Tucson: A Jewish Congresswoman Takes a Bullet

A good friend asked if I were going to write about the Jewish angles on the Tucson tragedy. She got me thinking, and I guess I see three.

First, Gabrielle Giffords, the gravely wounded Congresswoman, is a proud Jew who came late to that identity but embraced it with all her heart. Giffords is the name her grandfather chose—“Giff Giffords,” no less—when he wanted his public Jewish identity to go away. But he started life as Akiba Hornstein, son of a Lithuanian rabbi. Gabi’s father was Jewish, her mother a Christian scientist, and she says she was raised in both faith.

But, fortunately for the Jews, this extraordinary young woman traveled to Israel a decade ago and, like many of us, was changed forever. She came back to embrace Jewishness and Judaism, and did find one branch of the faith prepared to accept her as Jewish by dint of her dad’s lineage.

So she joined Congregation Chaverim in Tucson, attended services there, and in this very Christian corner of America boldly stepped forward as a Jew. She cited the women in her family as role models, joined Hadassah like her grandmother, and while campaigning for Congress (in Tucson, not Brooklyn), said in an interview, “If you want something done, your best bet is to ask a Jewish woman to do it,” because Jewish women “have an ability to cut through all the reasons why something should, shouldn’t or can’t be done.” A Republican House Speaker swore her in this month using The Five Books of Moses.

She rides a motorcycle, avidly supports Israel, and like most Arizonans favors gun rights. She did, however, become concerned when a retired Alaska governor officially put her in the crosshairs, however metaphorically. There is no evidence of a connection, but she received threats, her office was vandalized, and ultimately an insane young man put a bullet through the whole length of the left side of her brain.

Her neurosurgeons did everything right, and Daniel Hernández, the young man who stopped her from bleeding to death—the perfect foil for her assassin—saved her life. But when the surgeons talk of a miracle, I don’t think they mean she’ll be in Congress anytime soon. That, given the bullet’s path, would be a miracle among miracles.

The second Jewish angle is the extraordinary video put out by a lapsed Alaska governor, who not only found it proper, in the midst of a nation’s grief, to try to make the story about herself, she invoked a term that resonates deeply and harshly with every Jew who knows the least thing about Jewish history: blood libel.

Considering how Jews have suffered from blood libels over the centuries, it’s at a minimum tactless for a politician to use the term. There is no evidence that Palin’s putting Giffords in the (metaphorical) crosshairs on her website provoked the assassin, but pointing out that she had done so and running a tape in which Giffords expressed concern about it is not a blood libel.

A blood libel is when people claim that Jews kill Christian children so they can use the children’s blood to make Passover matzah. Even the ADL’s Abe Foxman—no liberal—while defending Palin’s right to defend herself, questioned her use of that term.

But the video was not just tactless, it was a political blunder even without that Jewish reference. Don’t take my word for it, check out what Pat Buchanan, David Frum, and many other Republican commentators said: She showed that she lacks the stature to comfort a grieving nation in time of tragedy. Pundits baited her and she rose to the bait instead of

passing it by and rising to the occasion. A lot of Republican presidential hopefuls were celebrating.

Incidentally, Giffords’ Republican opponent, Jesse Kelly, ran an ad in June on the Pima County Republican website inviting readers to “Help remove Gabrielle Giffords from office” and to “Shoot a fully automatic M16 with Jesse Kelley”—no causal link implied of course.

So what is the third Jewish angle? It’s the comparison between gun violence here and in Israel. As is often pointed out, many homes in Israel with an actively serving soldier or reservist often have a powerful automatic rifle around, and other guns are freely purchased by law-abiding citizens, yet there is proportionately much less gun violence there than here. But there is some.

The mass-murderer Baruch Goldstein used his army rifle to kill twenty-nine Muslims while they were at prayer, and unlike in the Tucson case, it was clear that right-wing political rhetoric and rabbinical “teachings” had incited him.  A medical doctor, he chose Purim 1994 for his heinous genocidal act. Every aspect of it was premeditated and deliberate. Yet to some in Israel, this vicious assassin’s grave is now a shrine.

The assassin who murdered Yitzchak Rabin at a peace rally, the far-right ultra-Zionist law student Yigal Amir, was also clearly acting out of political motivation with the incitement of some rabbis. He used a Beretta semi-automatic pistol, a 9mm handgun not so different from the Glock used in Tucson, although Amir’s Beretta held fewer rounds.

And on the other side of the political spectrum, in 2001 Israel’s then-Minister of Tourism Rehavam Ze’evi, was shot dead in the Hyatt Hotel in Jerusalem by Palestinians who described it as a retaliation for targeted assassinations of violent Palestinian leaders by Israel. Ze’evi was known for extremist, racist anti-Arab views.

But overall, gun violence is far less common in Israel than in the U.S. Like Switzerland and Canada, Israel has easy access to guns but relatively few gun deaths—so much so that the pro-gun forces here refer to it as part of the proof that guns don’t kill people, people do.

It’s a view clearly shared by Gabrielle Giffords, at least up to now.


3 thoughts on “Tucson: A Jewish Congresswoman Takes a Bullet

  1. As always, a factual and well reasoned argument.  I would disagree about the possible right-wing motives of this obviously deranged young man.  I fear the extreme nature of the political dialogue in recent months emanates from all points on the political spectrum.  And while I think Sarah Palin was utterly wrong in her comments, no less an authority than Alan Dershowitz thought she used the blood libel reference appropriately.  (And parenthetically, I feel our president used his talk in Tucson as more of a pep rally than a memorial.  Tee shirts for attendees? Calling her Gabby?  Did he even have a speaking relationship with her? )
    But whatever, it is frightening to think that Giffords may have been targeted because of her Jewishness, whatever branch of our religion recognized her authenticity.  Can’t and won’t argue that point since I agree with you but I can recognize why others don’t.  This, I think, is why my son eschews both organized religion and organized political parties, thinking them to be the root of all hatred.
    When you figure out how we can overcome this senseless division, let me know.  We live in a society that has too much going for it, too much to win and to lose, to stoop to partisan violence and fingerpointing, especially while a young woman’s life hangs in the balance.  I’m heartened by the good news from her doctors, and heartened too by the baby steps politicians are taking to try conciliation.  Let’s pray for healing for her, for the families of the slain victims, and for a torn nation.