Column: As Gun Violence Persists, Federation Umbrella Agency Downplays the Issue

On the same day, a Jewish candidate for mayor was assaulted by a gun-toting intruder in his office in Louisville, Ky., and the Jewish Federations’ umbrella organization altered its priority list by removing advocacy for gun-violence prevention.

Fortunately, Craig Greenberg survived an incident on Monday, Feb. 21, when the assailant fired a gun at the businessman and his campaign consultants but missed all his targets. Just as fortunately, the reversal of policy positions did not survive as the Jewish Federations of North America on Friday, Feb. 25, released a priority list that restored its position on gun-violence prevention.

The week opened as the Jewish Federations of North America pulled its gun-violence position along with other items from its annual priorities list, which the Jewish Telegraphic Agency reported the following Thursday afternoon. Late Friday, JFNA released a revised priority list, called the Working Public Policy Agenda, with gun violence back on the document. Positions on gay rights and voting rights had also been removed and restored.

Such fast-moving developments appear shocking on the surface. The timing between the Louisville shooting and the release of the report was coincidental, but one month earlier a Muslim extremist from England flew to New York City, found his way to Dallas, illegally purchased a gun there and held a rabbi and three congregants hostage for 11 hours at a synagogue in nearby Colleyville; the captives fled and their assailant was killed by the FBI.

Some critics might conclude that JFNA dishonors the memories of Jews who were murdered by firearms in recent years at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, the Chabad of Poway, Calif., shul and the kosher grocery store in Jersey City, N.J. There are, of course, many other Jews who are routinely assaulted and harassed around the country, usually without use of guns.

The 2022 document, sent on Feb. 21 to Jewish Federations, does not mention guns, but its 2021 list included “promoting reasonable gun violence prevention measures as a means of safeguarding the Jewish community from violence and combating antisemitism,” JTA reports.

The latest version as of last Friday encourages Congress to double its funding for researching causes of gun violence and urges more funding to enforce existing gun laws and background checks, according to JTA.

The original JTA story prompted inquiries from multiple beneficiaries of JFNA to the umbrella organization. JTA reports that JFNA said on various social media platforms that the story was “misleading” but did not explain why.

With gun violence so excessive, the wonder is that Jewish organizations are not lobbying as hard for national gun-safety laws as organizations specifically created for that purpose. Besides the afore-mentioned tragedies, a Jewish boy was murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut and a number of Jewish students were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.

I personally fear being harmed in Northeast Philadelphia, where I live, far more now than in recent years. Earlier this month, a 60-year-old man was shot to death in a carjacking a few miles from my apartment. Other at-gunpoint carjackings in my area were reported that week. The Northeast is still home to a sizeable Jewish population, though the numbers have dwindled in recent decades.

Gun-safety advocates persist in urging Congress to enact laws to require universal background checks, limited access to or a total ban on assault weapons and arrangements for gun owners to ensure that their weapons are kept in a secure space.

The need for these provisions is fundamental. If criminals cannot find guns where they live, they can travel to states with lax gun laws – as they do in Chicago by crossing the state border into Indiana. Republicans in the Senate currently will not vote for stronger laws and two Senate Democrats refuse to join in changing Senate rules to allow for an up-or-down vote on proposed gun-safety laws.

The Federations do not necessarily need to be active in lobbying Congress since many Jewish advocacy organizations are available to do that. However, JFNA should not be easing up on its position. In fact, the Jewish weekly newspaper in Philadelphia frequently reports on security enhancements at Jewish facilities, but I read little about gun-violence laws.

JFNA’s change of position sends a message to Congress that the Jewish community does not regard gun-violence laws as important.

An unidentified JFNA official, who asked to remain anonymous, said the omissions would not interfere with advocacy for gun safety as the official noted that “guns would naturally fall under security,” according to JTA. The official was referring to the top-listed priority which is “Jewish communal security and support for Israel.”

I wonder how anyone can believe that advocacy for gun-safety legislation will not be hindered when it is specifically removed as a priority.

JFNA was recently accused of attempting to avoid controversy and identification with causes opposed by political conservatives, such as the Black Lives Matter movement, according to JTA.

Whatever JFNA’s reasons, Republicans no doubt appreciate that gun-safety laws were downplayed, but the change apparently prodded pro-gun safety voices to pressure them into reversing their reversal. I can imagine how it might worsen.

Changing the top priority to “Jewish communal security and support for Israel” affords the potential for a dual-loyalty accusation. Anti-Israel activists can take that phrase and throw it up to any one of us.

What were JFNA officials thinking? Or were they thinking at all?

About Bruce Ticker

Bruce S. Ticker, who writes from Philadelphia, also blogs for The San Diego Jewish World and Smirking Chimp and previously for the suspended Philadelphia Jewish Voice. He was previously a reporter and copy editor for daily newspapers in eastern Pennsylvania.

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