Gun Violence is a Social Justice Issue

August 16, 2019

By Frank Goldsmith, CJJ-West

Let’s talk about gun violence.

Admittedly, curbing the epidemic of firearms fatalities has not been at the forefront of Carolina Jews for Justice’s concerns.  But how can an organization committed to social justice abstain from commenting on this tragic, and largely preventable, loss of life?  

The Torah teaches that we are not to stand idly by the blood of our neighbor:  lo ta-amod al-dam re’ekha (Lev. 19:16).  The blood of our neighbors is flowing all too freely as the result of gun violence, and we must not be indifferent.  Why should American blood flow more freely than that of any other civilized nation?  

Consider the appalling facts:

  • Americans are 25 times more likely to die from gun violence than residents of peer nations;

  • On average, 100 Americans are killed by guns every day;

  • Another 100,000 Americans are wounded with guns each year, often with life-altering consequences;

  • 4.6 million children live in homes where guns are unlocked and loaded;

  • Black Americans are 10 times more likely than white Americans to be murdered with a gun; 

  • Unarmed black civilians are 5 times more likely than unarmed white civilians to be shot and killed by the police;

  • The 10 states with the highest gun death rates have some of the weakest gun laws in the nation;

  • Gun homicides have increased by over 30% since 2014; mass shootings occur with increasing frequency and higher casualty rates;

  • Seven of the 10 deadliest mass shootings in the U.S. have occurred in the past 6 years.  In this year alone, there have been 254 multiple-victim shootings, killing 246 people and wounding 979.  

Here in North Carolina, gun violence disproportionately impacts underserved communities in urban areas, with young men of color being particularly vulnerable. For example, in 2016, over 70% of total gun homicide victims in the state were Black or Latino. In fact, Black men are more than eight times as likely as white men to be the victim of a gun homicide in North Carolina.  Moreover, in recent years, North Carolina has seen a sustained increase in gun violence overall; from 2014 to 2016, gun homicides increased by over 40% across the state. 

Despite the large place they occupy in our public consciousness, mass shootings comprise a small fraction of all gun violence.  Deaths from mass shootings constitute less than 1% of all gun deaths – but the number is still far too high. We must ban civilian ownership of military-style rifles and, perhaps more importantly, high-capacity magazines for all types of weapons.  Weapons of war do not belong in civilian hands. Adopting such common-sense measures would likely save hundreds of lives each year.  

But we have to expand our common sense and consider measures to restrict the availability of all firearms.  Is it too much to require a permit, a waiting period, and an extensive background check before one can acquire a semi-automatic pistol?  Or to require a minimum age, or to limit multiple purchases of guns and ammunition? We regulate any number of things that can cause harm to people, including cars, alcohol, drugs, cigarettes, and exotic animals – why not guns?  In fact, why not require a license to possess a firearm of any kind, as a number of countries do? The 5-4 Supreme Court decision in Heller v. District of Columbia may have determined that the Second Amendment applies to individuals, not militias, but it also left open the reasonable regulation of that right, explicitly including banning possession of military weapons, as well as regulating the “the commercial sale of arms.” 

As Jews, we should support such restrictions.  A number of rabbinic sources prohibit the sale of things that may cause harm to the public.  Selling items to persons who may use them to do harm is, according to Rambam, akin to placing a stumbling block before the blind; one who does so “strengthens the hand of sinners who cannot see the way of truth because of the passions of their hearts.”   

Some claim that the issue is one of mental health.  Such an assertion is an insult to Americans who suffer from some form of mental illness. According to the American Mental Health Counselors Association, “People with serious mental illness are rarely violent. Only 3 to 5 percent of all violence, including but not limited to firearm violence, is attributable to serious mental illness. The large majority of gun violence toward others is not caused by mental illness.” And how are we supposed to predict future violent behavior, a challenging task even for the most highly skilled therapists?  Moreover, the rate of mental illness in America is about the same as in other countries, yet our gun violence rates are exponentially higher. Mental illness is not the answer to the problem of American gun violence; it is a convenient excuse for inaction.  

