Guns and Glaciers: Why the NRA is Wrong About Newtown

Remember what Kurt Vonnegut wrote about Sandy Hook Elementary School? It was tucked within the first few pages of Slaughterhouse-Five:

Over the years, people I’ve met have often asked me what I’m working on, and I’ve usually replied that the main thing was a book about Dresden. I said that to Harrison Starr, the movie-maker, one time, and he raised his eyebrows as inquired, “Is it an anti-war book?”

“You know what I say about people when I hear they’re writing anti-war books?”

“No. What do you say, Harrison Starr?”

“I say, ‘Why don’t you write an anti-glacier book instead?'”

What he meant, of course, was that there would always be wars, that they were as easy to stop as glaciers.

Harrison Starr seems to be speaking frankly and directly to a fractured American public, spawned by a fractured Newtown. He is insisting that a race whose end is out of sight isn’t worth running; that an epidemic that can’t be cured overnight is nothing short of a lost cause; that gun violence is better left to hollow prayer and band-aid solutions than to sensible long-term remedies. But Harrison Starr is wrong.

Last Friday, Wayne LaPierre, CEO and Executive Vice President of the National Rifle Association stood behind a mahogany podium and delivered the his organization’s official response to the Newtown massacre. In a sing-song timbre, LaPierre began. “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.” Before he could deliver his next sentence, that statement sank into sea of punditry and antagonism.

On Sunday, LaPierre appeared on MSNBC’s Meet the Press. During the program, host David Gregory offered him – albeit forcefully – an opportunity to clarify his Friday remarks. No clarification was necessary. LaPierre proved unrelenting in his conviction that the principal problem is the person, not the weapon. The mentally ill, he said – or “lunatics,” as he tastefully called them – are the dominant players in the debate over guns in the United States.

Mental illness is surely a factor in the debate. Liza Long’s now-famous Blue Review piece “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother” gave voice to a desire to shift the debate from gun control to aid for families of kids who are mentally ill. Long’s son, Michael, is violent, erratic, and – disturbingly, more problematic – undiagnosed. He needs help. And so does his mother. She describes a bleak conversation with her son’s social worker, who advised that the family’s best bet in finding treatment and therapy for her young son was “to get Michael charged with a crime.”

Few deny that the American penal establishment – entangled with the nation’s mental health establishment – is afflicted by deep-seated systemic failures. No one – neither President Obama, nor the vocal families of Newtown’s victims, nor the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence (which has more than a million mental health records on file) – professes that the mental health issue should not play a significant role in our national conversation.

Yes, Jared Lee Loughner, who carried out the January 2011 rampage in Tucson, suffered from mental illness. As did James Holmes, who killed 12 people in July at a movie theater in Aurora. As did Ian Stawicki, who made headlines last May when he murdered five in a Seattle coffee house. And it is presumed – though not confirmed – that Adam Lanza did, too. But as Sen. Chuck Schumer said on Sunday, “trying to prevent shootings in schools without talking about guns is like trying to prevent lung cancer without talking about cigarettes.” Yes, many mass shooters are mentally ill. But in want of proper treatment, they kill people – and they do it with guns. So let’s talk about guns.

During the course of their exchange, David Gregory uncovered (and his guest confirmed) that the NRA’s criteria for supporting congressional legislation was straightforward: if an idea may reduce loss of life, it’s worth trying. Gregory followed up by asking LaPierre if the NRA would support any form of reduction of high capacity magazines. LaPierre sang a tune of evasion for a few minutes before conceding that it wouldn’t. Then Gregory asked if there was any gun regulation that LaPierre would support. There wasn’t. Not even one.

It seems to me alarming that the nation’s chief gun advocates can’t – nay, won’t – acknowledge inherent dangers in weaponry, even as a mechanism of mitigating those dangers. Hazard, they say, lurks only in its operators. A December 16 piece in The Atlantic noted that the Second Amendment, while safeguarding Americans’ rights to guns, “doesn’t say a single thing about the right to own bullets.” The same notion was central to an old Chris Rock comedy routine. “I think all bullets should cost five thousand dollars,” Rock would say. “Five thousand dollars per bullet…and people would think before they killed somebody.” You remember the old adage about truth in humor.

