Sandy Hook, Sandy and the politics of learned helplessness


“We have got to get Michelle to make this her priority.”

It was my friend Judith, a wise woman, a mother and grandmother, on the phone from across the country, the evening of the day of the Newtown massacre, trying to figure out how to enlist the first lady in a campaign against gun violence.

From the email Judith wrote her: “Unless from the top with unyielding outrage we rein in and destroy the gun lobby – unless we stigmatize the NRA as we stigmatized the Ku Klux Klan – we will be robbed of any claim we have to our children's and grandchildren's respect.”

She was calling to get my help to get Michelle Obama's attention. I was appalled by how effortlessly cynical was the response that came out of my mouth.

This one is different, I said. That's what everyone is saying, and it's true. Mowing down first-graders with a ” target=”_hplink”>Associated Press-Gfk poll was released; it found that 4 out of 5 Americans say global warming will be a serious U.S. problem unless action is taken to reduce it. “Belief and worry about climate change,” said the AP, “are inching up among Americans in general, but concern is growing faster among people who don't often trust scientists on the environment. In follow-up interviews, some of those doubters said they believe their own eyes as they've watched thermometers rise, New York City subway tunnels flood, polar ice melt and Midwestern farm fields dry up.”

” target=”_hplink”>350.org will continue to gain traction on college campuses. I have no doubt that the more stories about climate change that Americans hear and see, the more they will demand action from their representatives.

But as things stand, it is virtually inconceivable to me that our lawmakers will rise to the challenge. The petroleum industry swings as big a bat in Washington as the gun lobby. Even if the president has the second-term courage to propose it, our corrupt campaign finance system won't make an enlightened exception for a cap-and-trade bill. The fear of losing a race exceeds the fear of losing a planet.

Are special interests invincible? No, and each counter-example is a ray of hope, something we could all use this season. Last August, in the heat of the campaign, President Obama courageously doubled ” target=”_hplink”>it was called “a blow to the credibility and power of the nation's gun lobby,” proof that the “NRA is no longer bullet proof.” Still, I can't help noting that the CAFE standards were raised by executive action, and didn't require the assent of the Tea Party Congress. Or that the 1994 assault weapons ban was able to pass the House (by a razor-thin margin of 216 votes) because the NRA suffered 38 Republican defections, led by GOP leader Bob Michel of Illinois, who arguably was able to reverse his previous opposition to the ban because he – like several NRA-friendly Democrats who also voted for it – was about to retire from Congress. That fall, when Newt Gingrich and the Republicans took over the House, the narrative was born, and persists to this day, that bucking the NRA is political suicide.

This time around, I'd love my pessimism to be proven wrong. I'd be thrilled if Michelle Obama were the answer. I'd be grateful to rekindle my confidence in democracy. Learned helplessness is the status quo's most pernicious enabler, and I welcome any ladder out of this pit. But whether it's guns or climate change, poverty or plutocracy, war or water: whatever problem most troubles any of us, I'm convinced that the way forward requires a transformational solution to the power of money and fear to determine our national fate.


Marty Kaplan is the ” target=”_hplink”> USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Reach him at martyk@jewishjournal.com.

Rabbis for Obama seen as a first in American politics; Michelle Obama’s rabbi cousin signs up


CHICAGO (JTA) — Saying it is their duty to “fight for the truth and against lashon hara,” more than 400 rabbis have joined to back Barack Obama’s presidential bid in what is believed to be a first-of-its-kind effort.

Rabbis for Obama, officially unveiled last week, is a grass-roots organization formed when two Chicago-area rabbis came to the Democratic candidate’s campaign wanting to help counter rumors that they feel have been spread about the senator.

“What makes this unique is the lies and smears” were “targeted to the Jewish community,” said Rabbi Sam Gordon of Congregation Sukkat Shalom of Wilmette, Ill., citing the e-mails that falsely claimed Obama was a secret Muslim and educated at a madrassa. “Those of us who knew him felt we had to respond.”

“These attacks that he’s not supportive of Israel are just not true,” said Rabbi Steve Bob of Congregation Etz Chaim in Lombard, Ill.

Jonathan Sarna, the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University, said he believes Rabbis for Obama is a first in the Jewish community.

“I certainly can remember many newspaper ads that rabbis would sign” backing a candidate, Sarna said, but “I can’t remember another organization with this kind of title.”

