August 18, 2019

Omar’s Hatred Has No Place in Congress

Screenshot from Twitter.

Congresswoman Ilhan Omar didn’t attend the AIPAC Policy Conference in Washington, D.C., this week, but her presence was impossible to escape. Democratic and Republican politicians alike pushed back at her — either by name or implication — and especially her contention that U.S. Middle Eastern policy is the result of large sums of money spent by Israel’s supporters. 

Omar’s “dual loyalty” slurs clearly energized Israel’s strongest supporters in both parties. But in addition to her obliteration of the line between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, the Minnesota Democrat made a broader point about the role of money in American politics that is worth further examination.

“I reaffirm the problematic role of lobbyists in our politics, whether it be AIPAC [the American Israel Political Affairs Committee], the NRA [National Rifle Association] or the fossil-fuel industry,” she said in a combination of self-righteousness and ideological selectivity. “It’s gone on too long and we must be willing to address it.”

OK. Let’s address it.

Money spent by foreign governments on lobbying and other types of advocacy is legal (although foreign spending on our political campaigns is not.) So, perhaps Omar thinks that is a problem. If so, the targets of her first complaints might be the nations of South Korea and Japan, which have spent $58 million and $53 million on lobbying, respectively, since the beginning of 2017 — far more than Israel’s $34 million, according to (Keep an eye on those nefarious Bermudans, too; their government spent $52 million lobbying the U.S. over that same time.) Other countries that spend at approximately the same level as Israel are Ireland, the Bahamas and the Marshall Islands.

If Omar’s motivation was the need for stricter campaign finance reform, we could assume she would be just as outraged by the money these other countries spend to lobby our government. Yet, only Israel’s advocacy has inspired her to such anger.

“Our problem with Ilhan Omar is not a lack of respect for her religion but rather a recognition of her intolerance for ours.”

These numbers get even more interesting when you break them down per capita — the amount of money spent per resident of the country in question. Israel spends $3.43 per resident on lobbying the U.S. government. Qatar, one of Iran’s most reliable allies in the region and one of the world’s most notorious supporters of terrorism, spends just over $5 for each of its 2.6 million residents. Not surprisingly, Omar is not on record criticizing the Qataris’ considerable investment in lobbying American politicians. Maybe it’s not “all about the Benjamins” after all.

There are many strident critics of Israel’s government who don’t resort to personal vitriol and vindictiveness when mounting a policy-based attack. I obviously don’t agree with the goals of anti-Zionists, but I recognize that those who oppose the policies I believe will ensure the safety and security of the Jewish state are entitled to their opinions too.

But that’s not who Omar is. In her diatribes, she has only occasionally and belatedly bothered to mention the settlements, the Iran nuclear agreement or any other aspect of Middle Eastern geo-politics. For Omar, it’s not about Israel. It’s about the Jews. It’s anti-Semitism, pure and simple, and it has no place in the halls of Congress.

Omar frequently suggests that much of the anger directed toward her is rooted in prejudice toward Muslims. But when Jewish religious and community leaders joined memorial services across the world to grieve the unspeakable tragedy in New Zealand recently, it didn’t matter that the victims were praying to Allah or that they lived in a city named after Jesus.

Just as Muslim leaders across the country stood with us after the heartbreak of Pittsburgh, we stand with them after the tragedy of Christchurch. That same shared commitment to our common humanity enables people of goodwill to disagree on matters of politics and geopolitics without resorting to bias and bigotry.

Our problem with Ilhan Omar is not a lack of respect for her religion but rather a recognition of her intolerance for ours. That’s why pro-Israel Democrats and Republicans put aside their other differences this past week to make it clear that they reject the hatred masquerading as public policy that she continues to promote.

Dan Schnur is a professor at USC’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies and Pepperdine University.

David Light’s View of Zombies, Being Married to a Rabbi and the Trump Era

ZOMBIES - David Light, screenwriter. (Disney Channel/Edward Herrera)

David Light, 44, is a Los Angeles-based comedy writer whose first produced feature — Disney Channel’s “Zombies” — premiered last month to an audience of more than 10 million. Co-written with partner Joseph Raso, the song-and-dance musical tells the story of star-crossed high-school freshmen (a zombie and a cheerleader) who learn to love each other despite their differences.

Outside of Hollywood, Light is best known as the “rebbetzin” at IKAR, the politically progressive activist community founded by his wife, Rabbi Sharon Brous. “When I was going around for meetings when I first got to town, the idea that I was a comedy writer was not particularly interesting, but the fact that I was married to a rabbi was — and still is,” Light said. We caught up with him last week to discuss the relationship between Jews and Zombies, how Camp Ramah inspired his writing career and why Hollywood could be a vehicle for decency.

Jewish Journal: The last time I interviewed you was in 2007, for a story about what it’s like to be married to a rabbi. Now you’re a big Hollywood writer. Which job is harder?

David Light: (laughs) Don’t you mean which job is more fun?

JJ: “Zombies” is about a zombie and a cheerleader who are both outsiders. How does being Jewish give you insight into the marginalized, especially since American Jews today are so well integrated?

DL: Being Jewish makes you both an insider and an outsider, and we’re constantly balancing between those worlds. I grew up the Jewiest kid in public school, so navigating that taught me a lot and gave me experiences to draw from.

JJ: Can you elaborate on how being Jewish informs your writing?

DL: I went to Camp Ramah in the Poconos (in Pennsylvania), [and] there was ‘mail day,’ when you’d send a letter home to prove you were alive and surviving at camp. But I figured out how to game the system, since [the counselors] weren’t checking content; they just wanted an envelope. So I started to address empty envelopes and send them home, week after week. After like, six weeks, I finally got a “package” slip — and [I] opened it up and it was empty. My mom totally one-upped me. When I got home, I was grounded until I could write a letter for each week of camp. Out of that moment, I fell in love with writing.

“What I love about zombies is that they’re this working-class monster.”

JJ: “Zombies” incorporates the timeless appeal of people from different backgrounds being attracted to each other. How do you reconcile that cultural trope with the fact that you’re part of a tradition that discourages intermarriage?

DL: Ugh. [laughs] So you’re asking me to answer why ‘star-crossed lovers’ and make the case for not marrying out of the tribe?

JJ: I’m just curious how you square “loving the other” as a broad cultural value with the fact that Judaism discourages the intermingling of difference when it comes to romance.

DL: Look, I think we’re living in a profoundly indecent time. It just feels like the world is so polarized right now and we wanted to do a movie that values open heartedness and decency. And in the Disney canon, a movie about humanity makes sense; but right now, it feels countercultural. So we thought if our cheerleader could find a way to open her heart to a monster, that there’s real humanity to that.

JJ: Even if the monster is, say, the NRA?

DL: Oh, gosh. That’s the Rorschach you’re putting on this?

Some of us might have different ideas about who the monster is. So are we talking about being open-hearted to all monsters or to a certain kind of monster?

I don’t think being a card-carrying NRA member makes you a monster. But I do think we should hear more voices coming from those members who are more moderate about gun control and sensible reform. I keep wondering, where’s the law enforcement that’s in the NRA? How can they possibly want more assault rifles on the streets?

JJ: Movie monsters have often been a political or cultural metaphor for the prevalent fear of the moment. What do your zombies represent?

DL: Are you asking me, “Are the Israelis or the Palestinians zombies?” (laughs) What I love about zombies is that they’re this working-class monster. They don’t have the sex appeal of a vampire or the cool powers of a witch. They’re just relentless; they keep coming. The [Centers for Disease Control] even did a whole zombie-preparedness campaign because it helped people think about, “What if it all goes wrong? What if the apocalypse really does come?”

JJ: IKAR, the community your wife, Rabbi Sharon Brous, founded, and which you helped build, has developed a national reputation for political activism. How are things going during the Trump era?

DL: IKAR was founded during the (George W.) Bush years, so we were forged in the fires of resistance. I think there was a lot of core value alignment during the (Barack) Obama years and now we’re back to a moment of resistance and opposition.

Proposed Gun Control Doesn’t Go Far Enough

Community members console one another at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School four days after the shooting, in Parkland, Florida, U.S. February 18, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake

Joseph Sanberg, founder CalEITC4Me

In the wake of another horrific mass shooting, many gun control advocates seem to have accepted defeat before the debate even begins.

It’s hard to blame them. Every time, the NRA wins by treating any attempt at tightening gun control — no matter how feeble and innocuous — as an all-out assault on liberty, and gun control advocates play right into their hands by asking for less and less each time. We propose gun control measures so mild, so reasonable, that surely no one could possibly object to them (remember the bill to ban bump stocks after Las Vegas?). And yet each time, the NRA and their allies do object.

We have to stop debating on their terms. I’m tired of asking for the bare minimum of “common sense” measures and coming away empty handed. I’m tired of hearing that “gun control doesn’t work” from the same people who ensure that it never gets the chance.

We need to dramatically reduce the number of guns in this country, and we need to make it much harder to buy them. We have to start challenging the false notion that the Second Amendment gives any American citizen the right to unlimited firepower, no questions asked.
In order to fix our toxic relationship with firearms, we need to normalize the notion that not everyone has the right to own lethal weapons.