Taxing or regulating bullets could prove effective in reducing loss of life, thus the proposal fits snugly in LaPierre’s criteria. James Holmes bought 6,000 rounds of ammunition on the Internet. Had anyone been watching, one might assume that such a purchase would have been a red flag of sorts. High capacity magazines in assault weapons allow a gunman to shoot off thirty or more rounds without having to reload his weapon. But LaPierre and the NRA are adamant: “A gun is a tool; the problem is the criminal.”

They are fatally mistaken. If last year we had borne witness to 8,583 murders caused by rocks, I would likely be an advocate of rock control. And had those deaths been caused by umbrellas, I would be in favor of umbrella control. But nearly 70 percent of murders last year were caused by guns. Firearms act as subservient accomplices in homicide. Yes, people kill people. But they kill people with guns.

Gun violence in this country will not end in full until there emerges a new lethal instrument that usurps the gun in efficacy and vogue. With anticipation, we dread that day. Harrison Starr couldn’t have predicted the melting of the glaciers.

The solution doesn’t eliminate the problem, but renders its victims fewer. Wayne LaPierre’s soapbox is wearing thin, and while it would be naïve to think or to claim that we can wholly eliminate gun violence, it would be a deadly crime not to try.

The End of Truth Be Told?

It was during a split second of unfeigned awareness – over a medium-sized cup of lychee berry frozen yogurt that I was sharing with my mom – that I decided to start writing. We’d been talking politics when a knowing smile lit her face. “If you really feel that strongly about these things, why don’t you blog about them?”

I launched a website temporarily called “Legislative Wordplay” a few days after BP’s Deepwater Horizon rig began threading its way through the Gulf of Mexico, just before it left a blanket of crude oil on the doorstep of the Gulf Coast; seven months before a deep, rich red seeped into the bluest congress in recent memory; an era bereft of Arab Spring mentalities or Todd Akin abortion gaffes.

And now, here I sit, zipping up my final bags, nearly able to smell the greasy air of the university dining hall. I scroll up and down these web pages. I sift through a chronology of my last two and a half years. This is what I spent my time doing in high school. This is who I was – who I am.

On the whole, I count myself lucky. I am among those who get to do what they love to do. Indeed, the algorithms of geometry and precalculus may have been lost on me, but in their place I threaded the delicate strands of hobby until they evolved into a robust and finely-tuned passion.

This, I think, is where I grew.

I grew between the clicks of a spacebar eroded by time, within the rhythmic cacophony of just-too-ripe metaphors that spilled out onto Word documents. I learned in my craving to discover why some pieces were met with universal approval, while others encountered a discomfited audience brimming with chagrin. And, accordingly, I stretched my intellectual limbs in a struggle to walk the compelling line between sensitivity and contentiousness.

I remember the first truly negative response I received to a piece I had written. My piece had lamented what I had deemed the “suppressed” voice of youth. It was, in retrospect, a hasty and inflammatory few paragraphs that achieved little beyond airing my own frustrations – perhaps with a teacher, perhaps with a parent; I don’t remember. I do remember the commenter’s response: inherently negative and viciously critical. I felt shaken and became defensive by impulse.

I feel blessed and grateful for the limitless words of praise and encouragement that came both before and after such comments. But the fundamental lesson I’ve learned from maintaining this website spills out from precisely those dissenting responses. It boils down to that painful and entirely energizing question of what it means to react, and think, and live critically. Criticism is – like the feeling that overwhelms you after stretching your hamstring just before a long run – the best kind of burning sensation.

I have derived a constructive and straightforward lesson from the time I spent composing pieces for this blog. It is a similar lesson to that which I have taken from the circuitous nature of the Israelis and the Palestinians; from the heretical wit of Christopher Hitchens; from a Congress who swiftly and imprudently approved a war that has since been burned (violently) into the collective American psyche. That lesson is two-fold.

First: Criticism isn’t defined wholly by disapproval or condemnation. It is also part of the powerful and invaluable process of attaining clarity.

And second: When we are forced – either by our own innate compulsions or external influences – to clarify our intent, or spell out the means by which we attain our ends, or defend our bland or disputable viewpoints, we are accordingly forced to become aware. We become our own advocates when we are keenly challenged and engaged. And if it’s as easy as that, then why not challenge ourselves?

This article isn’t characteristic of this blog. Just as this website was never (I should hope) a diary to spew vitriol, it was also rarely a medium to unload my own arbitrary anecdotes. But as a perceptive friend of mine reminded me last week, “at the end, we always think about the beginning.”

