We all have hot buttons: words, phrases, images that evoke passionate visceral responses in our guts. A person whose beloved pet was hit by a car will feel a tightening and churning in their gut at the sight of any animal's body at the side of a road. A family that has lost their home in a fire will experience a physical reaction to the sound of sirens on a fire engine. An adult who was beaten as a child will involuntarily tighten up all over if they are near a mother hauling a child forcibly by the arm and screaming. For all that we may intellectually understand, and have moved past, events like these in our lives, we have no control when our memories rule our bodies for a split second and we're back at a worst moment. These are our individual hot button issues.
We have collective hot button issues as well: events and phrases and words and images that are indelibly written into our very beings. You'd think that the distance of time or geography would lessen the power of these memories, but when we identify fully with the collective that has weathered the trauma, the gut reaction to reminders of that trauma remains. At the moment when we perceive those evocative images or sounds we find out how deeply our identification with our group (whatever group that might be) really goes. You are likely to witness a micro-expression of pain or anger on the face of a black friend hearing the "N" word, of a gay friend seeing a photograph of Tyler Clementi*, or a Haitian friend hearing a report of an earthquake....and on the face of an American Jew reading that Jews in the Ukraine are going to have to register, list their assets and pay a fine.
A few members of my congregation e-mailed links to news articles about the incident of the flyers being handed out to Jews leaving synagogue on the eve of Passover in the Ukraine. I admit, my stomach wrenched at those very evocative phrases: registering, bring your passport and your id card, list your assets . . . . I read and re-read. Of course my mind's eye delivered a slideshow of images from Nazi Europe, the Holocaust, the concentration camps . . . all in seconds before I had a chance to think. After a few deep breathes and reading a few articles, it became clear that no one is rounding up Jews in the Ukraine this week. It seems doubtful whether there was ever a serious intention to round up Jews in the Ukraine at all, but rather a heavy-handed attempt to influence the internal struggles over the fate of Donetsk.
Secretary of State John Kerry, speaking to reporters in Geneva after conducting talks with leaders from the Ukraine on the lowering of tensions there, said exactly what needed to be said: "In the year 2014, after all of the miles traveled and all of the journey of history, this is not just intolerable; it's grotesque. It is beyond unacceptable. And any of the people who engage in these kinds of activities, from whatever party or whatever ideology or whatever place they crawl out of, there is no place for that. "
Which doesn't mean, of course, that the situation should not be watched, or that anti-Semitism in Europe doesn't exist. But it does mean that the Jews of the Ukraine in 2014 are not in the same danger as their parents and grandparents and great-grandparents during World War II. For lots of reasons.
All this during the same week we are settling our stomachs over the murder of three people at two Jewish facilities in Overland Park, Kansas. By a person with a decades-long record of both racism and anti-Semitism. The horrible irony of the murders committed by this man is that two of the people he murdered were members of a United Methodist Church and one was the member of a Catholic church.
Anti-Semitism is most certainly a hot button: our guts, our hearts, our memories all kick into action immediately when we hear of violence or threat or attacks on Jews. And there is good reason for our visceral reactions; they don't come from nowhere.
On the other hand, as in the cases of both anti-Semitic episodes this week, things are not always what they seem in the moment and we need to step back and apply perspective and intelligence to our reactions. And be smart and aware. And not over-react. Not easy, but very important.
*Tyler Clementi was the gay Rutgers student who committed suicide in 2010 when his roommate posted videos of Tyler in acts of sex with a male partner.
As you may have read in the Providence Journal this week, the debate over the place of guns in Rhode Island intensified at our State House on Tuesday afternoon.
Members of our Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island joined me as part of the Religious Coalition for a Violence-Free Rhode Island. We stood with members of other non-violence and gun control organizations (including an eloquent contingent from the Ne explaining that the passage of specific legislation would contribute to making Rhode Island a safer place to live.
The bills we stood in support of would:
Passage of these laws would also make us more reliable neighbors to Massachusetts and Connecticut which have already passed such legislation.
Not everyone has the privilege I had of speaking directly to our legislators (at the House Judiciary Committee) . . . but our legislators do read Rhode Island's newspaper of record, The Providence Journal. If you live in Rhode Island, you can send a direct message to our legislators by participating in a very simple, one question survey: "So you support stricter gun control?" Your "yes" will help the members of the Rhode Island House of Representatives and Senate appreciate the desire of the residents of Rhode Island to make our state a safer place for everyone, of every ethnic background, of every economic level, of every neighborhood.
