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Jewish World Review May 19, 2000 / 14 Iyar, 5760

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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Embracing the rhetoric of compassion is not the same as defending Jewish interests -- IN 1929, the great American songwriter Cole Porter posed a musical question, asking whether "Fifty Million Frenchmen" could be wrong about anything. In that case, the topic was the absolute importance of líamour, and, the answer was, of course, non!

Seventy-one years later, some people may be asking the same question about the "million moms" that marched on Washington last weekend. Despite the fact that as, Porter once put it, "anything goes," motherhood is still sacred.

Only the foolhardy will publicly say that a million mothers could be wrong about anything.

But letís leave aside, for the moment, whether the moms were right or wrong, or merely political window dressing for the fall election campaign. What interests me is whether the sheer number of people involved in an issue dictates the importance of an issue.

More specifically, if the Jewish community and its mainstream organizations decide to adopt an issue only tangentially connected to specific Jewish concerns, does that mandate require a mass mobilization of Jewish resources merely because so many Jews care deeply about it?

Many issues that donít immediately affect Jews are clearly Jewish interests. The struggle for civil rights, immigrants rights and religious freedom around the world all speak to Jewish values and our safety. But does gun control qualify as a Jewish issue?

There are those who point to attacks on Jewish institutions, such as the Los Angeles-area Jewish community center shooting last August, as a reason for Jews to mobilize. But I doubt many of us truly believe that gun legislation will lessen anti-Semitism, or even save us from the random attacks of a few nut cases.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations ("Reform" and, arguably, Jewry's most liberal denomination) has been outspoken in his belief that restricting gun ownership is a Jewish religious imperative.

He told the Washington marchers Sunday that "the indiscriminate distribution of guns is an offense against G-d and humanity." He went on to refer to the National Rifle Association as "the real criminalsí lobby in this countryÖ which is drenched in the blood of murdered children."

The rhetoric of compassion for gun-violence victims is compelling, but, in the end, what does it amount to? Even wise gun legislation is not a panacea for what ails our society. One account I read told of a Jewish marcher who said that her motherís suicide might have been prevented if there had not been a gun available. Maybe. But the tragedy of that death was caused by her motherís problems, not the sins of the NRA.

That story, as with the accounts of the other crimes and tragedies that motivated many of the marchers, speaks to a longing for domestic peace that no legislature can create.

The revulsion against guns seems to have always been more about the cultural divide in our country than a political one. Some of us are raised to think of weapons as dangerous and distasteful; others are raised to think of "gun control" as keeping your arm steady so you donít miss your target.

In this respect, most American Jews are firmly placed among the former group. We may admire the armed forces of Israel and, when visiting there, feel safe when we see Jewish soldiers who are little more than teenagers carrying automatic weapons.

But here in the United States, we think guns are connected only with criminals and unwashed hayseeds who marry their cousins. It's primarily a class issue.

I confess I have little sympathy for the great many of our countrymen who view the slaying of helpless animals in the wild with rifles a "sport." Only if the animals had rifles of their own to shoot back, would I consider hunting fair game.

But the state-sanctioned murder of our four-legged, forest-dwelling friends aside, the notion of licensing firearms is generally sensible, and if carried out in a restrained and responsible manner, constitutional.

Mandatory trigger locks also sound like a good idea. Though the notion that more gun legislation would actually cut down on violent crime is something of a liberal fairy tale, it will probably do little harm.

Yet, even if we were all to agree that more gun legislation was a good thing, would that make it a Jewish issue? A cultural prejudice is a poor excuse for a policy, let alone a communal priority. Gun control can be argued as a Jewish issue, but if that is the standard, then virtually any issue could be similarly spun as a Jewish concern.

We can convince ourselves that any secular issue is a Jewish one if we try hard enough. Indeed, the minority of Jews who agree with the NRA can frame their arguments in Jewish terms too, since they argue gun ownership is the best way to defend ourselves against anti-Semitism.

But specific Jewish concerns, be it the security of Israel or anti-Semitism, arenít at the top of the Jewish agenda anymore. In order to stay connected with an increasingly assimilated and less affiliated Jewish population, Jewish groups have been forced to find other more topical issues to gain attention and funds. Most American Jews want to learn how they can use their Jewish identity to have an impact on wider issues, such as the environment or preventing violence.

Unfortunately, that same trend gives rise to a willingness to pick and choose our causes in a way that often reflects our communityís political leanings more than our religious principles.

Were the gun issue not seen as a way for Democrats to make points against Republicans, I doubt that the liberal Jewish establishment would have found it so attractive.

Similarly, President Clintonís strong support for a trade deal with China seemed to outweigh whatever moral judgment most Jewish leaders had about protesting that countryís record of religious persecution.

These days, rallies for expressly Jewish causes donít draw American Jews out as well as the more fashionable secular issues do. Will 13 imprisoned Iranian Jews bring thousands of Jewish moms to the mall in Washington? Could efforts to make a quality Jewish education a right for all Jewish children -- and not a privilege restricted to the wealthy few -- generate as much Jewish support as emotional appeals for gun control?

Probably not. And hence my frustration.

The test of our leadership is not in its ability to follow popular trends, but sometimes to redirect it. Can the next generation of Jewish leaders find a way to motivate American Jews to care more about Jewish issues? Or will Jewish clout merely become a handmaiden to interests marginal to our future?

If the "Million Mom March" is any indicator, we can look forward to an American Jewish community that may be better connected to secular concerns than Jewish values.

And that is something that canít please any Jewish mother.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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