Since 2004, over 400,000 people have died by firearms on American soil.  We have lost many more people to gun violence in this country than we lost in all of the Vietnam War.  Our horrific reality is that it is safer to send our children into war than to school or the store.  

We must act to reverse this self-destruction of our society.  Do your part by assessing the positions on gun control of candidates for public office.  Write to your current representatives and express your concerns. Consider donating to organizations such as the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun ViolenceAmericans for Responsible Solutions, and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.  Affiliate with groups such as Rabbis Against Gun Violence.

Just do not stand idly by.

Tisha B'av: Transforming Grief into Action

This year on August 11 Carolina Jews for Justice/West sponsored a program on Tisha B’Av, a traditional Jewish day of mourning, at Congregation Beth Israel in Asheville; it is a time when Jews around the world remember some of the greatest tragedies of our history. Tisha B’Av also presents us with the opportunity to reflect on contemporary atrocities, and this year we are particularly compelled to reflect on the violent and dehumanizing treatment of immigrants and refugees in the U.S. – a modern day catastrophe that demands our attention, our voice, and our action. Action steps were discussed to enable those present to become actively engaged in efforts to support immigrants and refugees in our country. Following the service, CJJ/West Steering Committee member Frank Goldsmith looks on as Rabbi Justin Goldstein shows a Torah scroll to Magaly Urdiales, one of the speakers who represented the immigrant communities, and her son Joaquin.

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#WeAreHere: Fighting Hate and Finding Home

August 14, 2019

A week ago on Shabbat, I found myself on a farm in western North Carolina with 28 other Southern Jews talking about white nationalist mushrooms.

I was sitting on a patch of grass at Yesod Farm and Kitchen, a teaching farm and spiritual center in Fairview, a small town in the Appalachian Blue Ridge Mountains. I was there for the #WeAreHere retreat, a training held by the social action organization Carolina Jews for Justice to teach community organizers from across North Carolina, Georgia, and Tennessee how to lead workshops on white supremacy, white nationalism, and antisemitism. Light stuff.

But I was also there in search of a home.

I move into my college freshman dorm in a few days and the university I’ll be attending has a Jewish population of just four percent. Although the school is large, the town is small and as such, the options for Jewish involvement aren’t overwhelming. There’s a Hillel chapter, sure, and a shul off campus, but when I spoke to friends of mine who already attend the school, their reports of religious activity were unenthusiastic and a little frustrated.

I’ve always drawn connections between my Judaism and my social activism, but I’ve rarely found communities where I can sit comfortably with both. Even in spaces like Carolina Jews for Justice where everything, including the name, is intent on finding and building bridges between those two worlds, I often discover one half falling back to make space for the other. There are protests, but no text studies; there are prayers, but no direct action.

As I sat in a folding chair in overgrown farm grass and listened to a woman explain prejudiced fungi, I whispered to myself a hope that this weekend would show me a new way.

The mushrooms were part of an extended metaphor that one of the facilitators of the workshop used to illustrate the difference between white supremacy and white nationalism. White supremacy, she explained, is the mycelium (that’s the root-like vegetative part of fungi that often grows underground) that spreads under the forest floor. It’s always there, a fertile foundation lurking under the soil. White supremacy preaches that while it’s fine that people of different backgrounds inhabit the United States, it is ultimately Christian white people that deserve complete and utter power. It’s systemic and institutionalized, a power structure imported from the days of European colonialism that still affects every aspect of day-to-day life.

White nationalism, on the other hand, like a mushroom, is not omnipresent. It requires a trigger, something to wake it up.

When it rains—when a racist, fear-mongering man is elected to an office that gives him unprecedented power to stoke hatred throughout the country—mushrooms spring up from the ground, from that mycelium, and surprise unsuspecting hikers. These fungi are the neo-Nazis and mass shooters we see in increasing numbers on the news. They’re not content to settle for political control. They want a white ethnostate; they want a complete exile, sometimes even elimination, of people of color, members of the LGBT community, and Jews, to name a few. White nationalism is not systemic like white supremacy. Instead, it’s a movement with organizers, propaganda, online radicalization processes, an agenda—efficient and spreading.