Click this link and you will be able to read a Providence Journal article about the gun legislation debate and you will also find the one-question survey. I hope that everyone reading this blog will agree that the pending legislation will bring us a little bit closer to a violence-free Rhode Island . . . a vision which those who legally own and safely store and use guns can certainly embrace as well.
Here is my testimony delivered to the House Judiciary Committee of the Rhode Island General Assembly:
I am Rabbi Amy Levin, President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island and rabbi of Temple Torat Yisrael in East Greenwich.
Our Board of Rabbis, twenty-six colleagues from a comprehensive spectrum of denominations of Judaism, unanimously moved to become early and active partners in the Religious Coalition for a Violence-Free Rhode Island.
That's quite a vision, isn't it . . . A violence-free Rhode Island.
Our Religious Coalition's vision of a "violence-free Rhode Island" may seem like the pie in the sky day-dreaming of a bunch of clergy . . . for whom utopian envisioning is an occupational hazard . . . but I am here to tell you that we clergy don't work in ivory towers, we conduct the funerals of the men, women and children who lose their lives to violence, we sit at the hospital beds of those who suffer maiming physical and psychological wounds inflicted through violence. Were you to be present with us at the cemeteries and hospitals and houses of mourning you would share our sense of urgency about working towards a violence-free Rhode Island.
Were we to dedicate the time, and gather together many of the people in this room for a wider-ranging discussion, we would find that violence is a complex phenomenon and that firearms represent only one element in the chaotic morass that is violence. Indeed, our General Assembly legislators took a significant step on another violence-related front last year when you passed legislation funding educational efforts directed at domestic violence through marriage license fees.
But the pending legislation we are discussing today all focus on firearms. In the context of our acknowledgement that the overwhelming majority of those who legally and safely own firearms for hunting and target practice and personal security are responsible and well-motivated individuals who also embrace the concept of a violence-free Rhode Island, we do urge you to vote on behalf of all the residents of our state.
The Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island turns to you: You have the capacity to save lives:
We urge you to prevent individuals convicted of domestic violence misdemeanors from owning firearms.
We urge you to ban assault weapons and high capacity magazines from Rhode Island.
We urge you to ban firearms from school grounds.
We urge you to take these concrete steps bringing us that much closer to a violence-free Rhode Island.
This Shabbat, immediately preceding Purim, is Shabbat Zachor / the Shabbat of remembering. The root of this special Shabbat is in the association between the notorious Haman of the Scroll of Esther who aspired to wipe out the Jews of the Persian Empire and the biblical Amalek who attacked the Israelite convoy at its weakest point in an equivalent attempt to destroy our wandering ancestors. Both Amalek and Haman are associated with unbridled, random and terrifying violent aspirations.
In the special additional Torah reading appended to tomorrow's Parashah/Torah portion, we are enjoined:
If you read this passage closely you may very well emerge confused: we are to remember what Amalek did, we are to wipe out all memory of Amalek from under the skies, and we are not to forget.
Amalek is the embodiment of violence and I would suggest that we can read the key phrase from Deuteronomy as a command to wipe out all memory of Amalek's actions. How can this be achieved? By erasing every act of violence that threatens security and safety. Anyone's security and safety. To make violence a distant, barely conjurable memory.
Recently, the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island joined the newly-formed Religious Coalition for a Violence-Free Rhode Island. This is not an "anti-gun" coalition, but rather a collaboration of faith leaders from around our state who share a vision of Rhode Island as a "violence-free zone." Violence takes many forms and those who perpetrate violence use many instruments . . . from guns to knives to fists to words. Our premise is not that guns and knives and fists and words must be eradicated from society: for their are legal and legitimate and non-violent uses for guns and knives and yes, even fists, and certainly words. But the force of these instruments must not be directed against any human being. That is our contention.
As a first step toward achieving this vision, our Religious Coalition for a Violence-Free Rhode Island is joining with other non-violence bodies in our state for our rally this coming Tuesday, March 18th at 3:30 pm at the Rhode Island Statehouse. I will be speaking at the rally along with other leaders engaged in bringing the reality of life in Rhode Island closer to the ideal of our vision.
We will then proceed to testify at the General Assembly's House Judiciary Committee to address the pressing need of that body to act and bring to the floor pending legislation that will help create the violence-free Rhode Island we all crave.
