Why Californian Jews Don't Do Guns

Bay Area Jews challenge the post-Pew pessimism: Non-religious Jews who have expressed their Jewish identity for over a century in social action are now fighting for gun control.

Elka Looks
Elka Looks
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Elka Looks
Elka Looks

Jews, in the United States in general, and in California specifically, don’t like guns.

National Jewish organizations such as the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the National Council for Jewish Women and the Reform Movement’s Religious Action Center, all agree that fewer guns and stricter laws will make America safer. And while some Jewish organizations, such as the Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership, don’t share this stance (it even has its own Rabbinic Director, and was founded to educate the "Jewish community about the historical evils that Jews have suffered when they have been disarmed"), by and large American Jews tend to support gun control in the U.S.

It’s pretty straightforward: According to the Center for American Progress, the 10 states with the weakest gun laws collectively have 104% more gun violence than the 10 states with the strongest gun control laws. California is 40th in the U.S.in overall prevalence of gun violence – and it has some of the strictest, and some claim the best, gun laws in the country. Less guns equals less gun violence.

But why is gun control a Jewish issue, especially in the Bay Area? Common Jewish arguments in favor of gun control have cited the Jewish value of “sanctity of life” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5), or even “Thou shalt not murder” (Exodus 20:13). But both of these statutes, along with the plethora of other Jewish-text or midrash-based arguments are wildly broad and subjective, largely due to the fact that people weren’t shooting up schools in 1300 BC, and thus no halakhic precedent was created.

While Scripture is often the basis upon which Jewish communities form their policy positions – loosely as it may be - for the non-observant Jew, community affiliation is most often based upon Jewish values-driven activism, not Jewish religious doctrine. This has long been the driving force behind Bay Area Jewish community activity, which is why, as many Jewish leaders lament the increasing assimilation of American Jewry, most notably after the recent Pew survey revealed a decline in Jewish religious affiliation, Bay Area community leaders view this apparent paradigm shift in a slightly different light.

In a statement earlier this month, Jennifer Gorovitz, CEO of the San Francisco-based Jewish Community Federation said: “I prefer not to see the bogeyman of ‘assimilation’ as an impossible negative but, rather, as the changing face of a community that has integrated into a society that is more accepting than any in our long history.” This integration has allowed the Jewish community to redefine the ways in which its Judaism manifests itself in day-to-day lives, with many choosing social action as their conduit to community.

The Jewish community in the Bay Area possesses tremendous organizing power, propelled by a homegrown activist spirit, allowing it to successfully mobilize on critical issues – like gun laws. This tremendous organizing power is thanks to a long history of grassroots, social and political involvement, traced back to the nascent days of the city’s transformation from small town to metropolis.

Unlike in most major U.S. cities, San Francisco Jews have always been integrated into mainstream society; there have never been Jewish neighborhoods or enclaves. In fact, the “new” type of Jew described in the aforementioned Pew study, Jewish but not religiously identified, has been the standard here since the 1880s, with Jews maintaining their identity through communal involvement on political and social issues of shared concern. For many Bay Area Jews, the foundation of their Jewish identity is rooted in over a century of social action, and contrary to many assimilation naysayers, is still alive and going strong.

The formation of this identity was chronicled in a newly-released documentary, ‘American Jerusalem’, which discusses the role of Jews in the development of the city, including Adolph Sutro, pioneer, politician, millionaire, working-class champion and Jew who was largely instrumental in the forming of San Francisco as we know it, and Julius Kahn, Jewish actor turned congressman who served in the House of Representatives for nearly 20 years.

This history of political and social involvement is the precedent upon which the Bay Area Jewish community has predicated its continued activism on a host of issues including marriage equality, freedom of expression, immigration and yes, gun control. The American Jewish community, like every other community in the U.S., is directly affected by the fact that the United States has more gun crimes, murders, injuries, suicides and accidents than any first world country, and has made clear that this is not an acceptable reality. This year, the Jewish Public Affairs Committee of California, on whose board sit representatives of major area Jewish organizations, placed gun control at the top of its 2013 legislative priorities, demonstrating that, for California Jews, this is a Jewish issue.

Today, a Jewish issue is not only determined based upon scriptural evidence and ancient adages, but upon modern communal shared values, beliefs and concerns. The widespread availability of guns in the United States and the unmitigated violence it has facilitated goes against these values, beliefs and concerns. That is why Jews don’t like guns.

Elka Looks, originally from Tel Aviv, is the communications manager for the San Francisco-based Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), the public affairs arm of the organized Bay Area Jewish community.

Guns to be melted lie in a pile near a news conference at the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department's 20th annual Gun Melt at the Gerdau Steel Mill in Rancho Cucamonga, California July 30, 2013. Credit: Reuters

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