Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Who By Bullet: Rabbi Meszler's High Holy Day Message

A Rabbi's New Year Message beautifully written.  Tears roll down my face!

 From the Rabbi

Rabbi Meszler's Rosh Hashanah message:

On the High Holy Days, we read the disturbing prayer entitled Unetaneh Tokef, containing the famous passage, "who shall live and who shall die, who by fire and who by water." This prayer asks us to recognize our mortality and how much of life is beyond our control.

It is therefore all the more mind-boggling when there are dangers that are within our power to avoid and we ignore them. Reflecting on this past year, to me the most obvious needless danger that we tolerate in America is gun violence. In the Unetaneh Tokef prayer of 2015, we could easily add the phrases: "who by bullet and who by negligence, who by semi-automatic weapon and who by unlicensed handgun, who by lack of background check and who by accident."  We as a society have no one else to blame but our sick culture and our lack of political will.

Let me share with you just a few personal encounters I have had with this particularly American issue. I was in my last year of Rabbinical School when I got a call about my classmate Rabbi Joel Mosbacher. His father had been taken out of his store in Chicago at gunpoint. After the robbery, he was shot and killed. I remember driving up to the home to gather for the stunned shiva . My friend's life was changed forever. This is criminal gun violence.

But there is also accidental gun violence. A year later, I was in serving a congregation in Washington DC. I received the following letter from a congregant named Eve in anticipation of the Million Mom March, a march for gun control, which took place on Mother's Day, May 14, 2000. The march was in reaction to the Columbine High School massacre.

     Dear Rabbi,
     Nate and I are by nature not marchers. We do not enjoy crowds, preferring to promote causes privately. Almost in spite of ourselves, this year's Million Mom March will be an exception.
     In 1983, our first child, David, was shot and killed by another child. It was an accident that we have never been able to move beyond. For 17 years, our lives have been shaped, in a way deformed, by that event. It has hurt our souls, our marriage, our subsequent children, our families and our friends. It becomes a barrier between us and those who do not know because it is so difficult to say that there was a child who is not here anymore.
     People are kind but unless you explain they do not understand. There is no polite way to say that we had a beautiful, bright 22-month old baby whose babysitter loved him very much but they kept a gun for protection and one day their four year old son found the gun and accidentally shot David through the head and killed him.
     We really feel uncomfortable sharing that story because although we have been over every nuance for so many years, it is always a shock to bring it up. But there is no way we can go out for a meal on Mother's Day and know that others have given up their Sunday and we have not. So we will both be at the March and hope that you understand that if only there had been a safety mechanism on that gun, David would still be with us.
     Our hope is that you will think about us, and about David, and give thought to what it means to make our children safe through gun legislation.

I marched with this family and many others then. While the march brought many people together, it did not produce any change in policy.  More than a decade later, the epidemic continues unabated without any legislative response, even after Newtown. Proposed legislation focused on things I cannot imagine are objectionable: requiring background checks  on all firearm sales and on passing new and expanded assault weapon and high-capacity magazine bans . Yet no legislation has been passed. I thought the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in 2012 would be the tipping point. It was not.

But mass shootings only account for 1% of the gun homicides in our country, even though they are the ones that get our attention. There are shootings that happen all the time. Last month, a 23 year old young man who just graduated from American University, Matthew Shlonsky, who grew up at a synagogue in North Carolina, got out of a cab in DC. A stray bullet hit and killed him in broad daylight. That could have been a member of any one of our families. In Baltimore, while I was visiting my family in Maryland this summer, fourteen people were shot in one night . It was in that moment that I decided I needed to speak on this issue today.

So what does Judaism say about this issue? Judaism is not just about lighting candles on holidays, life-cycle events and how to be a better person. Judaism is also a religion of ethics, law, and the street.

Make no mistake, Judaism is not a pacifist religion. We have a clear obligation for self-defense. Jewish tradition emphasizes the sanctity of human life. It also says that we are entitled to defend ourselves and even take a life to save ours. " If someone comes to kill you, kill them first" (Berachot 58a) is a fundamental principle in the Talmud. Rashi adds that a thief in the night better beware because the resident has a right to kill someone breaking in, assuming their worst intentions. Added to this is the obligation on us to assist other people who are in trouble: " You shall not stand idly by while your neighbor bleeds"  (Leviticus 19:16).

On the other hand, these laws are not absolute. When it comes to owning weapons, the Talmud teaches ( Avodah Zarah 15b): " One should not sell [those of criminal intentions] either weapons or accessories of weapons, nor should one make any weapon for them."  Further, in the Talmud says (Bava Kama 46a): " Rabbi Nathan teaches: From where is it derived that one should not breed a bad dog or keep a damaged ladder in his house? From the verse [ Deuteronomy 24:8 ], 'You shall not bring blood upon your house.'"  If things that are inherently dangerous, like rabid dogs or broken ladders, are forbidden, all the more so should gun safety be maintained.