Yes to Gun Ownership. No to the NRA.

Community members console one another at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School four days after the shooting, in Parkland, Florida, U.S. February 18, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake

Joshua Greer, entrepreneur, philanthropist and gun owner

It might surprise you that this Canadian-born, gun-fearing ‘libertard’ became a proud gun-owning American.

It took me years before I ever considered bringing a gun into my home with my wife and two of my children. But now, I cannot imagine my house without guns. Besides feeling more secure, I have come to love the history, the engineering and the skill required to accurately fire these weapons.

I find most gun owners to be incredibly decent human beings, and respectful of the powerful and potentially deadly tools they use. But you’d never know this from listening to anti-gun coalitions, who castigate gun enthusiasts and ignore the existence of America’s responsible gun culture. This creates an “us versus them” mentality that pits gun owners against gun control activists — and with serious consequences.

The NRA understands these divisions and is masterful at exploiting them. The organization channels this reactionary and hysterical politics and uses it to fire up its base. And this is where I part company with many gun owners: I am not a member of the NRA.

I find its messaging disturbing, dangerous and un-American. It is the height of hypocrisy that it purports to defend American Constitutional liberties even as it attacks other democratic institutions, such as deriding the media or stoking fears about “big government.”

I really enjoy owning and using guns, but I am sick of seeing the endless cycle of a violent massacre followed by a failure to pass effective legislation. I would happily give up some of my Second Amendment rights — such as private ownership of semi-automatic rifles — if it meant fewer innocent people would be murdered.

It’s time to take a different strategy. Instead of demonizing gun owners, let’s enlist them in this battle for a safer country.

From Indignation to Transformation

Community members console one another at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School four days after the shooting, in Parkland, Florida, U.S. February 18, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake

Rabbi Sharon Brous, IKAR, senior fellow at Auburn Seminary

I’m indignant for the parents who spent hours Wednesday afternoon waiting on a street corner to see if their kids were among the living or the dead, and for those right now nervously pacing hospital corridors. I’m angry that across the country, students are afraid to go to school because they know that sometimes — just about three times a week in the United States — a guy walks into a classroom with a gun, the school goes into lockdown, and not everyone makes it out alive.

I’m indignant witnessing the soul-decay of our nation. Our nation, the most powerful in the world, which teaches its citizens that we are completely powerless to act against the man-made disasters that are destroying us. Our nation, in which we’re again forced to sit through the predictable parade of politicians with A+ ratings from the NRA offering condolences and laying blame anywhere but on the AR-15 and magazine clips used to murder those kids and their teachers.

How can we not be outraged? Another young man with white supremacist leanings and a history of mental illness who reportedly abused his girlfriend and posted pictures of himself with firearms on social media was able to legally purchase deadly weapons. I’m angry that lawmakers are using this tragedy as another opportunity to stigmatize those who struggle with mental illness, while both cutting funding for their care and making it easier for them to purchase guns. I’m angry that this week we had to add another American town to our national map of shame, piled high with stuffed animals and flowers and broken hearts and homes.

I’m a rabbi, in the hope and love business, and here I am, full of fury. But today I’m not afraid of indignation. Anger can disease the soul, or it can liberate it. Anger that’s driven by hope and love can be a tool of transformation. Let us use our anger now to end this insanity.

News Flash: Guns Kill

A protester weeps while chanting at a rally calling for more gun control three days after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, U.S., February 17, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Drake

In the days following the Florida school shooting, all of the usual “guns are as American as apple pie” defenses came out as though they had been saved from the last mass shooting and the one before that. Key to the apple pie defense: “If we all had guns, there would be no gun violence.”

It’s interesting that this theory gets so much play given that it goes against everything we know about human nature. But it’s also based on a false assumption. Guns have never been as American as apple pie. Whether or not you believe the Second Amendment was purposefully misinterpreted (and I believe it was), huge swaths of the country have always found guns odious.

Even now, when the prevalence of guns in the U.S. is beyond belief — 300 million, nearly one for every citizen — more than half are concentrated in the hands of just 3 percent of Americans, who own an average of 17 guns each. About 70 percent of Americans do not own a gun. The percentage of gun owners has actually been declining relative to population growth and is at an almost 40-year low. Least surprising of all, the less education you have, the more likely you are to own a gun.

The latter was clear when I started posting about guns on Facebook after the Florida shooting. I think I finally found the issue that decisively separates classical liberals/conservatives from what I can only call the totalitarian right.

The totalitarian right’s response to mass shootings is the mirror image of the totalitarian left’s response to terrorism: Find every excuse to do nothing. Feel morally superior about doing nothing. Pretend that it’s completely normal for a 19-year-old with a troubled past and emotional issues to legally buy an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle.

The one idea that the NRA and the far right have come up with is arming teachers. When I posted about the Colorado school district that is now allowing teachers to carry guns, there was much cheering from the “more guns” crowd. Until a teacher friend wrote: “You all forget that teachers are people, too, with a variety of temperaments. I work in a school and I for one would not feel safer if some of my colleagues had guns at work.” She then messaged me about teachers at her school who have been suspended for being violent with the students.

Arming teachers is a bad idea. Having an armed guard at every school is a much better one. Again, human nature needs to be considered.

For the sake of our kids, let’s tone down the anger and find sensible, bipartisan solutions.

Many on the totalitarian right can’t even engage in a civil discussion about the issue. Why should we trust them to own guns? In my 20s, I dated an anti-gun activist who the NRA loathed because he ran circles around them both morally and intellectually. One of the phrases he used has always stuck in my head: “The ready availability of guns.” The accidents, domestic violence and suicides that wouldn’t happen if guns weren’t so readily available.

Of course, I’m not talking about taking away guns. (I would love it, but it could never happen.) But, as Nicholas Kristof wrote in The New York Times, there is clearly much that can be done to prevent all levels of gun tragedies, from mental health checks and safe storage measures, to banning semi-automatics and sales to those under 21, to standardizing gun laws across states.

A key obstacle, Kristof writes, is our mindset. Why shouldn’t guns be given the same rational assessment as cars? Treated as a public health issue?

People on the totalitarian right act as though guns are the most intimate part of their body. When your political philosophy shows more care for a fetus (which I, too, believe is a life) than a child at school, you might want to revisit it.

Meanwhile, the left’s descent into identity politics has not helped. In New York City, so-called progressive groups are succeeding at removing metal detectors from high schools. Why? Because they consider them “racist.” That’s right. Racist metal detectors.

Raw emotions from both sides are distracting us from moving forward on this complex societal conundrum. For the sake of our kids, let’s tone down the anger and find sensible, bipartisan solutions that a majority of the country will get behind.

If not now, when?

Karen Lehrman Bloch is a cultural critic and author of “The Lipstick Proviso: Women, Sex & Power in the Real World” (Doubleday). Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, The New Republic, The Wall Street Journal and Metropolis, among others.

Jewish groups in aftermath of Las Vegas attack call for tougher gun control laws

Las Vegas Metro Police and medical workers stage in the intersection of Tropicana Avenue and Las Vegas Boulevard South after a mass shooting at a music festival on the Las Vegas Strip on Oct. 1. Photo by Las Vegas Sun/Steve Marcus

Jewish groups responded to the mass shooting in Las Vegas by condemning the violence and calling for gun control legislation.

At least 58 people are dead and more than 500 wounded in the attack at a country music festival outside the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino on the Strip late Sunday night. It is the deadliest mass shooting in U.S. history.

The Anti-Defamation League, B’nai B’rith International, the National Council of Jewish Women and the Reform movement were among the groups that called for tougher gun control laws in the attack’s aftermath.

“While we are still learning details and do not know the impetus for the killings, one thing is clear: the threat of mass violence against innocent civilians in America has not abated. This threat must be taken seriously,” Anti-Defamation League National Director Jonathan Greenblatt said in a statement. He called for the enactment of “tough, effective gun violence prevention measures.”

Greenblatt said its Center on Extremism is investigating the background and activity of shooter Stephen Paddock and whether he may have ties to extremists or was motivated by any extremist ideology.

B’nai B’rith International said it is “well past time for meaningful, bipartisan gun violence legislation in this country.” It also said: “Though information about the shooter and his arsenal is still being uncovered, we have long held there is no acceptable, reasonable need for civilians to have access to large rounds of ammunition.”

“B’nai B’rith stands in solidarity with the Las Vegas community and with all those impacted by gun violence around the nation,” the statement also said.

National Council of Jewish Women CEO Nancy Kaufman in a statement called for Congress to act to “stem the tide of this senseless violence before yesterday’s tragedy becomes just another record to be broken.”

“Federal lawmakers must act now to restrict access to automatic weapons, reject the current bill before Congress that would make it easier to buy silencers, and instead focus on how to make our communities and our country safer. NCJW expects nothing less from our elected officials,” the statement also said.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, said the mass shooting cannot be termed a random act of violence.

“Even before all the facts are known we know this: rather than revere gun rights our country must finally revere human life,” he said.

“We mourn those callously slaughtered in Las Vegas and pray for the wounded. But our prayers must be followed by action, long overdue limits to the easy access to fire arms.”

The Jewish Federations of North America in its statement called on people wherever they are to donate blood.