Given the increased mix of religion and politics that the United States has seen in the past 20 to 30 years, he added, it is much more likely for such a group to spring up now than it would have been early in the 20th century.

Bob said that he and other members of the organization are interested in publicly speaking — under the Rabbis for Obama banner — on behalf of the Democratic candidate across the country and are currently discussing how to become more involved in key swing states.

The letter the rabbis signed states that the group backs Obama because “he will best support the issues important to us in the Jewish community.” Among the prominent Los Angeles rabbis who signed are: Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector of American Jewish University, Rabbi Richard N. Levy, director of the school of rabbinic studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion; Rabbi Laura Geller, senior rabbi of Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills; Rabbi Leonard I. Beerman, founding rabbi of Leo Baeck Temple; Rabbi Reuven Firestone, professor of Medieval Jewish and Islamic studies at HUC-JIR Los Angeles; Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater, spiritual leader of Pasadena Jewish Temple & Center; Rabbi Susan Laemmle, USC dean of religious life; Rabbi Dan Moskovitz of Temple Judea in Tarzana and Rabbi Ron Stern of Stephen S. Wise Temple.

In addition to writing that the Democrat is “inspired by Jewish values such as tikkun olam and the pursuit of justice,” it states that Obama’s “longstanding, stalwart support for Israel is a testament to his own principles” and that “attempts by some to use Israel as a wedge issue against him — unjustifiably — is dangerous in that it politicizes the pro-Israel position” and has “completely distorted Senator Obama’s record.”

“We are fully aware that a smear campaign against Senator Obama has been waged in the Jewish community, and we feel it is our duty as Jewish leaders to fight for the truth and against lashon hara,” reads the missive, using the Hebrew term for evil gossip.

“Senator Obama has been viciously attacked using innuendoes, rumors, and guilt by association, and we urge our fellow American Jews to judge Senator Obama based on his own record and the clear statements he has made about his personal beliefs and principles.”

A Republican Jewish leader found that passage of the letter particularly objectionable.

“It’s irresponsible and unprofessional as rabbis to give a hechsher in accusing us of lashon hara,” said Matt Brooks, the executive director of the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC).

Brooks said the reference to “guilt by association” seemed to be referring to the RJC’s criticism of Obama’s links to his longtime pastor, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, and some who have been listed as Obama’s foreign policy advisers — two topics that Brooks believes are fair game in the debate over Obama’s record.

Rabbis are listed by their hometowns rather than their synagogue affiliation because, Bob said, the signatories wanted to make it clear they were speaking for themselves and not their institutions. He said none of the rabbis had any intention of discussing their endorsement from the pulpit or writing about it in their synagogue bulletins.

“We’re not doing this as rabbis of synagogues,” he said. “We’re doing this as private citizens” who are rabbis.

Membership includes rabbis from every denomination, although one independent observer said he noticed only a couple of Orthodox rabbis on the list. More than 300 rabbis were part of the group initially, and Bob said another 125 signed on since it became public last week — including Michelle Obama’s rabbi cousin, Capers Funnye.

The Democratic Party and the Obama campaign have made a special effort during the campaign to reach out to faith groups, but Jewish Democratic operative Matt Dorf said the organization and its missive is better seen as part of another strategy.

The Democratic goal is to reach persuadable Jewish voters through the testimony of people in “positions of influence” in the Jewish community — rabbis, Jewish members of Congress and other well-known Jewish figures such as former New York Mayor Ed Koch.

Dan Shapiro, the Jewish outreach director for the Obama campaign, said his team is “delighted to have leaders with credibility” in the Jewish community come forward to “make a difference.”

One rabbi familiar with politics welcomed the rabbinical group.

“I endorse Rabbis for Obama and I endorse Rabbis for McCain,” said Rabbi Steve Gutow, the executive director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. “I believe religious people ought to be engaged in the public world.”

Anti-Defamation League national director Abraham Foxman, who has been critical of mixing religion and politics, said he was OK with the group. Rabbis don’t have to give up their rights, he said.

As long as they’re not endorsing candidates from the pulpit, Foxman said, “I don’t have a problem with it.”

Not all rabbis feel comfortable with publicly endorsing a candidate.

“I feel my personal political views are personal,” said Rabbi Steve Wernick of Temple Adath Israel in Merion Station, Pa., a suburb of Philadelphia.

A complete list of signatories can be found at rabbisforobama.com.