Finally, Judaism views weapons not as sporting goods but as necessary evils. This negativity can be felt in tractate Shabbat (63a): " One must not go out [on Shabbat] with a sword, nor with a bow, nor with a...shield, ...nor with a spear... The sages say they are nothing but a stigma, for it is written [ Isaiah 2:4 ]: 'They shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.'"

  • What type of weapons, magazines, etc., do people reasonably need for self defense?
  • How can we make sure that those with a criminal past or the mentally unstable cannot access weapons? This would include restrictions on weapon ownership by those with whom they reside.
  • We are obliged to use every possible technological means to prevent these people from acquiring arms under any circumstances, for example, a robust national system of background checks.
Now there is a very small Jewish minority who make the argument that we should all be armed, for if the Jews of Germany had guns, then the Nazis would have never been able to take them away. I do not think this is a reasonable comparison. Currently, we are far more endangered by the all-too-common instances of domestic violence, someone thinking of suicide having access to a firearm, or an accident than the relatively rare instance of an armed intruder much less a genocidal regime in our streets. Self-defense is part of Judaism, but licenses, background checks, and safety are within not just the spirit but the letter of Jewish law. The Union for Reform Judaism has long recognized the need for gun safety legislation, passing many resolutions to that effect.

I recognize that guns are part of American recreation and culture, and many people want them for home defense. My grandfather, of blessed memory, grew up in Pennsylvania and was part of that culture. He hunted regularly and belonged to the National Rifle Association. He told me he canceled his membership when the NRA insisted on the right to own assault weapons. He explained to me, "If you shoot an assault weapon in home defense, you'll take out a wall of your house. If you shoot a deer with it, there will be nothing left of the deer to bring home. It just doesn't make any sense."

The fact is, I believe we are talking about basic health and safety legislation, the same way we have laws for cars or medicines. While no gun legislation will prevent all shootings, we know that strong gun safety laws do reduce the incidents of gun violence. Gun safety legislation saves lives, unequivocally. States with more gun control have less gun violence, and states with less gun control have more gun violence.

Consider the 2014 study from the Johns Hopkins Center for Gun Policy and Research, which looked at how gun deaths in two states correlated with the repeal or enactment of permit-to-purchase (PTP) laws. After Missouri repealed its PTP regulations in 2007, it saw a 25 percent increase in homicides by firearm. Bordering states did not experience an increase, and the national murder rate declined 5 percent. Missouri murders not involving guns remained steady.
When Connecticut enacted PTP laws in 1995, over the following decade it experienced a 40 percent reduction in firearm homicides. It also raised the handgun purchasing age from 18 to 21 and required prospective purchasers to complete eight hours of safety training after applying for a permit with local police in person.

In other words, a 25% increase in one state and a 40% decline in another occurred solely because of a change in their laws. These laws did not forbid owning a gun but required a background check to see if you were a violent criminal or mentally unstable.

People sometimes point out that new legislation would not have prevented most of the major gun massacres. They also like to say the slogan, guns don't kill people, people kill people. As one of my high school classmates cleverly wrote on Facebook, "You don't blame a pencil for spelling mistakes or a car for traffic accidents; why should you blame a gun for shootings?" The difference is that a pencil is made for writing and a car is made for taking people from one place to another. An assault weapon is only made for killing a lot of people at once.
Even so, even if you believe you do need a gun for safety, which is well within Jewish tradition, why on earth should there be no background checks at gun shows the same as at gun stores? Why should assault weapons be permitted? Why shouldn't we develop and promote available smart gun technology that recognizes fingerprints in order to fire, much like a smartphone, so a child cannot shoot another child? We must learn to say: "Your right to own a gun ends with my family's right to live safely." "You shall not bring blood upon your house."

So what can you do? A bipartisan bill has been introduced into Congress called the Zero Tolerance for Domestic Abusers Act (H.R. 3130 ). The bill will close a loophole in federal law that allows some perpetrators of domestic violence to access firearms. Now obviously this is a small step, pitiful even, but at least it is a step we can take. Please take the time to write to anyone and everyone that known domestic abusers should not be able to buy a gun anywhere and there ought to be a background check.

Gun violence is a plague of our own own making. Even though we have not been successful in the past, we still must say, "This is not right. As a Jewish American, I protest." I believe, despite all of the past failures, that gun violence is an issue we can do something about. We cannot eliminate it completely, but we can reduce it. Change can begin with small steps. The proposed law is one such step.