“These attacks are just the latest instances of senseless violence that terrorizes innocent people everywhere and must come to an end,” the group said.

Ronald Lauder, president of the World Jewish Congress, also called the attack “senseless.”

“On behalf of world Jewry, I condemn this horrific criminal act,” he said in a statement.

David Bernstein, president of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, said that while authorities have not determined whether the shooting was an act of terror, “there is no question that it has terrorized and traumatized hundreds of innocent people.”

Cheryl Fishbein, the JCPA’s chair, added: “It is imperative that we come together to address the underlying causes in the days ahead.”

There are over 70,000 Jews and at least 19 synagogues in Las Vegas, according to the website.

NRA praises Bernie Sanders for his defense of gun manufacturers

The National Rifle Association praised presidential candidate Bernie Sanders for saying a law he supported kept lawsuits from driving gun manufacturers out of the United States.

“Sen. Sanders was spot-on in his comments about gun manufacturer liability,” the gun lobby said Monday in a tweet about the Democratic debate the previous evening between Sanders, an Independent senator from Vermont, and Hillary Clinton, his rival to be the party’s nominee.

Clinton, who hews to Sanders’ right on most issues, including health care, foreign policy and dealing with Wall Street, has hammered him throughout the campaign on gun control, the one major issue where she stands to his left.

In Sunday’s debate broadcast by CNN from Flint, Michigan, Clinton pointed out that she voted against a 2005 law that protected manufacturers from lawsuits. Sanders, then in the U.S. House of Representatives, voted for it.

Sanders said he would not oppose lawsuits if the seller or manufacturer could be shown to reasonably anticipate they were selling guns to criminals.

“If they are selling a product to a person who buys it legally, what you’re really talking about is ending gun manufacturing in America,” he said. “I don’t agree with that.”

That quote by Sanders was attached to the NRA tweet superimposed over the lobby’s logo.

The CNN moderators raised the question because the families of 26 people murdered in 2012 at a Newtown, Connecticut elementary school – among them 20 first-graders – are suing Remington, the manufacturer of the semi-automatic rifle used in the killings.

Sanders, the first Jewish candidate to win in a presidential nomination contest for a major party, has said his support for some laws protecting gun owners and gunmakers derives from the hunting culture in his state, Vermont.

Obama, wiping tears, makes new push to tighten gun rules

Wiping back tears as he remembered children who died in a mass shooting, President Barack Obama on Tuesday described new steps he is taking to tighten gun rules and urged Americans to vote for candidates willing to do more to prevent gun violence.

As Obama delivered a powerful address in the White House, surrounded by family members of people killed in shootings, his voice rose to a yell as he said the constitutional rights of Americans to bear arms needed to be balanced by the right to worship, gather peacefully and live their lives.

Obama has often said his toughest time in office was grappling with the December 2012 massacre of 20 children and six adults at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut.

“Every time I think about those kids, it gets me mad,” Obama said, tears rolling down his cheek. 

“That changed me, that day,” he said, after being introduced by Mark Barden, whose 7-year-old son was killed in the shooting. “My hope earnestly has been that it would change the country.”

After that tragedy, the Democratic president failed to persuade Congress to toughen U.S. gun laws. He has blamed lawmakers for being in the thrall of the powerful National Rifle Association gun lobby group.

The stocks of gunmakers Smith & Wesson Holding Corp and Sturm Ruger & Co Inc have climbed since the announcement. On Tuesday, Smith & Wesson jumped 12 percent to $26.10 a share and Sturm Ruger was up nearly 7 percent at $65.62. 

Obama acknowledged that laws won't change during his remaining year in office, but said he will continue to raise the issue in the time he has left.


The U.S. Constitution's 2nd Amendment gives Americans the right to have arms, a right that is fiercely defended.

Obama laid out executive action he is taking to require more gun sellers to get licenses and more gun buyers to undergo background checks. 

Under the changes, the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) is issuing guidelines intended to narrow exceptions to a system that requires sellers to check with the Federal Bureau of Investigation to determine whether buyers have criminal records, are charged with crimes or have mental health conditions that would bar them from owning a gun.

The proposal is “ripe for abuse” by the government, said Chris Cox, an official with the National Rifle Association in a statement, adding that the powerful gun lobby group will continue to fight to protect Americans' constitutional rights.

Legal challenges to the changes, which are contained in guidance from the ATF, are expected.

The crucial question in any direct legal challenge will be whether the ATF guidance creates new obligations, or merely clarifies existing law.

The more the Obama administration acts as though the guidance has created a new legal requirement, the more legal trouble it might invite, said Lisa Heinzerling, administrative law professor at Georgetown University.


Republican leaders were quick to denounce Obama's gun changes, with most Republican candidates for the 2016 presidential race promising to reverse his actions if they win the White House.

Democratic candidates praised the moves.

Reince Priebus, the head of the Republican National Committee, called the changes “executive overreach” that “is all about burnishing the president's legacy and boosting Democrat enthusiasm in a presidential election year.”

Republicans who control Congress made it clear that they oppose the changes, although some downplayed their significance.

“Ultimately, this executive 'guidance' is only a weak gesture – a shell of what the president actually wants,” said Kevin McCarthy, leader of the Republican majority in the House of Representatives.

Obama’s gun control measures to spark political, legal fights

President Barack Obama is igniting a political firestorm this week by bypassing Congress with new measures to tighten U.S. gun rules that are likely to redefine what it means to be a gun dealer and possibly spark legal challenges during his final year in office.

Shares in gun makers Smith & Wesson Holding Corp and Sturm Ruger & Co Inc rose against a falling stock market on Monday in anticipation of increased gun sales, as has happened before when the White House mulled weapon sales reform.

Obama was due to meet Attorney General Loretta Lynch on Monday afternoon to discuss his options. 

Stymied by Congress' inaction on gun control, the president asked his advisers in recent months to examine new ways he could use his executive authority to tighten gun rules unilaterally without needing congressional approval after multiple mass shootings generated outrage nationwide. 

One option was a regulatory change to require more dealers to get a license to sell guns, a move that would trigger more background checks on buyers. 

The White House had drafted a proposal on that issue previously but was concerned it could be challenged in court and would be hard to enforce.

Guns are a potent issue in U.S. politics. The right to bear arms is protected by the U.S. Constitution, and the National Rifle Association, the top U.S. gun rights group, is feared and respected in Washington for its ability to mobilize gun owners. Congress has not approved major gun-control legislation since the 1990s. 

White House spokesman Josh Earnest said on Monday that the administration was prepared for legal challenges and had confidence that Obama's new proposals were legally sound.

“A lot of the work that has gone on has been to ensure that we would have confidence in the legal basis of these actions,” he said, adding that the proposals would be “within the legal ability of the president of the United States to carry out.”

The president's planned use of executive action launches his final year with a move that Republicans say exemplifies misuse of his powers. Congress, which is controlled by Republicans, rejected Obama's proposals for legislation to tighten gun rules in 2013.

“While we don't yet know the details of the plan, the president is at minimum subverting the legislative branch, and potentially overturning its will,” Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives Paul Ryan said in a statement.

“This is a dangerous level of executive overreach, and the country will not stand for it.”

U.S. states have taken their own approaches to addressing gun violence. Texas legalized openly carrying handguns, while New York and Connecticut have banned high-capacity magazines.

In 2008, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects the rights of individual Americans to keep and bear arms. But the court also recognized that laws imposing conditions on commercial guns sale can be consistent with the Second Amendment.

Obama, on Marc Maron’s podcast, blames gun lobby ‘grip’ on Congress for lax U.S. gun laws

President Barack Obama blamed public apathy combined with the tight “grip” on Congress of the National Rifle Association, the powerful U.S. gun lobby, for blocking stricter gun laws.

Speaking during an interview recorded on Friday, just two days after the mass shooting at a black church in South Carolina, Obama said he did not foresee any quick changes to gun laws.

“Unfortunately, the grip of the NRA on Congress is extremely strong,” Obama said in a clip of the interview with “WTF with Marc Maron” posted by the New York Times.

[Listen to Marc Maron's full podcast here]

It was not the first time Obama has railed against the NRA. After the Newtown, Connecticut school massacre in 2012, a tragedy that Obama has called his toughest time in office, he pushed for changes to gun laws.

He proposed more background checks for gun sales and pushed to ban more types of military-style assault weapons and limit the capacity of ammunition magazines.

But he failed to convince enough lawmakers to support the restrictions.

“I don't foresee any legislative action being taken in this Congress. And I don't foresee any real action being taken until the American public feels a sufficient sense of urgency and they say to themselves, 'This is not normal, this is something that we can change, and we're going to change it,'” he said in the interview with Maron.

The interview marks the fifth time in two days that Obama spoke publicly about his frustrations with gun laws. He addressed the issue in Washington before traveling to California, where he brought it up at the U.S. Conference of Mayors, and at two fundraisers for the Democratic Party.

Obama, who is spending the weekend golfing in the Palm Springs area with friends, took to Twitter on Saturday to vent.

“Here are the stats: per population, we kill each other with guns at a rate 297x more than Japan, 49x more than France, 33x more than Israel,” Obama said on Twitter.