Tonight I had the chance to video-chat with my grandparents who live a thousand miles away from me. We were talking about my experiences at camp this summer, and about what the next few weeks (the start of college) may hold in store. And the question arose: what comes next for Truth Be Told Politics?

The answer is a peculiar one: I don’t know. There exists, in this thrilling and hurried passage, a wealth of unknown. Will I be writing about politics? Or will another fascination catch my attention? Will I even be writing on this blog? Writing is my criticism; and criticism yields clarity. And God knows that we need clarity.

Whether I’ll keep writing here is uncertain. You have left me with much to think about. So I, in turn, will leave you with this: For clicking on your TBT bookmark even when there was little of interest in the news; for reading through those pieces of mine that seemed rant-esque; for allocating precious moments during your busiest days to compose a comment or e-mail me a response; for sharing my writing with your own friends and relatives; one hundred and thirty-five posts later, I cannot thank you enough.

The Right Questions After the March of the Living

Written for the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles:

I’m standing with my back against a brick wall at Auschwitz. Monise Neumann points to an area just beyond her and tells a story.

When Freddy Diament arrived at the forced labor camp, she says, he was stripped of his material possessions. That was, of course, what happened when Jews arrived at the Auschwitz camps. But Freddy managed to keep hold of one invaluable possession: his little brother.

Hitler’s henchmen made a practice of public executions. When Freddy’s brother tried to escape, he met a cruel fate. “Freddy was forced to look, helplessly, as his young brother was hanged,” Neumann says, looking to her left and pointing. “Right over there.”

Each year, the March of the Living brings thousands of Jewish high school students to visit Auschwitz and other sites in Poland, and on to Israel for Yom HaAtzmaut. Freddy — a long-time Angeleno — accompanied the trip for many years. Since his death in 2004, Neumann, head of the L.A. delegation, has perpetuated his memory by telling his stories to each year’s group.

Today, the countryside to which that child tried to escape is lush and verdant. The stark contrast it presents between what now is and what once was cripples our capacity to grasp the Nazi atrocity. We visit Shoah sites to witness and understand, but connection and comprehension are difficult to achieve.

When we visit Chelmno — where Nazis herded Jews into gas vans — white butterflies dance with eerie ubiquity. Along the road to Treblinka — where they exterminated 900,000 — the riverbanks overflow with life. Near Lublin — where city-dwellers had a clear view of Majdanek — the only shadows are from the branches, and the only echoes come from the birds.

At each site, we strive to be witnesses. But when we can’t hear the screams of mothers or see the smoke rising above crematoria, what is there, really, to witness? As the sun spills out from each layer of twiggy woodland, aesthetic beauty sedates our heavy hearts.

Still, raw emotional reaction is not entirely out of reach. It is when the grieving ceases to be for the “Six Million” and shifts toward the individual — when the gargantuan becomes the particular, and the past resurfaces in the palms of our own hands — that the bloodstains on that picturesque countryside come into focus.

For me, that shift happens at Majdanek. The savage concentration camp’s several dozen barracks are still intact and house historical exhibits. Standing in those barracks, I can smell the Jews.

The aroma is of something expired, moldy, vomitous. The sweat and bile of the Jews seeped into the wood, and crawled between the cracks and onto the beams, and perched themselves in the air inside the barracks. They have since stayed there, and I can smell them.

I can smell the final “Shema Yisraels,” the final gemilut chasadim, the last conversations and desperate tefilot in that air. It seems that those in the barracks recognized that, tomorrow, they would trudge down the pebble road and into the chamber. So their stenches and memories and auras decided never to leave. It all still levitates above the floorboards, and reminds me that the wood underneath my feet is blotted with the terror and tradition of individuals.

An awareness that the Shoah was the murder of a series of people, not just an unfathomably large group, powers my empathy: I find a tiny blue button in the soil of what was once a storage barrack; it occurs to me that my autistic younger brother would have fallen victim to Hitler’s euthanasia program; a survivor accompanying us on the trip breaks our silent visit to a mass grave, bursting out, “Why? Why?!”

I leave Poland with an overwhelming sense of bafflement. I, like that survivor, want to ask “why?” But the lessons of the Shoah lie not within the crimes of the monsters who commissioned the Sonderkommando; they lie within the thoughts and choices of those who now visit and remember.

Days later in Israel, gazing out the bus window in Jerusalem, I notice a stone wall emblazoned with graffiti, Hebrew letters that read: “Az?” — in English, “So?” The graffiti poses a more important question than “why?”: Now what? Judaism has invariably survived calamity. What comes next?

