Matthew Rozsa meditates on what we lost when Gabby Giffords was shot … and what we can still hope for.
It would be an understatement to say that I’m not an observant Jew. I don’t keep kosher, only periodically observe the High Holy Days, and didn’t even remember that it was Channukah until I saw this Facebook picture of former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords lighting a menorah with her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly,
It’s strange how little things can remind you to pay respect to your roots, and when it happens, it’s usually worthwhile to reflect on why they manage to resonate so strongly. For me, the image of Giffords performing a Jewish ritual did the trick for a very simple reason:
For a brief time, it seemed possible that Gabrielle Giffords might become America’s first Jewish president.
As a Jewish Democrat—even one some would argue identifies more with the second half of that designation than the first—that possibility meant something to me. More importantly, in a country that George Washington once vowed would be a place where “the children of the stock of Abraham” would be able “to sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid,” it should mean something to every American. As we celebrate this festival of lights, it is thus appropriate to briefly explore the potential future we lost and—however heartbreaking it may be to contemplate—precisely why we lost it.
We can start by observing that Giffords herself was the product of people from different backgrounds coming together. Raised in an interfaith family, Giffords recalled how it wasn’t until she took a trip to Israel in 2001 that she developed a strong connection specifically with her Jewish heritage, one that eventually inspired her to become an active member of Tucson’s Jewish community. “I was raised not to really talk about my religious beliefs,” she later explained in an interview with Jewish Woman Magazine in 2007, “Going to Israel was an experience that made me realize there were lots of people out there who shared my beliefs and values and spoke about them openly.” When critics questioned her Judaic bona fides by pointing out that she was only Jewish on her father’s side, she was quick to observe that she went to a Reform congregation (which recognizes as Jewish individuals with parents from either side) and was married in a traditional Jewish ceremony.
Giffords first made Jewish history in 2006 by being the first woman of her faith ever elected to Congress from Arizona. It was at that time that she also began to attract the attention of political history nerds (like me) who noticed an intriguing parallel in this intersection between Arizona and Jewish history: Namely, how Arizona was the same state that produced America’s first presidential candidate of confirmed Jewish heritage (albeit not of Jewish faith), Senator Barry Goldwater. That said, whereas most Also Rans settle into historical obscurity after a couple decades, Goldwater is remembered today as an ideological trailblazer, one whose success in capturing the Republican nomination in 1964 is viewed by scholars as a turning point in the history of modern American conservatism.
In short, the man who acquired notoriety for declaring in his acceptance speech that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice” and “moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue” was not a paragon for bringing different sides together. Giffords, by contrast, showed the political world that she could do precisely that when she was reelected in a hotly contested race during a midterm election cycle that was overall disastrous for Democrats. By that time, she had also compiled an impressive record in the House of Representatives, developing a reputation as an effective legislator whose centrist philosophy (she had once been a Republican) allowed her to be ideologically flexible on hot button economic issues while taking brave stances on issues like SB 1070, Arizona’s controversial anti-immigration law that encouraged racial profiling. Having now also proved that she could withstand a serious political challenge in a notoriously competitive swing district by garnering Republican as well as Democratic support, it appeared she may have had the raw material necessary to someday mount a successful bid for the White House. It was at that time that I began to seriously wonder if she was destined to be America’s first Jewish president (to say nothing of its first female president).
A little more than two months later, she was struggling for her life after having been shot in the head.
Despite initial suspicions to the contrary, there is no evidence that Jared Lee Loughner was motivated by anti-Semitism when he shot her. Nevertheless, I recall being deeply shaken by the political implications of that tragedy. Not only did it make me think about my own near-death experience—which actually had been motivated by anti-Semitism—but it forced me to question the unique civic obligations that befall American Jews in particular. In particular, it recalled a quote from the Austrian Jewish immigrant and acclaimed actor Theodore Bikel:
I firmly believe that Jewish life, indeed any communal life, can only be organized according to democratic principles.
It also brings to mind President Obama’s own words in his speech about the Tucson shooting:
At a time when our discourse has become so sharply polarized—at a time when we are far too eager to lay the blame for all that ails the world at the feet of those who think differently than we do—it’s important for us to pause for a moment and make sure that we are talking with each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.
As American Jews celebrate Channukah, I think it would be wise to keep this lesson in our minds and hearts. Yes, the assassination attempt on Giffords was about more than simple partisan divisiveness—everything from the mental derangement of the would-be assassin to America’s shoddy gun regulations (which I’ve discussed in the past with pundit Liskula Cohen) can be legitimately broached here. At the same time, when I think of what it means to be an American Jew, I am reminded primarily of how my identity wouldn’t exist at all if I didn’t live in a country that bound people together from all types of backgrounds. We live at a time when many of those binds are being loosened—by racism among law enforcement officials, by obstructionism among political extremists in Congress, by the ongoing culture wars over everything from whether America should be defined as a “Christian nation” to how much control the state should have over our personal moral lives—and American Jews have an especially acute interest in remembering that our future depends on Americans being driven by a desire to unite, not divide.
We may have been robbed of seeing that lesson made manifest in a Gabby Giffords presidency, but hopefully the sight of her lighting a menorah can remind us of the message.