The U.S. constitution protects the right to own guns. Obama acknowledged in the interview that guns are an important part of many Americans' heritage.

“The question is just: is there a way of accommodating that legitimate set of traditions with some common-sense stuff that prevents a 21-year-old who is angry about something or confused about something or is racist or is deranged from going into a gun store,” Obama said in the interview.

“That is not something that we have ever fully come to terms with,” he said.

NRA official invokes Holocaust in N.J. gun safety debate

A National Rifle Association board member in criticizing a New Jersey mayor for supporting gun safety proposals noted the mayor’s grandparents were Holocaust survivors.

Scott Bach, also the executive director of the Association of New Jersey Rifle and Pistol Clubs, in an interview on the NRA News website rapped a proposal by Jersey City Mayor Steven Fulop to survey vendors bidding to supply firearms to local law enforcement about how they handle gun safety issues.

“His grandparents were Holocaust survivors according to Wikipedia. So you’ve got to wonder why he is not getting it,” Bach said.

Bach pointed out that the mayor, who worked for Goldman Sachs prior to 9/11, joined the Marines after the 2001 terror attacks.

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, in a statement issued Monday assailed using the Holocaust analogy.

“No matter how strong one’s objections are to a policy or how committed an organization is to its mission, invoking the Holocaust to score political points is offensive and has no place in civil discourse,” Foxman said.

“It is especially disturbing that in the debate over gun control in America, Holocaust analogies and references to Nazi Germany flow so freely off the lips of critics of gun control.  There is absolutely no comparison of the issue of gun control in the U.S. to the genocidal actions of the Nazi regime.”



Jewish groups urge Senate to pass gun control legislation

Twenty-three national Jewish organizations signed on to a letter to the U.S. Senate urging members to pass gun control legislation.

In the letter addressed to Sens. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the majority leader, and Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the minority leader, the Jewish groups called on the Obama administration and Congress “to act quickly to prevent needless firearms deaths and injuries.”

They called for comprehensive action that would limit access to the most dangerous weapons and high capacity ammunition magazines, track all firearms, include waiting periods and background checks, provide better access to high-quality mental health care and examine the role of violence in the media.

“There is no single solution to our country’s grave problem with gun control,” said Rabbi Steve Gutow, president of Jewish Council for Public Affairs, which organized the letter-writing campaign. “And with 33 lives lost to gun violence every day, every proposal that can save lives must be considered and given a vote. Delay is not a tactic that will make anybody safe.”

JCPA’s members adopted a similar gun control policy during its annual conference in March.

After Newtown, some gun owners ready to consider control measures

The day Eric Schaefer learned that a .233 caliber semiautomatic Bushmaster rifle — a type of weapon he owned — was used to kill 26 people in Newtown, Conn., he sold his rifle to local law enforcement near his home in Scottsdale, Ariz.

Schaefer, a 40-year-old commercial real estate agent, says he has been hit by an unshakable feeling of shame, and he no longer wants his two children exposed to the many weapons he owns for sporting purposes — guns he keeps locked up and away from the house.

“There’s a sense of embarrassment now to being a gun owner, I don’t feel proud of it,” Schaefer told JTA. “I have my guns as a personal enthusiast, but I can’t say I support all the language and laws associated with guns. It’s far too easy to come across them in this country.”

The mass shooting at a suburban elementary school that left 20 children and six adults dead two weeks ago has reignited the country’s longstanding debate over gun control, pitting supporters of tighter restrictions against those who fear any infringement on their Second Amendment rights.

But while the gun-rights lobby has made clear that it opposes any measures to limit the availability of deadly weapons, some Jewish gun owners acknowledge that they are uncomfortable with the current regulations on firearms sales.

Schaefer says authorities should constantly check the mental state of gun owners and he would like to see the wait time for gun purchases extended — a measure that could buy time for those acting on instinct to reconsider their actions.

“I feel like it ought to be excruciatingly difficult to own a gun, and those who really want one should be able to tough through a more rigorous, difficult process to get one,” Schaefer told JTA. “Law-abiding citizens that want guns for safe reasons like myself should want to tether gun restrictions, so the country can use weapons properly.”

Rabbi Jonathan Siger, a law enforcement chaplain and former NRA shooting instructor from Spring, Tex., says bearing weapons is a God-given right — especially for Jews. But Siger says he would support tighter controls, like requiring two character witnesses to acquire a carry permit and closing the so-called gun show loophole that enables buyers to circumvent a federal background check.

“I don’t understand how some people get their hands on guns,” Siger said. “It seems to me the glaring problem is there is not enough control over who is selling what to whom.”

Such measures, widely touted in the wake of Newtown, were opposed by the National Rifle Association, the country’s premier gun-rights lobby. Wayne LaPierre, the group’s executive vice president, responded to the Newtown shooting by proposing a number of new measures, such as placing armed guards in each of the nation’s public schools and focusing on mental health issues.

The NRA’s response was widely criticized — even by some noteworthy conservatives such as the columnist Ann Coulter and media mogul Rupert Murdoch. But some Jewish gun owners said LaPierre didn’t go far enough.

“The NRA is way too soft on the issue,” said Charles Heller, the executive director of the Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership, an advocacy group. “We should be increasing the layers of security in our school by training teachers and administrators who want to work also as security.”

Heller, whose organization has linked gun control to genocide, recommended offering tax breaks to veteran special-forces soldiers and retired policemen in exchange for protecting schools. A society with fewer guns, he said, would be more violent.

“Don’t punish the innocent for the acts of the guilty,” Heller said. “That’s not very Jewish.”

After the Newtown shooting, a broad range of Jewish groups — the Religious Action Center, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, B’nai Brith International and the National Council of Jewish Women, among others — threw their support behind measures to limit the availability of guns.

To many Jewish gun enthusiasts, however, history provides ample justification for arming civilians and refusing to rely solely on police protection. They routinely invoke the powerlessness of Jews during the Holocaust and the current security threats to Jewish institutions, and are dumbfounded by Jews who favor gun control.

“It is one of the most frustrating feelings to watch those who have been and continue to be the most persecuted people on the planet deny themselves the inherent right of self-defense,” said Zev Nadler, an NRA-certified instructor in Arizona. “A firearm is a great equalizer in that those who wish to do a Jew harm know that they may be armed. And suddenly we are not the easy prey we used to be.”

But the Newtown shooting, with its grisly details and 20 dead children, has left some gun owners ready for change. President Obama has conveyed his support for a reinstatement of the federal assault weapons ban that expired in 2004 and the restricting of high-capacity gun magazines. The outright refusal to even discuss such an approach, these gun owners say, isn’t viable.

“To me, this is a clear example that something needs to be done,” said a criminal defense attorney from Michigan who did not want his name printed as a gun owner. “An assault ban on certain weapons wouldn’t help because a gun is a gun, and they are dangerous. But the NRA needs to be open to sitting down and talking because now is when we need an open debate about realistic measures of change.”

Jewish groups push for action on gun control

In the wake of the shooting rampage in Newtown, Conn., Jewish groups are looking to build alliances and back legislation to strengthen gun control laws.

Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC), said his group is assembling a coalition that would be ready to act once the right legislation comes along.

“The point now is to create the atmosphere in which there is a demand for action, using our voices, organizing the parents in our pews,” Saperstein said in an interview. “When the parents across America start crying out for effective action, if there’s religious leadership, it will galvanize the community to create the moral demand that moves toward sensible legislation.”

Staff at the RAC, the locus in the Jewish community for gun control initiatives in past decades, spent Dec. 17 reaching out to other Jewish leaders, as well as to leaders of other faith communities.

“The best way is to rally the faith community and come together around shared policy,” said RAC spokeswoman Rachel Laser.

A number of Jewish groups have indicated that they will back a gun control bill proposed Monday by Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), the first since the Newtown shooting. It would ban more than 100 assault weapons and ammunition clips that contain more than 10 rounds.

The Newtown killer, Adam Lanza, used a Bushmaster AR-15 assault rifle registered in the name of his mother, whom he killed before heading to Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, where he murdered 20 children and six adults before killing himself. Police have said he used multiple clips, although their capacity has not been publicly reported.

Jared Loughner, the gunman in the January 2011 attack in Tucson, Ariz., that grievously wounded Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and killed six others, had a 33-round magazine.

The legislation, Feinstein said in a statement Monday, “will be carefully focused on the most dangerous guns that have killed so many people over the years while protecting the rights of gun owners by exempting hundreds of weapons that fall outside the bill’s scope.”

Feinstein helped draft the last iteration of an assault weapons ban, in 1994. It lapsed in 2004, after the National Rifle Association fought against its renewal.

B’nai B’rith International on Monday demanded the reinstatement of the assault weapons ban.

“Assault weapons enable a shooter to fire multiple rounds without stopping to reload as they automatically expel and load ammunition with each trigger-pull,” B’nai B’rith said in a statement. “There is no sane, acceptable, reasonable need in a civilian setting to fire off large rounds of ammunition.”

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs circulated a petition through its constituent Jewish community relations councils that calls for “meaningful legislation to limit access to assault weapons and high capacity ammunition magazines, aggressive enforcement of firearm regulations, robust efforts to ensure that every person in need has access to quality mental health care, and a serious national conversation about violence in media and games.”