Almost every attempt at gun legislation has failed in the past twenty years. Nevertheless, we have to keep dreaming of a better tomorrow, as it says in the optimistic song by Arik Einstein: " Ani v'atah m'shaneh et ha-olam : You and I can change the world. You and I, and then others will follow. It's been said before, but that doesn't matter. You and I will change the world."

Shanah tovah.

Rabbi Joseph B. Meszler
Temple Sinai of Sharon

Hostile BBC Interview of a Saudi Loyalist Shows Prime Journalistic Duty: Scrutiny of One’s Own Side

By Glenn Greenwald

The ongoing atrocities by Saudi Arabia and its “coalition partners” in Yemen reflect powerfully — and horribly — on both the U.S. and U.K. That’s true not only because those two countries in general are among the closest allies of the Saudi regime, but also because they are specifically lavishing Saudi despots with the very arms and intelligence being used to kill large numbers of Yemeni civilians.

Photo: Gerald Herbert/AP

The American and British governments have long been overflowing with loyalists to the Saudi regime (recall how President Obama literally terminated a state visit to India [where he ironically spent his time “lecturing India on religious tolerance and women’s rights”] in order to fly to Riyadh to pay homage to the Saudi King upon his death, along with top officials from both parties).

One of those many Saudi regime loyalists, conservative British MP Daniel Kawczynski, appeared on BBC’s Newsnight program on Friday night and was mercilessly grilled by host James O’Brien about support for the Saudi war in Yemen by both the British government and the country’s private-sector weapons manufacturers.

The BBC deserves all sorts of criticisms, but this interview was a master class in how journalists should interview politicians and others who wield power. The whole interview (video below) is well worth watching, as O’Brien repeatedly demands that Kawczynski address the war crimes being committed by the Saudi regime he supports. But I want to focus on one point in particular.

BBC Newsnight screen grab

Video here or below.

Each time he’s confronted with questions about the war crimes committed by the side his own government arms and supports, Kawczynski ignores the topic and instead demands to know why the BBC isn’t focused instead on the bad acts of the Houthis, the rebel group the Saudis are fighting, which the Saudis (dubiously) claim is controlled by Iran. Over and over, when O’Brien asks about the role the U.K. Government is playing in Saudi war crimes, Kawczynski tries to change the topic by demanding that the BBC instead talk about Iran and the Houthis: “You have an agenda at Newsnight and you don’t want anyone to dispute the way in which you are covering this war. You have an agenda against the Gulf States coalition. … Why haven’t you shown any coverage of the massacres … by the Houthi tribes?”
After noting that the BBC has reported on Houthi violence, O’Brien explains this crucial point about his focus on Saudi crimes:

Because the investigation is into whether or not weapons sold by British companies have been used in the commission of war crimes possibly committed by Saudi Arabia. … The Houthis are not our allies and are not our customers. Therefore, the public interest of British journalism is not served at this point by investigating what they have or have not been doing. We sell weapons to Saudi Arabia.
Embedded in O’Brien’s explanation is a vital point: The primary role of journalists is to expose and thus check abuses committed by their own nation and its allies. As O’Brien notes, “the public interest” is served far more by focusing on the bad acts of one’s own government than on the acts of foreign governments for which one is not responsible and over which one has little or no control.

This ought to be so obvious as to be axiomatic. But the opposite is true: The vast, vast majority of media coverage in the West — and of foreign policy discourse generally in the U.S. — is devoted to some formulation of “ hey, look at all the bad things that our enemy tribe, the one way over there, is doing.” It’s impossible to quantify with precision, but as someone who pays a great deal of attention to American media and “foreign policy expert” discussion in the U.S., I’d estimate that 95 percent of that discourse is devoted to the supposed bad acts of adversaries of the U.S., with maybe 5 percent devoted to the bad acts of the U.S. itself and its closest allies. It’s exactly the opposite of the “public interest” standard O’Brien accurately defends.

I first noticed this on a visceral level when there was a huge outpouring of protest and anger from American journalists over the Iranian government’s three-month detention of the American-Iranian journalist Roxana Saberi (until she was ordered released by an Iranian appellate court). What was notable wasn’t the anger itself: It’s natural, and noble, for journalists to defend free press rights of their fellow journalists. What was so notable was that their own country’s government — the United States — had imprisoned journalists for years without charges of any kind, including an Al Jazeera journalist for almost seven years at Guantanamo, and most of them said absolutely nothing about this. All of that was barely reported. How can you be an American journalist and focus extensively on Iran’s abuse of journalists while completely ignoring your own government’s?