Hence, the white nationalist mushroom conversation.

But the weekend wasn’t focused entirely on Biology 101 metaphors. As the time went by, my hope for a space I could see myself in grew. This meeting of Jewish activists was proving to be deeply spiritual; it intertwined the urgency of social justice work in the American Southeast with the soul-stirring beauty of Shabbat prayers and communal song. One hour, we’d wrestle over the issue of being both targets of white nationalism as Jews and benefiting from white supremacy as white people. The next, we’d grapple with Torah portions that clashed with our modern beliefs. In between brainstorming sessions about workshops we could host in our own communities, we sang traditional gospels like “Let Your Little Light Shine.” We stared into the often terrifying face of our current political moment and still made space to love and support each other.

I spent three days connecting with driven, compassionate organizers, some of whom already live in the town I’m about to call home. Most of them don’t have ties to the university, but they’re doing the work I want to be doing, in a way that speaks to me spiritually, in a location I can access. I can organize with them. I can use the knowledge I gained about antisemitism and the threat of white nationalism. I can blend this knowledge together with the fierce strength of my faith, and I can go out into the world a stronger, braver fighter.

On Friday night, we all gathered in the farmhouse’s cramped dining room to light candles and eat. I was sandwiched tight against the wall, the edge of a dry erase board wedging itself into my shoulder blade. I was uncomfortable and my stomach was already growling. All I wanted was to rush through the Hebrew mumbo-jumbo and get to munching. But then we all started to sing.

My heart has rarely felt as full as it did that evening, in that tiny space, smushed between thirty Jews around a table laden with food, our eyes closed and our mouths open in a triumphant song that called out to those oppressed, lost, and hurting.

“Let your little light shine, let your little light shine, there might be someone down in the valley trying to get home…”

That weekend, I found my way home.

 

By Emma Cohn

CJJ Board Member

This post was originally posted on the Jewish Women’s Archive on August 13, 2019.

Storytelling and Song: A Response

June 13, 2019

A response to Keaton Hill’s reflection by Dr. Walter Ziffer

Dear Keaton,

I want to make an observation based on my own experience and by doing so emphatically support what you quote from Adichie, that story telling and song are able to encourage people's lower instincts such as maltreatment of "the other" and all kind of malignant behavior, etc. The Nazis were masters of using false stories and rousing song that influenced even my sister and myself to the point where we admired the SS marching by and singing beautifully, I must admit, songs that aroused within the listeners hatred and Nazi supremacist ideology. What I am trying to say is that the "cognitive" aspect you mention is all important because it is that aspect that determines whether the story telling and the song are for the good or for evil. It is the substance, in my opinion, that is the determining factor whether what is done is for the good or for evil. Singing and singing with passion is the mode of transmission only! Important, of course, but still only the instrument of transmission.

And that, of course, brings me to the mode of how Torah is being transmitted. Rabbi Sacks, kol hakavod, is an important Jewish wiseman whom I respect but...the best way of transmitting Torah is by living it. I am not at all sure that the good rabbi makes a distinction between meaningful and constructive Torah and much that actually tends to be a teaching that encourages dispossession of one's neighbor and dehumanization. That, too, is  found in the Torah. The latter, to my chagrin, is also being chanted, often passionately, on many a Shabbat in synagogues around the globe. So, as Judaism is concerned, let us guard from being over enthusiastic with passionately singing Torah. In my opinion, Torah is a human product (Sacks would not agree!) with much that is admirable and of great and timeless value but also with much that is value limited because of its human and therefore limited outlook.

Let me assure you, that this is in no way a criticism of your meditation. I value your thought and words. This is simply a word of caution from a Jew who has seen the many faces of Judaism.

Fondly,

Walter

CJJ Statement on Expanding Public Transportation (Asheville)

June 4, 2019

Asheville,

The City Council will be voting on the budget on June 11. CJJ strongly supports a move to expand the public transportation service and an increase of the wages of city workers. Please contact the Council and the City Manager to encourage these changes.