Officials of Jewish groups planning on action said the likeliest vehicle would be Feinstein’s legislation, which she plans to introduce as soon as Congress reconvenes, in January.

“We have been in touch with Sen. Feinstein,” said Susan Turnbull, who chairs Jewish Women International, a group that has as a principal focus combating domestic violence. “We support her bill.”

The National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW), which has also taken a leading role in the Jewish community on gun control initiatives in the past, announced its support on Dec. 18 for the Feinstein legislation and for legislation proposed by Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) that would tighten background checks. The NCJW has in the past mobilized a grass-roots network of activists to push for gun control legislation. Hadassah also called on Congress to introduce reforms.

The United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism and the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly on Monday called not only for a ban on assault weapons, but for longer purchase times, deeper background checks, coding ammunition for identification and banning online sales of ammunition.

President Barack Obama, attending a prayer vigil in Newtown on Dec. 16, said that he was ready to back action that would address such violence.

“Are we really prepared to say that we’re powerless in the face of such carnage, that the politics are too hard?” he said.  “Are we prepared to say that such violence visited on our children year after year after year is somehow the price of our freedom?” Although he was short on specifics, a number of observers said that Obama’s strong language suggested he was ready to do what he had avoided in his first term: advance assault weapons restrictions.

In addition to Feinstein and Schumer, a number of other Jewish lawmakers also have weighed in. Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), who in the next Congress will be the top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, said in a statement that “expressions of sympathy must be matched by concrete actions.”

Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), who is retiring, expressed support for an assault weapons ban and proposed a national commission on mass shootings.

In addition to banning assault weapons, Jewish groups also are seeking broader initiatives to address violence.

Rabbi Levi Shemtov, who directs American Friends of Lubavitch, said he would bring to the attention of lawmakers a study that links mandatory moments of silence to drops in juvenile violence.

Turnbull of Jewish Women International said that any legislation also should deal with identifying and treating individuals whose mental health should preclude access to weapons.

“We will back any legislation that bans assault weapons and the ammunition as well as giving families what they need to treat individuals with a proclivity toward violence,” said Turnbull, a former vice chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee. “I think this will be the ‘big idea,’ that the president is not going to limit the conversation to just guns.”

The NRA’s Wayne LaPierre has the blood of Connecticut students on his hands

Looking for ways to explain America’s epidemic of mass shootings — including Friday’s murder of 27 people, including 20 children, at a Newtown, Connecticut elementary school – many pundits are blaming the country’s “culture of violence” and its preference for “protecting guns over children.” But the majority of Americans favor strict gun control laws.  No, let's not burden Americans with collective guilt.  The problem is more narrow — and more fixable — than that.

The U.S. leads the world in gun-related deaths primarily because of the political influence of the National Rifle Association and, in particular, Wayne LaPierre, who for the past 21 years has been the NRA's CEO and chief political strategist, orchestrating its opposition to any kind of gun control.

The blood of the victims of the Connecticut shooting is on LaPierre's hands. Of course, LaPierre didn't pull the trigger, but he's the NRA's hit man when it comes to intimidating elected officials.

Although LaPierre likes to portray the NRA as representing grassroots gun owners, the bulk of its money comes from gun manufacturers.  LaPierre is a corporate lobbyist.  He doesn’t speak for most gun owners, a majority of whom favor stricter gun laws, according to surveys.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, in 2011 there were 15,953 murders in the United States and 11,101 (30 a day) were caused by firearms. Suicides and unintentional shootings account for another 20,000 deaths by guns each year. Of course, many more people are injured—some seriously and permanently—by gun violence.

Most gun-related deaths are committed by people who purchase their weapons legally. Others purchase or steal them illegally, but their ability to get access to guns is due to our lax laws on gun ownership. LaPierre's job is to make it easier for people to buy and use guns. And so far he's been very successful. Since the 1994 assault-weapon ban expired in 2004, Congress hasn't enacted any major gun regulations.

LaPierre likes to fulminate about gun owners' rights. But so far he's has been silent about the nation's most recent gun massacre.  LaPierre and the NRA are bullies and, like most bullies, they will cower if confronted.  It is now time for an outraged and mobilized public  to put pressure Congress and President Obama to put strong limits on guns and beat the NRA.

Adam Lanza—the 20-year old man who walked into the Connecticut school with two firearms (a Glock and a Sig Saurer) and had another gun (a 223 Bushmaster) in his car—is no doubt deranged. He's not alone. There are lots of crazy people around. But if we make it easy for them to obtain guns, they are more likely to translate their psychological problems into dangerous and deadly anti-social behavior.

The shooting in the Connecticut school was not an isolated incident. We've almost become used to a regular diet of gun-toting rampages. The most visible of them—like Columbine, the Virginia Tech killings, the murders in the Aurora, Colorado movie theater, and the Arizona shooting that nearly claimed the life of former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and left six others dead—stick in our minds, but there are many others.  It was only a matter of good luck that Buford Furrow – the mentally ill white supremicist who entered the North Valley Jewish Community Center in Granada Hills in August 1999 and opened fire with a semiautomatic weapon, wounding five people – didn’t kill anyone.

The NRA has two knee-jerk responses to these and other gun massacres. The first is that the Second Amendment gives all Americans the right to possess guns of all kinds—not just hunting rifles but machine guns and semi-automatics. Efforts to restrict gun sales and ownership is, according to the NRA, an assault on our constitutional freedoms.

The second is the cliché that “guns don't kill people, people kill people.” To the NRA, gun laws have nothing to do with the epidemic of gun-related killings.

Both of these arguments are bogus, but the NRA has the money and membership (4 million) to translate these idiot ideas into political clout to thwart even reasonable gun-control laws. The NRA not only lobbies on behalf of “stand your ground” laws, but also offers insurance to members to pay for the legal costs of shooting people in “self-defense.” The NRA also defends the right of Americans to carry concealed weapons, including handguns.

It is no accident that the United States ranks first in the world—by a wide margin—in gun-related civilian deaths and injuries. Compared with every other democracy, we have the most guns per capita and the weakest gun laws. But the danger isn't simply the number of guns; it is the type of guns we allow people to legally purchase. Other countries permit hunting rifles. But many Americans believe it is their right to own an assault weapon.

Even in countries with strong gun-control laws, some people will get their hands on a weapon and destroy others' lives. The tragic killing in Norway last year is testament to this reality. (Although let's recall that Anders Breivik bought $550 worth of 30-round ammunition clips from an American gun supplier for the rifle he used to kill 69 Norwegian kids at a summer camp. Thanks to American laws, it was a legal online purchase.) But the shooting in Norway was an infrequent occurrence; it is, in fact, one of the safest countries in the world. In contrast, the U.S. is off the charts in terms of murder rates.   America's murder rate is more than eight times greater than Norway's.

The news media will spend an inordinate amount of effort trying to figure out what was in Adam Lanza's head before he put on his protective gear, carried two guns into the Connecticut school, and began his shooting rampage. Although the psychology and motives of the murderer may be fascinating, it should not be the major focus. There are plenty of deranged people in the world, but in most well-off countries they can't easily get their hands on a firearm.

Here's where the NRA comes in. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, since 1990, the gun rights lobby, led by the NRA, has contributed $29.2 million to candidates for Congress and the White House, 87% of it to Republicans. In the most recent election cycle, gun rights groups donated $3.1 million to political candidates and spent another $5.5 million in lobbying.

In contrast, since 1990 gun control groups have donated only $1.9 million to politicians, 94% to Democrats. In the most recent election cycle, these groups contributed only $4,000 to candidates and spent only $420,00 on lobbying.

Of course, Democrats are not immune from the NRA's influence. This summer, 17 House Democrats recently voted in favor of criminal contempt for Attorney General Eric Holder for his oversight of 'Operation Fast and Furious'. Not surprisingly, each of them received campaign contributions from the NRA in the previous two election cycles.

At the top of the gun rights food-chain is the NRA's Wayne LaPierre. It is hard to know if he's mentally unstable but he's certainly crazy like a fox (and Fox News).  Under LaPierre’s leadership, the NRA has aligned itself with the most reactionary forces in American politics. For example, LaPierre gave a speech earlier this year to the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington in which he said that President Obama was part of a “conspiracy to ensure re-election by lulling gun owners to sleep.”

LaPierre added: “All that first term, lip service to gun owners is just part of a massive Obama conspiracy to deceive voters and hide his true intentions to destroy the Second Amendment during his second term.” He also warned that everything that “gun owners across America have fought to achieve over the past three decades could be lost” if Obama won a second term.

Well, Obama did win a second term. In a statement soon after the Connecticut massacre, Obama called for “meaningful action” to curb gun violence. “Meaningful action” does not mean educating young people about bullying and violence. It does not mean instructing gun owners to be more responsible. It does not mean, as Mike Huckabee suggested on Friday, restoring God in our schools. It means pushing for strong gun control laws.