That event for me demonstrated a critical point: It’s so fun — and so easy — to highlight and protest the bad acts done by the countries declared to be the Bad Ones by your own government. It’s not quite as fun or easy to highlight and protest the bad acts done by your own government itself or its closest allies. Yet as O’Brien pointed out, journalism is far more valuable, and the public interest served far more, by doing the latter rather than the former.
That’s true because journalists can serve as a watchdog over their government far more effectively than over the governments of faraway adversary countries. But even more so, there’s never any shortage of light being shined on the bad acts of adversary governments: Exploiting the bad acts of adversary governments in order to disparage, discredit and thus weaken them is something virtually all governments do. It’s called propaganda. Citizens in most countries hear a great deal about the bad things done by adversary governments. What they hear far too little of are the bad acts done by their own government, which is why journalism is most valuable when it shines light on that. That’s when journalism is informing rather than amplifying tribal propaganda.

There are lots of reasons why people prefer to focus on the bad acts of the Enemy Tribe rather than one’s own. A big factor is strategic: When the focus of Americans is on the bad acts of Putin or North Korea or Iran or whatever Villain of the Moment is being featured or on the injustice of those places, their focus is not on the things they can actually do something about: the bad acts of their own government and the injustices in their own society.

Constantly directing people’s attention to bad things being done by other tribes is simultaneously distracting and distorting: It creates the impression that Bad Things (imprisoning journalists) are only done by Them, not by Us. 

But at least as big a factor is a psychological one: Humans intrinsically feel better when we are condemning others rather than ourselves. That’s why bitter, judgmental gossip has long been a favorite pastime: It’s self-soothing to sit in critical judgment of others. There’s a reason the Gospels have to remind human beings to “first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye”: It’s precisely because the universal temptation is to ignore our own flaws since that’s so much more self-flattering and pleasing.

None of these are absolute rules; some caveats are needed. There’s a benefit from knowing about the acts of adversary governments. We want reporting on those countries as well, and journalists assigned to those countries do their job by highlighting the conduct of those governments. Nor should the bad acts of adversary governments be expressly denied or actively minimized, as that becomes its own form of deceit and propaganda. And then there are times when the bad conduct of other governments produces such great human suffering that collective action becomes both possible and justified, in which case focusing on it can be justified.

But as a general proposition, the duties of journalism, and for that matter citizenship, are fulfilled by having one’s primary focus be on the bad acts of one’s own side, not those of the Others. As always, this quote from Noam Chomsky — who has spent decades being told that he spends too much time talking about the bad acts of his own government and society — most concisely explains the point:

“My own concern is primarily the terror and violence carried out by my own state, for two reasons. For one thing, because it happens to be the larger component of international violence. 

“But also for a much more important reason than that; namely, I can do something about it. So even if the U.S. was responsible for 2 percent of the violence in the world instead of the majority of it, it would be that 2 percent I would be primarily responsible for. And that is a simple ethical judgment. That is, the ethical value of one’s actions depends on their anticipated and predictable consequences. It is very easy to denounce the atrocities of someone else. That has about as much ethical value as denouncing atrocities that took place in the 18th century.” 

It’s not only “easy” to “denounce the atrocities of someone else.” It’s also profitable: strategically, propagandistically, psychologically and emotionally. That’s why it’s such a popular thing to do. It’s been true for decades in the U.S. and still is: Write or talk about the invasions, bombings, tyrant-support and torture by your own government and you’ll immediately face demands from nationalists that you focus instead on Russia, upon pain of being accused of being a secret Kremlin agent if you don’t. That is what also explains the obsession among some Westerners to depict Islam, rather than their own governments, as the Prime Force of Violence and Aggression. It’s also what drives the tactic of minimizing your own country’s sins by pointing to someone who is doing worse.

It’s just pure tribalism in its most classic and primitive form: It’s the Other Side that is always the Bad One. Journalistically, that behavior is as cowardly as it is inconsequential: Americans and other Westerners have been inundated for decades with demonizing language about U.S. adversaries from Russia to China to Iran to Muslim extremists. There’s very little valuable, and nothing particularly courageous or interesting, about sitting in the U.S. echoing those self-serving, self-pleasing and already widely accepted narratives. What Americans have lacked, woefully, is a journalistic focus on the bad acts done by their own government, a direct challenge to the propagandistic banalities they’ve been fed to glorify their own side.

This superb interview by this BBC host is an excellent illustration of the virtues of adversarial journalism. Even more significantly, it demonstrates why journalism is most valuable when it is devoted to what is most difficult: namely, focusing on the bad acts of one’s own side, holding accountable those who wield power in one’s own country and those of its closest allies, challenging the orthodoxies most cherished and venerated by one’s own society.
* * * * *
The British MP who was interviewed by Newsnight, Daniel Kawczynski, is now threatening to sue the BBC and its producer, Ian Katz, over the interview. He’s particularly upset that after the interview, Katz posted the documents showing that Kawczynski received a “donation” from the Saudi Foreign Ministry to visit. As is so often the case, the most vocal tough-guy-warriors are such delicate flowers.