Gun control was once a unifying issue for the Jewish organizational community across the political spectrum. Cracks are starting to show in that united front.
WASHINGTON (JTA) — After the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, that killed at least 19 children and two adults on Tuesday, an array of Jewish groups issued statements that fell into two categories: generalized grief and recommendations for action.
The groups who repeated longstanding and direct calls for gun control included those aligned with the Reform and Conservative movement, along with B’nai B’rith International, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs and the National Council of Jewish Women (NCJW).
The NCJW was arguably the most blunt.
“We must end gun violence in this country,” the group said on Twitter. “We must choose leaders and laws that regulate and restrict guns.”
The Jewish Federations of North America, which this year for a period removed gun control from its “Public Priorities” list, avoided politics. Its statement said “our hearts break” and that “We mourn this terrible tragedy with the Uvalde community.”
Jewish organizations were for decades united across the board in advocating for gun control, but in recent years they have retreated from the issue. Officials have said that it has become untenable to embrace advocacy that one of the two parties rejects, as the United States has become more polarized.
“When we speak out on established policy issues, we still risk creating a backlash,” David Bernstein, head of the consensus-driven Jewish public policy umbrella JCPA, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency in 2018, noting that he received right-wing criticism for speaking up on guns in the wake of the Parkland school shooting. The JCPA said Tuesday: “We must all join together to end gun violence and domestic terrorism growing on our nation.”
The majority of American Jewish groups, even many who could be characterized as center or to the right on Israel policy, remain outspoken on the issue. For example, the statement from B’nai B’rith — a nearly-180-year-old antisemitism watchdog — noted that its president, Seth Riklin, was a Texan.
“What will be the tipping point for our country to finally act on sensible gun reform measures?” read a statement in his name and of the group’s CEO, Daniel Mariaschin. “It seems our country is paralyzed by an irrational fear of taking action to stop this plague.”
The statement by the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly suggested a barely concealed fury at the conventional calls for “thoughts and prayers” after mass shootings.
“While our hearts and sincere prayers go out to the people of Uvalde, especially the families of the victims, thoughts and prayers have never been enough; it is past time for action,” said its statement. “It is high time that United States politicians, currently obsessed with reelection campaigns, put aside partisanship in order literally to save lives.”
On the more liberal front, two Reform leaders used even stronger language. Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, took aim at indications that the Supreme Court could soon further loosen gun ownership restrictions, and Congress’ failure to pass gun control laws. “Now two branches of government will worship a cult of death by deifying the Second Amendment,” he said on Twitter.
Rabbi Jonah Pesner, the director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, described on Twitter “the rage and heartbreak of living in a society that repeatedly permits the destruction of life.”
“God forgive this country for loving guns more than children,” he added.
But several groups did not mention gun control; some clarified to the JTA that they support legislation on the issue despite a lack of pointed language in their statements.
“Another unspeakable horror. Another occasion for national shock, mourning and, yes, anger,” said David Harris, the outgoing CEO of the American Jewish Committee. “Will the pandemic of violence in our nation ever end?” An AJC spokesman said that Harris and the organization were focused on the tragedy, but said that the AJC had in the past pushed for more gun controls and that it would back any new measures proposed by President Joe Biden.
A JFNA spokesman, meanwhile, said it is “assessing potential next steps” with its partner organizations. The spokesman pointed to an updated priorities document published after JTA reported that it had removed any mentions of guns from its original document.The updated document calls for improved enforcement of existing gun restrictions but does not advocate for any new proposals.
Agudath Israel of America, the umbrella body for haredi Orthodox Jews, said it was “horrified” by the attack, but a spokesman said the organization has never had a formal position on gun control and that its statement spoke “to the horrific tragedy and the pain of the bereaved.”
A number of organizations that did not mention gun control pivoted to favored issues. The Orthodox Union, which takes a lead in advocating for federal and state funding to secure Jewish institutions, said schools must be “places of safety.”
Nathan Diament, the O.U.’s Washington’s director, said his tweet was focused on the tragedy.
But in an email, he wrote that “The O.U. supports ‘common-sense gun safety measures’ — which includes (post-Sandy Hook) supporting the Manchin-Toomey bill,” a failed bipartisan bid, written after the 2012 mass shooting at a Connecticut elementary school, that would have strengthened background checks for gun purchases.
The Anti-Defamation League, which has a leading role in tracking extremism, said it would “investigate the shooter’s social media footprint.” A spokesman for the ADL also said the group focused first “on the tragedy, the victims,” and pointed a reporter to its statement after the Sandy Hook massacre, which read: “We firmly believe that one way to limit the power of extremists and reduce violence in our communities is to enact tough, effective gun control legislation.”
The AJC and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee also retweeted Israeli government expressions of sympathy with the victims of the attack. AIPAC quoted each tweet, “Allies stand together.” Like many other Western democracies, Israel has strict gun control laws and a much lower frequency of mass shootings.
Rabbi Jeffrey Myers, the Tree of Life synagogue rabbi who called the police when a gunman murdered 11 worshipers in his Pittburgh congregation in 2018, said in a statement that the pain of surviving that attack returned to him on Tuesday.
“This morning, as I lifted my eyes, tears fell,” Myers said. “The pain of surviving the attack here in Pittsburgh once again feels fresh in my mind after yesterday’s horrific massacre at an elementary school. I readied myself to question God, ‘Why?’ But God returned my question, ‘why?’ Today we mourn with the families and friends of 19 beautiful children and two educators. May their memories be a blessing. We offer prayers of comfort and healing for the children who are now forever changed by what they witnessed. And tomorrow, we must all return to and wrestle with God’s question for us: ‘why?’”
By Ron Kampeas