If Obama does take this kind of leadership, he will have the backing of an overwhelming proportion of Americans who support stricter guns laws. For example, 82% of Americans support limiting the sales of military-style assault weapons. Also, 87% of Americans support background checks on private sales of guns, including sales at gun shows. And 79% support requiring a police permit before the purchase of a gun. A majority of Americans oppose the NRA's top federal legislative priority—national reciprocity for concealed carry permits—which would allow people to enter any state with a concealed, loaded gun even if they fail to meet local permitting requirements. Not surprising, almost all (94%) police chiefs favor requiring criminal background checks for all handgun sales.

Every American grieves for the families and friends of the people killed and injured in the Connecticut shooting. But until we tame the power of the NRA, we can expect more killings like this, as well as the deadly daily diet of murders throughout America committed by angry and in some cases crazy gun-toting people whose “freedom” to own weapons of mass destruction that  LaPierre and the NRA defends.

Peter Dreier is E.P. Clapp Distinguished Professor of Politics, and director of the Urban & Environmental Policy program, at Occidental College. His most recent book is The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame (2012, Nation Books).

Sandy Hook: The cultural phenomenon behind mass shootings

It has been 13 years since the murders at Columbine High School, when two teenagers killed 13 people and wounded 21 others.  Since that time, ABC reports, there have been 31 school shootings.   In the wake of the Columbine calamity, law enforcement doctrine changed dramatically: Formerly, first responders would stop to give aid and comfort to the wounded; now they bypass the wounded, heading straight towards the perpetrator(s).

“Senseless” seems to be the most frequently used word to describe the awful events at Newtown’s Sandy Hook Elementary School, and senseless it surely was.  Still, we hunger for explanation.  What can it be that possesses a man to gun down little children, each child shot multiple times?  What can we do to protect against such insanity?

Guns, we hear repeatedly, don’t kill people; people kill people.  But the weapon of choice for people bent on killing people is a gun.  Guns are used in more than two-thirds of the murders in this country.  A simple thought exercise: Absent guns, would the number of murders go up or go down?  Knives, hands and blunt instruments are inherently less lethal, more intimate and, perhaps most important, more time-consuming.

Some statistics: US homicide rates are 6.9 times higher than rates in the other high-income countries, driven by firearm homicide rates that are 19.5 times higher. For 15-year olds to 24-year olds, firearm homicide rates in the United States are 42.7 times higher than in the other countries. For US males, firearm homicide rates are 22.0 times higher, and for US females, firearm homicide rates are 11.4 times higher. The US firearm suicide rates are 5.8 times higher than in the other countries, though overall suicide rates are 30 percent lower.  US unintentional firearm deaths are 5.2 times higher than in the other countries. Among the 23 countries of the OECD, 80 percent of all firearm deaths occur in the United States, 86 percent of women killed by firearms are US women, and 87 percent of all children aged 0 to 14 killed by firearms are US children.

Yet the easy availability of guns in America is not the whole story. True, the rate of people killed by guns in the US is 19.5 times higher than in similar high-income countries in the world, and true also that 45 percent of Americans say they have a gun in their homes, also a rate not approached in comparable countries.  But these figures reflect a cultural difference at least as much as they signify inadequate gun control legislation and enforcement.  Consider, for example, that in Israel, where young men and women – soldiers – move about openly with semi-automatic weapons, there has never been a mass murder.  In fact, picking up an armed hitch-hiker there is perfectly routine.  Hence it is reasonable to suppose that we are dealing here with a cultural phenomenon and not merely with lax gun controls.  As New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in the aftermath, this “only happens in America.”

But identifying that cultural phenomenon is a challenge we have not yet met.  Is violence promoted by what we see on television and in movies and video games?  The same video games are available in Israel.  Is it that our sense of social solidarity is wanting?  But explain how a more pervasive sense of social solidarity might have inhibited the deranged Adam Lanza, the slaughterer of Newtown (who used his mother’s legally purchased guns, and shot his mother in the face multiple times).  Or James Holmes, who killed 12 people and wounded 58 in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado.  Or Jared Loughner, who murdered six people and gravely wounded then-Representative Gaby Giffords in Tucson and twelve others.  Or Seung-Hui Choi, who murdered 32 people and wounded 24 more at Virginia Tech.  And so on, and so on, and so on.

What rivets our attention and magnifies our sadness in the case of Newtown is, obviously, the tender age of the victim children.  It is that which renders the event utterly inexplicable.  We may more or less understand the aggrieved employee who opens fire in his place of work or even the perpetrator of lethal domestic violence.  But here, no such understanding is available.  No comprehensible end justifies such evil means.  Nor can we readily suppose that a less porous mental health system might earlier have identified Adam Lanza as a prospective killer.

Is there, then, nothing we can do?  Unfortunately, many of the things we can do are either trivial or distasteful.  We can amplify security systems, rendering access to schools more difficult.  But Lanza, so far as we know, shot his way into Sandy Hook.  We can, and should, ban assault weapons, bearing in mind that there is already a vast supply of them.  Perhaps we can somehow forbid the NRA from contributing to political campaigns, freedom of speech requirements notwithstanding.

There is no panacea.   At the same time, there is no 2nd Amendment right to bear any kind of arms or use any kind of ammunition.  It is time and then some for all three branches of government to reflect that in their policies and their judgments.  It is already too late for the 20 children of Newtown; it is not too late for what will otherwise be the next grotesque tragedy.

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.

Analysis: Sarah Palin . . . and the Jews

When Sen. John McCain tapped Alaska Governor Sarah Palin to be his running mate today, the Jewish political blogosphere — as loud and fast and opinionated as (for lack of a better word) the Gentile Web — came to a screeching halt.

After all, you can fight about John McCain, and Barack Obama, and Joe Biden . . .but Sarah Palin?

It took an Internet eternity for Jewish Republicans to come out swinging for Sarah, an just as long for Jewish Democrats to hit back.

“Homerun!” Larry Greenfield, the California director of the Republican Jewish Coalition, wrote me via e-mail five hours after McCain’s announcement. “Governor Palin has a very close relationship with the Jewish community of Alaska, with Chabad (Rabbi Greenberg) and with AIPAC. She is close to the Frozen Chosen!”

Seconds later came a blast from Congressman Robert Wexler (D-FL) claiming Palin endorsed Pat Buchanan’s presidential run in 2000: “John McCain’s decision to select a vice presidential running mate that endorsed Pat Buchanan for President in 2000 is a direct affront to all Jewish Americans.”

Oh, now it’s getting good.

When Sen. Barack Obama picked Sen. Joe Biden last week, the Democrats had nothing but praise for the long term senator, citing positive comments from AIPAC and decades of foreign policy experience. And Jewish e-mail boxes filled with Biden’s now familiar quote: “You don’t have to be Jewish to be a Zionist, and I’m a Zionist.”

Then Republican Jews struck.

An e-mail quickly circulated linking to an article on a right-leaning web site claiming Biden was in the pocket of the Iranian mullahs. As for AIPAC’s kind words about Biden? “AIPAC has to say nice things,” a Republican activist told me. “They have to be bi-partisan.” And that pro-Zionist quote? Pretty words, just like his boss, Obama.

The Dems responded with a further defense of Biden’s record. If you could call Biden’s support for Israel into question, said the Executive Director of the National Jewish Democratic Council Ira Forman, then you could call Golda Meir’s loyalty to Israel in question.

The Veep debate among Jews is important because there are many Jewish voters who are still a bit leery about Obama. Jews traditionally vote Democratic (upwards of 75 percent voted for John Kerry in 2004 — and we didn’t even really like him). A growing number of Jews have found a home in the Republican party, and are fairly candidate-proof — they vote red no matter what.

A significant number of Jewish voters, however, will change their vote depending on which candidate they perceive as “better for Israel.” These voters believe that Israel is facing immediate existential threats from Palestinian terror, from a near-nuclear Iran, and from over-eager politicians forcing it to make dangerous territorial concessions for the sake of elusive peace. These voters — call them “Israel Firsters” — see their one vote as crucial to preventing another Holocaust, and theirs are the votes that Jewish Dems and Jewish Republicans are fighting over.

Obama and Israel is the battleground issue for Jewish voters in the 2008 election — these are the Jewish votes up for grabs in this race. If Republicans can paint Obama as a Muslim or Muslim sympathizer, as an appeaser to Iran, as inexperienced on foreign policy, as insufficiently caring about Israel in his kishkes — the Yiddish word for guts — then they can peel off Jewish votes.

This strategy won’t matter in heavily pro-Democratic states like California and New York, but it can matter in swing states like Ohio and Florida. And it matters elsewhere in the race: Jews give money, Jews get involved, Jews shape opinion far out of proportion to their numbers. (Yes, there are only six of us in the entire country. Amazing what controlling the media will get you!)

Enter Sarah.

If McCain had picked Mitt Romney or Tom Ridge or — cue the bar mitzvah band — Joe Lieberman, he would have unquestionably swept up the Israel Firsters. These men have track records and gravitas when it comes to Israel and foreign policy. (This debate among Jews and Israel reflects the larger foreign policy concerns about Obama that Republicans are making the centerpiece of their opposition. Many conflicts in Jewish life mirror conflicts in the larger culture — that’s Anthropology 101).

But he chose Sarah Palin: former mayor of a small Alaska town, governor of Alaska, devout Christian.