More information on contacting the Council can be found here, and all members can be emailed at AshevilleNCCouncil@ashevillenc.gov. Additionally, information on contacting the City Manager can be found here. See the letter below for talking points and a general template.

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Storytelling and Song: A Reflection

June 4, 2019

By Keaton Hill

Asheville, NC

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GOP Math Doesn’t Add Up: A Letter to the Editor

May 15, 2019

There are many humane and moral reasons to expand Medicaid in North Carolina. However, it is the Republican opposition’s refusal to acknowledge the financial benefits of Expansion that is completely confusing. The Republicans in the North Carolina legislature argued that our state Medicaid budget was too unpredictable, so we needed to reform Medicaid. That legislation was passed and Medicaid is now transforming into a managed-care system. Why then, is the current Republican leadership ignoring the billions of dollars, the thousands of jobs that would come to North Carolina if we were to expand Medicaid? Why are they ignoring that new enrollees under expansion would be covered at a 90% Federal dollar reimbursement rate as opposed to the current enrollee reimbursement of 67%? Why is the leadership ignoring the fact that North Carolinians’ tax dollars are used to pay for Medicaid Expansion in the 37 states that decided the working poor deserve health insurance? It makes zero sense. Beg your Republican legislators to Expand Medicaid. The time is now.

"A Better World" Interview

May 14, 2019

Marlene Jacoby

CJJ West

Originally published in the May 14, 2019 edition of the Asheville Citizen Times.

From Queer Spy to Community Organizer: Fighting for Justice in Many Forms

April 16, 2019

Before joining the staff of Carolina Jews for Justice as one of our new statewide community organizers, Cole Parke spent five years working as the LGBTQ & Gender Justice Researcher at Political Research Associates, a Boston-based think tank dedicated to researching, exposing, and interrupting the Right Wing. Of the many insights gained during their tenure at PRA, one lesson that repeated itself over and over again was this: it's all connected. The Christian Right's attack on LGBTQ people and reproductive justice is fundamentally linked to the antisemitism, anti-Black racism, and Islamophobia fueled by White Nationalists. During a recent presentation at Judea Reform Congregation in Durham, NC, Cole discussed these connections and the imperative for greater unity across the many struggles for justice. What follows is an adaptation of their remarks from April 5, 2019.

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CJJ supports the Holocaust Education Bill

April 2, 2019

Carolina Jews for Justice supports the Holocaust Education Bill (HB 437), and affirms Holocaust education as a necessary part of opposing antisemitism, white supremacy, and intertwined systems of oppressions. We stand at a liminal moment, when soon there will be no living Holocaust survivors to share their experience firsthand. A major atrocity is moving from memory to history, and we see it as a moment to ask publicly: what is our role in remembering and teaching about genocide, fascism, and violent nationalism?

The Torah shares a story of the Israelites at a similar historical junction. As the Israelites prepare to build a society after slavery in Egypt, God issues what seems like a paradoxical commandment regarding the Amalekites, who were oppressive enemies of the Jews and are often representative of systemic antisemitism. God orders us to “Blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!” For centuries Jews have asked how we can possibly erase the memory of our oppressors but not forget it?

Today, Carolina Jews for Justice understands that the cycles of oppression that repeat and damage us and our allies are interrelated, and we must both end and learn from them. We can never forget the Holocaust; indeed, it was a tragedy that irrevocably and permanently changed what it means to organize against antisemitism. We know its memory still hurts us when neo-Nazis march in Charlottesville and swastikas are spray-painted on our places of worship. Every single member of our society should learn the clear lesson of the Holocaust: that antisemitism can erupt with massive deadly consequences. But we also say that blotting out the legacy of the Holocaust alone – fighting against neo-Nazis, but not Islamophobia, teaching about Nazi genocide, but not about white supremacy – is not enough. We are given a two-part commandment: to erase and to remember. CJJ applauds this effort permanently to include Holocaust education in our state’s curriculum, and we also name this as one step on a path we are excited to keep walking with our allies. At the end lies a time when we will have blotted out the name of our shared oppressors, and when we will remember the ways we each brought our specific histories to help fight collective enemies.