Last Saturday began as an ordinary enough day. I went to synagogue and sat on the left side of the sanctuary next to my friends Bunny and Sam. The synagogue was buzzing with the life-cycle energy of a bat mitzvah, a baby naming and two aufrufs – when a bride and groom are called to the Torah on the Sabbath before their wedding – and a 70th birthday. A lovely, typical shul-ish kind of morning. The regulars sat in their usual seats. The rabbi talked about grappling with G-d. And the Kiddush that followed was, well, the same Kiddush that goes down every week.
More than 2,000 miles away Gabrielle Giffords – 40-years-old and the congressional representative of Arizona’s 8th District – was shot at point-blank range with a 9mm Glock handgun as my fellow congregants and I filed out of the sanctuary. Thirteen others were wounded in this incident, and six people were killed, including a 9-year-old girl. Giffords was the target, and she was hit in front of a Safeway in Tucson during a gathering she called “Congress on Your Corner.” Giffords frequently held these outdoor town meetings to stay in touch with her constituents. I had coincidentally heard her on NPR a few days before and remember being impressed with her forthrightness.
Her assailant was a 22-year-old man who is rabidly anti-government and lists “Mein Kampf” as one of his favorite books. And, yes, Gabrielle Giffords is Jewish. Three years ago she married Captain Mark Kelly, an astronaut, in a Jewish ceremony that was featured in the Vows section of The New York Times, which stated:
… about 300 guests wore yarmulkes, military medals, silver concho studs or designer creations. As the ceremony opened, the wedding canopy was car ried down the grassy aisle to the schmaltzy harmonies of live mariachi, accented by the rhythmic, homey slap of tortillas being made in the hacienda courtyard.
A huppah moving down the aisle to the rhythms of Latino music! Now this is Diaspora Jewry at its best – religious tradition enhanced, not diluted, by the diverse places where Jews live and practice.
Giffords, a Democrat elected to Congress in 2006, took her seat in the then Democrat-controlled House. Things have turned around since then, and she barely won re-election last November. I love facts and figures, so I appreciate that Giffords is the first Jewish congresswoman to be elected in Arizona and only the third woman to be elected to Congress from her state. She is also only the third member of Congress in American history to be gunned down on the job.
Over the past year I’ve pondered some of the issues Giffords has on her plate. Her district runs along a part of the Mexico-United States border, and last spring she spoke out against Arizona’s draconian immigration laws. But she also factored in the will of her constituents in her largely Republican district, and supports gun rights. The windows of her district office in downtown Tucson were shot at after she voted for President Barack Obama’s health care bill.
As I write, Gabrielle Giffords’ life is still hanging in the balance. I know the prudent thing to do is not to be too quick to point to anti-Semitism as one of the deranged shooter’s motives. But I’m going to go out on a limb and observe that given his intense anti-government feelings and his fondness for Nazi literature, anti- Semitism factors in there somewhere. I’d also venture to guess that in the coming weeks, I will have some company sitting next to me on my limb.
You cannot read anti-tax or anti-government literature without seeing references to Jewish conspiracies and an America cursed with a Zionist Occupied Government. Of course, none of this garbage makes sense, but the steady accretion of hate continues— month after month, year after year. In earlier columns I’ve talked about my cocktail conversation killing job in the mid 80s through the early 90s in which I monitored right-wing extremists for a Jewish civil rights organization. Those extremists’ pamphlets and sorry newsletters were a ludicrous, weak parody of hate—that is, until it began to creep into mainstream American life.
Remember the Oklahoma City bombing in the mid-’90s? Take note of the intensity of political vitriol in the past decade on the airwaves. In this past year alone, cordial disagreement on issues has been overrun by angry talk singling out relatively liberal politicians as target practice.
Two days before she was shot, Giffords was among the lawmakers reading the Constitution aloud on the House floor to mark the beginning of the 112th Congress. She was randomly assigned to read the First Amendment.
It’s fitting that Gabrielle Giffords entered the words “peaceably to assemble or petition the government for redress of grievances” as well as “Congress shall make no law … prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press” into the congressional record last week. Judaism teaches that words matter. In America the freedom to use or misuse words is constitutionally protected. Going beyond that to hurt or kill someone is a sin and a crime.