For Jews who are not necessarily Israel Firsters, she carries some positives and negatives. Positives: she is a crusader for good government and a fiscal conservative. She is smart and successful and patriotic. Jews like all these things.

“As governor of Alaska, Palin has enjoyed a strong working relationship with Alaska’s Jewish community. She has demonstrated sensitivity to the concerns of the community and has been accessible and responsive,” said Republican Jewish Coalition Executive Director Matt Brooks.

Negatives: She is anti-abortion.

Jews are among the largest pro-choice constituency in the country. She has, according to one web site, supported the idea of teaching Creationism and evolution in public schools. “‘Teach both,” she was quoted as saying on a local TV station. “You know, don’t be afraid of information. Healthy debate is so important, and it’s so valuable in our schools. I am a proponent of teaching both.'”

Dependence on foreign oil is a major issue for American Jews, since a lot of that oil comes from regimes that hate Israel and support terror.

Republican Jews are emphasizing Palin’s desire to drill Alaskan oil and develop domestic oil resources as away to decrease our dependence.

“Palin has been a leader on the critical issue of energy independence and lessening our need to buy oil from nations not sharing American and Israel’s foreign policy,” Brooks said in his statement.

But Jews are also pro-environment, and have jumped on the alternative energy (hybrid) bandwagon in a big way. Obama’s convention speech calling for a 10 year campaign to switch to alternative sources of energy may carry deeper resonance.

For the Israel Firsters, Palin may be a problem. Palin has no foreign policy experience. No Israel experience. Her AIPAC rating? When you enter her name on the AIPAC home page, you get this:

Your search - palin - did not match any documents.
No pages were found containing "palin".

The RJC’s Greenfield says her AIPAC relationships are great, but confined to Alaska. And Republicans are now marshalling a great comeback to the charge that Palin once supported Pat Buchanan.

Buchanan is anathema to the Jews. He is someone who has blamed Israel and American Jews for directing American foreign policy against American interests. He has spoken kindly of Adolph Hitler — who is not popular with Jews — and, well, this is going to be interesting.

Sarah Palin might cause the Israel Firsters, who seemed to be pretty much done with Obama, to take a second look.

Rob Eshman is Editor-in-Chief of The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles and

Sarah Heath (Palin), sportscaster



I would like to clarify a misunderstanding in a recent press release from the Orthodox Union that was reported in The Journal, “Mourning For Gaza, New Orleans” (Sept. 30). The OU organized a nationwide ta’anit dibbur, or period of silence, over this past Shabbat. The purpose was to mark the tragic destruction of synagogues in both Gaza and New Orleans with a resanctification of our own synagogues.

In no way was the OU making a political statement, pro or con, regarding the disengagement. Nor was the OU in any way suggesting that the destruction of synagogues was Divine retribution, as was intimated in The Journal.

Instead, this was merely our way of expressing our profound sorrow over the loss of holy places in the world, and our desire to counteract the loss of holiness with an infusion of added sanctity into our own communities and synagogues on the last Shabbat of the year.

Rabbi N. Daniel Korobkin
Community and Synagogue Services
West Coast Orthodox Union

New Orleans Fixture

I am a native New Orleanian. I was looking for Universal Furniture in New Orleans to get a price on furniture I’d purchased that was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, so I can present it to the insurance adjuster. The article written by Ann Brenner about Hurricane Katrina popped up because Universal Furniture was mentioned in it (“City’s Plight Brings Flood of Memories,” Sept. 9).

People have told me that in the last great hurricane of New Orleans (Hurricane Betsy), the owners of Universal Furniture erased the debts of the people who still had balances on furniture purchased and financed by Universal Furniture. I don’t know if it is just a story or the truth, but I do know that Universal Furniture is a New Orleans fixture that is well respected.

I am not Jewish; just ran across the article and truly enjoyed it because it spoke of my home. Perhaps, Ms. Brenner could do a followup, as she did before, just about the city of New Orleans, its beauty and charm, and the beauty of the people who made it unique.

The city does look war-torn and desolate. We are a strong people, and realize tough times don’t last, tough people do. I do plan to go home soon.

Name withheld by request


What a wonderful series of portraits of real people asking real questions and coming up with diverse answers (“How We Worship,” Sept 30).

In Detroit when I was a child, there was a barrier between different branches of Judaism and even between different temples. But now, times are different, and we are finally learning to love and appreciate the many ways of wrestling with the mysteries of God’s presence.

Thank you for showing so much respect and so much good writing in these diverse vignettes. I hope anyone who hasn’t yet read this article and met their interesting neighbors will do so during a free moment during these days of awe.

Leonard Felder
West Los Angeles

Never Again

I never thought that I’d be writing a letter defending the NRA, but Irene Joseph must be a descendent of Marie Antoinette, when told that the poor masses of people huddled outside the castle walls are starving, by responding, “Let them eat cake.”

As for me, my “faithful companions” are Mr. Colt, Mr. Remington and Messrs. Smith and Wesson. I also own several “never again” rifles.

I am Jewish and will never be led to another slaughter of my people without defending myself. The memory wall of my temple is filled with the names of the dead, including nine family members murdered in one day in pre-war Poland. I’ll bet that they wished they had the chance to protect themselves with guns.

I’m also a new and proud member of the NRA, and also a long-time member of the ACLU. I hope that with my financial support, both sides of the gun issues, including extremists like Ms. Joseph on the far left, will learn to compromise their views somewhere in the middle, where only a true democracy can govern.

Elliot Gilbert
Chino Hills

I am Jewish and a member of the NRA and proud of it. I am also proud of the fact that Sandra Froman is Jewish and president. The facts misstated by your readers are incredible. The thought that gun control would take guns out of the hands of criminals puts forth an incredible naiveté, mostly by well-meaning people who really haven’t done much research. We do have drug control, and that does not seem to be working.

Steve Flatten
Los Angeles

Cruel Statement

Thank you, thank you, thank you Rabbi Wolpe for your words regarding Rav Ovidiah’s foolish and cruel statement blaming the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina on G-d’s wrath against President Bush for supporting the relocation of the Jews of Gush Katif. (“We Must Condemn Heartless Bilge,” Sept. 16).

The rav’s absurd and insensitive words only serve to horribly minimize the grief and loss of those stricken in the Gulf region, and to demean the pain and sacrifice made by those affected by the resettlement in Israel. Instead of acknowledging the sad similarities of both situations, he pits one tragedy against the other, thereby denigrating both.

Rikki Moress
Freeland, Washington



Heartless Rav

I support Rabbi David Wolpe’s position entirely (“We Must Condemn Heartless Bilge,” Sept. 16). Rav Ovadiah Yosef has made Israel look very bad. Why would a scholar of Israel speak such racism, a man of our ancient traditions who should have more respect for human suffering? All Jews of good faith owe it to the people of Louisiana to condemn Rav Ovadiah Yosef.

Erika Goodkin
Granada Hills

Thank You Hatzolah

As a volunteer with Hatzolah of Los Angeles, I was happy to see that the efforts of my colleagues, Rabbi Chaim Kolodny and Rabbi Tzemach Rosenfeld, were recognized (“Going in After Katrina,” Sept. 16). It is important to note that the dedication these individuals displayed is not uncommon among the volunteers of this wonderful organization. The more than 100 volunteers stand ready on a 24-hour basis to answer the call for help. Whether they get up in the middle of the night to assist a patient having chest pains or leaving their families on a moment’s notice to help search for a lost child, the dedication is absolute and highly professional. Thank you Kolodny and Rosenfeld for your efforts, you make us all proud.

Ari Stark
Los Angeles

Failing LAUSD

I must take issue with my friend Bob Hertzberg and his resistance to the November school bond measure for needed new schools in Los Angeles (“School Bond Measure Gets Failing Grade,” Sept. 16). He has created a straw man in depicting the current school construction as “warehouses.” In fact, LAUSD has made great progress in creating new schools that are outside the box, including small primary centers, and themed schools connected to important community institutions, whether the Science Center or Orthopedic Hospital.

Clearly, new buildings by themselves do not improve student performance. Sadly, just as these new schools are opening, state funding support for the basic education program remains grossly inadequate. In fact, LAUSD has been required to make nearly $1 billion in budget cuts in recent years. But we cannot get around the fact that new schools are a necessary — but not sufficient — response to the challenges of public education. New schools allow students to avoid long bus trips and return to their neighborhood school. New schools allow crowded year-round schools to return to a traditional schedule.

We should not force students and parents to remain out on the sidewalk at 6 a.m. waiting for the school bus to take them across town, because some of us would like to see a better design process or more collaboration with city government. We can, as Hertzberg hints, have both — new schools and a visionary approach to making schools the center of the community.

Mark Slavkin
Los Angeles

Editor’s note: The writer is a former LAUSD school board member.

Guns and Froman

Rabbi Ari Hier’s letter illustrated precisely the type of illogic that characterizes the arguments of the NRA and the gun lobby (“Letters,” Sept. 16). He begins his letter by stating that he learned that Israel was founded on God and guns. What the fact that Israel used guns to protect the newly declared state after it was invaded by Arab armies on all sides has to do with gun control in America is beyond me.