The specific bill under discussion is HR7310 determines that a person who has been convicted of a domestic violence misdemeanor will be banned from owning a gun in Rhode Island. In the state of Rhode Island, every child who has been killed in a domestic violence scenario has been killed by a firearm. Although we recognize the general principle that individuals have a right to own guns and keep them in their homes, that right, like many others we enjoy, need to be subject to parameters and guidelines. In the case of domestic violence, there is a sad record of violence perpetrated against family members . . . including family members who are bystanders, like children. When guns are taken out of the equation, the survival of victims and bystanders in cases of domestic violence rises.
Thousands of years after God enjoined us to wipe out violence to such an extent that acts of violence are just a faint memory, we are still struggling to achieve modest steps toward that vision.
I hope you will feel moved to join us at the Statehouse rally this coming Tuesday, and let our elected leaders know that you share our Religious Coalition's vision of a Violence-Free Rhode Island.
There are times when the universe seems to conspire to challenge us: The week people around the world are mourning the quintessential man of integrity, peace, mature judgement and courage, Nelson Mandela, is the week millions of people around the United States are marking the 1st anniversary of the horrific Newtown school massacre.
As the senseless deaths of twenty six-year olds and their teachers sank in, we sensed that there might be a glimmer of hope. Cynically, we noted that at least twenty children of color from disadvantaged homes were victims of gun violence every year in the United States and those "incidents" made barely a ripple on the national stage . . . perhaps the deaths of these twenty white children from privileged Connecticut would shake our nation out of our complacency and spur some serious gun control legislation and enforcement.
In truth, it's a mixed bag: In a number of states, proactive and balanced gun legislation was passed (including in New York, Colorado, Connecticut, Maryland, New Jersey and California). According to the New York Times (December 10, 2013), 109 new state gun bills became law in the year since the Newtown shootings. 39 of these new bills tighten gun restrictions. 70 of these new bills loosen gun restrictions. 14 of the 39 new bills relate to gun possession and mental health issues (including the creation of a task force here in Rhode Island mandated to review existing laws related to firearms and behavioral issues). 10 of the 39 new laws relate to strengthening or establishing background checks for the purchase of firearms. In Rhode Island, a bill became law in July making it illegal to receive, transport or possess any firearm whose identification has been altered.
The fact that more bills loosened gun restrictions than tightened them is an indication that we as a nation are struggling mightily with this issue. We need to conduct respectful and focussed and informed conversations about the place of firearms in our society.
We do not need fear tactics. We do not need polarizing rhetoric.
And yet, guns and public safety researcher, Timothy Johnson of MediaMatters.org reported today: As the one-year anniversary of the December 14, 2012, mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School approaches, National Rifle Association board member Ted Nugent is blaming "the self-inflicted scourge of political correctness" for the shooting that claimed the lives of 20 children and six educators in Newtown, Connecticut.
In his regular column for conspiracy website WND, Nugent wrote on December 11 that unless America followed a series of his policy recommendations -- including arming teachers, eliminating "gun-free zones," and getting "deranged people off the streets" -- "then those precious little 20 children and their six teachers and faculty members at Sandy Hook Elementary died for nothing."
In the week we are mourning the death of Nelson Mandela--a man who never let himself be swayed by the assumptions and biases of others-- it is anathema to evoke the Holocaust as a support for the loosening of gun control. In a January 24, 2013 press release, the ADL (Anti-Defamation League) reported:
As a self-determining people with our own sovereign country, language, cultural and religious heritage and economic resources, we can take part in any policy or cultural debate without "playing the Holocaust card." We don't need anyone's pity and it is not becoming to assume a pathetic posture.
We also acknowledge that the Jewish people do not hold exclusive rights as victims of Nazi genocide: there is just as solid documentation that the lives of gypsies, homosexuals, those suffering mental illness and political dissidents were just as callously discarded as were the lives of 6 million Jews.
Nonetheless, no one has the right to distort these truths to make political hay. Do you want to defend the status quo in gun possession? Speak with integrity and make your case, don't throw around emotional bombs like "Holocaust" and "Nazi." Do you have confidence that loosening gun restrictions is the responsible next step in our country's civic life? Speak with integrity and make your case with logic, accuracy and integrity: do not take the names and lives of the Newtown victims in vain.
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.