention Act, which allows the federal government to prosecute hate crimes sparked by sexual orientation, gender and disability.

Current federal law applies only to crimes motivated by race, color, religion or national origin. The House has already held hearings on the measure, but it remains unclear whether there will be enough support to overcome opposition from conservative Republicans, who have argued that the bill designates special classes of citizens who are already protected under existing state laws against violence.

On the religious freedom front, the Jewish community’s long-standing goal of ensuring that Americans can practice their religion free from government intrusion faces an uncertain fate.

After the House passed the Religious Liberty Protection Act in July, activists will be turning their attention to the Senate.

The bill, crafted following a 1997 U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down the protections for religious practice contained in the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, appeared at the outset to be relatively noncontroversial. A wall-to-wall coalition of religious and civil liberties groups, including every major Jewish organization, formed in support of the bill.

But as the measure moved through the House earlier this year, support began breaking down among Democrats amid a dispute over whether religious liberty or civil rights laws should take precedence when the two come into conflict.

The coalition now also risks fracturing over the same concern.

At issue is the question of whether the proposed legislation could be used to justify violations of state or local anti-discrimination laws. Opponents argue that landlords and employers in states and cities with laws prohibiting discrimination against homosexuals could invoke their religious principles as a defense for refusing to rent to or hire gays and lesbians.

Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y., an original sponsor of the bill who ultimately voted against it, encapsulated the concerns many have expressed over the legislation when he said, “RLPA should be a shield for the religious liberty of all — not a sword against the civil rights of some.”