I also found amusing Hier’s noting an affiliation with the L.A. Sheriff’s office. Major police organizations have consistently lobbied against the NRA and in favor of gun control measures such as the Brady bill. Does Hier oppose the ban or assault weapons (like the M16 he carried in the Israeli army) or the strict registration of gun ownership and purchases? The NRA does. I would hope that in his time as an armory volunteer, Hier speaks to law enforcement officers about the advisability of easy accessibility to weapons by civilians vs. stricter controls. I am sure it would be an interesting discussion and learning experience for him. Few who I have ever spoken to think more guns in civilian hands is a good idea.

Marian Davis

Let me add my outrage about Sandra Froman (“She’s Armed and President,” Sept. 2). Is she such a hero that she has to have her picture on the front page of The Jewish Journal? She is setting a terrible example for our young Jewish women who are taught to abhor violence. Self-defense is one thing, but rifles are only for killing innocent animals, birds and sometimes even children. Do we have to accept all the bad qualities from our macho men? It makes me shudder.

What’s wrong with having a good, faithful watchdog to protect you? He would also prevent thieves and intruders from getting into your house and would offer companionship, in addition.

The NRA is a violent rightwing organization that we Jews should not join. You see in countries where there is strict gun control like England, France and even Japan there are far fewer murders than in the United States, where the old Wild West mentality still prevails.

Irene Joseph
Los Angeles

Forgo Yellow

I was petrified when I picked up the yellow-covered High Holidays issue of The Jewish Journal (Sept. 16). For us Jews yellow is a reminder of the Nazi period when Jews in the ghettos had to wear a yellow Mogen David.

The appropriate color is blue and white because this is the color of Jewish life.

Name withheld by request

Flawed David

Having just read Mihal Lemberger’s review of Robert Pinsky’s “The Life of David” one has to agree with the view that King David was a deeply flawed character (“David: Great Leader or Damaged Hero?” Sept. 23). The biblical sentiment that his throne “shall be established forever” does not imply an endorsement of David himself as a role model for a Messiah and in fact the prophet Nathan roundly condemns King David for his evil acts against God and tells him his descendants will suffer as a result of his murderous deeds. Having had Uriah killed so he could marry his wife, he also brought destruction on 70,000 Israelites through his misbehavior. Hardly an example for a future Messiah.

In fact in normative Judaism of biblical times messianism did not appear until the time of Daniel in the second century BCE, so King David cannot be the basis for a messianic figure for previous and present generations. Unfortunately for conventional scholarship there is no one else to look to.

When it comes to the descriptions of messiahs seen in the Dead Sea Scrolls, we perhaps see a clue to the real figures that originated messianic ideas in Judaism. Messiahs, because the Qumran-Essenes, the possessor/authors of the Dead Sea Scrolls, wrote about two — and possibly three — messiahs. One royal, one priestly and one like Moses. The royal figure was certainly not King David and the priestly figure is not suggested in the Pentateuch or any succeeding Hebrew text. As professor Joseph Fitzmyer of the Catholic University Washington notes, “It is a surprise to see a priestly figure become part of the Qumran community’s messianic expectations, because there is little in the Hebrew Scriptures itself about a future priest.” He finds no reasonable explanation for this phenonomena.

Robert Feather

Cabs and Conscience

Helen Schary Motro, consumed with guilt because she refused to ride in a taxi with an Arab driver, reasons that she “too [is] a casualty of the occupation and the intifada it caused” and asks the driver’s pardon (“Never Been Mugged,” Sept. 23). If the intifada was caused by the “occupation,” I’d like Motro to explain the 1921 and 1929 and 1936-39 anti-Jewish riots by Arabs, their strenuous military and terrorist efforts to prevent Israel from being born and the continuous warfare since 1948 by regular Arab armies and Arab irregulars attempting to destroy the Jewish state.

Chaim Sisman
Los Angeles

Helen Schary Motro suffers from that typically Jewish affliction, cancer of the conscience. Like any cancer, it causes the affected organ to grow abnormally large, but increasingly interferes with its function until it becomes more of a danger than a faculty.

She is not “a casualty of the occupation,” but of the headhunters’ penchant for senseless and atrocious violence. This is directed at various “infidels” around the perimeter of the Muslim empire (Chechnya, Cyprus, Serbia, Nigeria, Sudan, India, the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Lebanon), and at other Muslims (Algeria, Egypt, Yemen, Iraq, Kuwait, Kurdistan, Iran, Afghanistan).

Their terrorism against us predated our return to Samaria and Judea, and claimed Jewish victims in Israel even during the 19 years when not one Jew set foot in those provinces. It predated the founding of the state.

This intifada was planned when Arafat was offered more than he could have dreamt of, and saw the excuse for existence of his gang being removed. It started with the murder of a Jewish soldier, days before Sharon’s famous visit to the Temple Mount.

Louis Richter

Katrina Karma?

Is it but coincidence that following the U.S. pressuring of Israel to forcibly expel 10,000 of it’s citizens from the Gaza Strip, they had to forcibly evacuate, for the first time in U.S. history, their own citizens from New Orleans (“Getting Out Before Katrina Still Painful,” Sept. 16)?

But if that is not enough to show divine wrath, now the president’s home state is being targeted by one of the most intense hurricanes in recorded history!

Could this not be modern-day biblical plagues?

Josh Wander
White Oak, Pa.


Looking for Charlton Heston

Everyone knows Charlton Heston; or at least who he is: movie star and president of the National Rifle Association.

It was the inability to separate one persona from the other that made some patrons unhappy last week when he gave a reading (Dec. 2) at the Skirball Cultural Center. That evening had nothing to do with politics or gun control — it consisted of Heston reading selections from Robert Frost, Shakespeare and The Bible — all in a memorial tribute to a long time friend of his and of Skirball director Uri D. Herscher. But it seemed beside the point to several Jewish groups in Los Angeles.

Their response was fairly straightforward: Heston’s very public political stance today, argued the critics, overshadows his role as actor; and it was therefore highly inappropriate for Heston to be featured at the Skirball Cultural Center (a center built with private funds, namely from the contributions of Jewish community philanthropists). In some ways this opposition was not unrelated to the charges leveled at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in recent weeks for hosting an exhibition which recounts the history of the sweatshops in America. In both instances a Jewish institution found itself at odds with the views of (some of) its patrons and, on a broader scale, out of step with the feelings of many Jews in Los Angeles. Why are we doing this, was the question many wanted answered.

Underlying the friction of course is the larger question of a museum’s connection to its community. Is it independent and therefore supposed to provide cultural leadership? Or does it reflect the prevailing sentiments of its benefactors and supporters? On the strength of the limited evidence so far, the answer appears to be “a bit of each.” From this corner, I would opt for more independence and leadership.

At the outset three years ago, Uri Herscher was clear about the Skirball’s mission. Its major role would be to function as a cultural center that conveys the experience of Jews in America. But in part he also appears to have selected a track for the Center parallel to that of New York’s 92nd Street Y: namely, the establishment of an address for the entire city, regardless of ethnic or religious affiliation. In this regard he features speakers and concerts and forums, not all of them necessarily Jewish, as well as art and cultural exhibitions. Heston, a movie star and icon, a non-Jew, and today a spokesman for what has become a strongly defended (and attacked) political position, would certainly qualify.

But — there is always a but — does Heston’s performance at a special occasion come under the heading of cultural center program? The critics, who do not see this as a first amendment issue, see the invitation as Herscher’s mistake.

For his part the Skirball president has tried to cast his decision in terms of leadership and principle. The Center and its president determine cultural policy, and that is the way a museum should function. “The Skirball does not impose any sort of litmus test, political or ideological, on those invited to present programs,” he said in response to criticism from Jewish groups.

In fact “the Heston affair” seems to me both simpler and more complicated. The facts are the simple part. More than a year ago, Heston proposed paying a memorial tribute to Dr. Louis Jolyon West, a close friend of his who was Jewish and had been head of UCLA’s Neuropsychiatric Institute. This was before the shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado and before the attack on the children at the North Valley Jewish Community Center. Hescher accepted with gratitude.

Of course by autumn gun control had jumped from political disagreement to emotional “litmus test.”

Now for the more complicated part. In effect, Herscher was faced with a dilemma. Withdraw Heston’s invitation or go along with his original plans? He chose the latter course.

Perhaps a wiser move might have been to place all the cards on the table and ask everyone to support him. Withdrawing Heston’s invitation would have been ungracious — the turning aside of a generous gesture on the part of the actor-lobbyist — and a bad public relations move politically. It is true that museum directors are in the business of pleasing their board (and their donors) as well as championing art and cultural exhibitions. But there is also a public role within the city — and beyond that, within the nation — that needs to be advanced (and protected). There is also the matter of personal honor. Having made what I assume to be an initial political mis-step, Herscher was now careful not to compound it by caving in to opposition.

All this has set me to thinking. I already have my recommendation for next year’s special evening. Vanessa Redgrave. She is one of my favorite actresses, brilliant on stage and screen. Her politics seem loony to me — Israeli Jews are the villains, Palestinians are the victims — but what an actress. The Skirball could hardly do better. And what a story for this newspaper. — Gene Lichtenstein