During our visit to Birkenau a week earlier, the universe had answered that eternal question. The L.A. delegation had been seated on the grass as the sun began to set and the infamous brick entrance cast a shadow on the train tracks.

Among the countless groups present was a delegation of nearly 200 officers of Mishteret Yisrael — the Israeli national police force.

As we knelt on the grass, just when the air became frosty, I heard: “Smol, yamin, smol.” In English: “Left, right, left.” I craned my neck to spot the entire Mishteret Yisrael delegation, in full uniform, marching along the tracks leading out of Birkenau.

Through my psyche flashed the painful notion that, had their organization (or the nation it protects) existed just 70 years earlier, history might have unfolded very differently.

That was Mishteret Yisrael’s answer to “Az?”: to create a potent symbol of Jewish life within the most harrowing valley of Jewish death.

If we are to plant our seed in what once was, the next step, in its glaring simplicity, is to practice vigorous Judaism. It is to not allow the Jews murdered in Majdanek to become merely odor; to say the Shema, to wear a tallit, to pray, and argue, and engage about Israel because there is a Jewish state. The next step is not only to march from the camps in memory of Freddy Diament’s brother, but also to emulate his holy defiance, and bring it to life.

A da Vinci, Then a Pollock – Reflections and a College Essay

This academic year, my classmates and I applied to and heard back from colleges. Over the past decade or so, the application process has become, in many respects, messy and circuitous. It asks more of us than some are willing to give; it can foster undesired animosity between the closest of friends; it breeds a brand of subjective, decisive judgment that can cripple even the most robust of egos.

The year is a masterpiece emotional paradox: we pour into it the acute precision of a da Vinci, and we leave it, clutching fragments of a canvas whose deliberate randomness closely resembles a Jackson Pollock piece. But in all its chaos, the process makes way for profound reflection and true personal growth. The year is an important one.

Below is the five hundred and fifty-three word piece that I wrote as my ‘personal statement’ for the Common Application. I hope you’ll find it meaningful. I wrote the bulk of it when I sat down for three focused hours in a West Los Angeles café.

It’s 106 degrees and I’m wearing a suit, strolling down an asphalt street in Phoenix. I’ve done this before: Every autumn my mother, a rabbi, leads a different congregation for the High Holy Days. We go where she goes, and – just as we do every Saturday – we walk to synagogue. In Redlands, California, we strode past the few remaining orange groves. In Portland, Oregon, we trekked into verdant hills. At home, we walked amid the dim glow of the city’s billboards and in the shadows of its highest skyscrapers.

When I was young, I would protest: Why did we always have to walk? The response was always the same: We’re observant Jews. In time, my complaining ebbed. Walking became my routine, and as we walked, we shared stories, songs, and thoughts.

My memories of some walks faded in with the years; but more than a few remain snapshots in time: the Saturday morning I stopped on the sidewalk to listen to Hillary Clinton’s concession speech blaring from a TV inside somebody’s apartment; the day we bumped into a friend who told us her fiancé had been struck by a car hours earlier. Somehow, everything was different on foot. When I watched on TV, or picked up the phone, I was a passerby. But when I walked, the moment gripped me. I saw what I couldn’t from a car: dandelions growing out of cracks in the cement, or the faces of the homeless hidden away under storefront canopies.

With each walk came a new question: why had it taken Hillary so long to give up? What must it have been like to be one of the Chilean miners trapped underground? The answers were less important; the process – the journey, the walk itself – made the questions fascinating, and transformed them into intellectual pursuits.

Then my questions changed. I asked myself whether I was really an observant Jew and the foundations of my faith began to tremble. Into adolescence, my religiosity waned. I stood among the remains of a crematorium at Auschwitz. I grappled with the writings of theologians like Martin Buber. And I moved from a sound and consistent religious connection to transient depths of non-belief, and back again. My once petty complaints became theological challenges. But my family walked, so I kept walking.

One Monday a classmate stopped me to ask why I had been so late to an event the previous Saturday. I explained that I’d had to cover the four miles from home on foot.

“Wouldn’t it be easier,” she asked, “to just get into a car?”

I began to ask myself: Wouldn’t it? Of course. But should convenience – or my doubts – eclipse all that I’ve derived from my walks? The walks fueled my curiosity. The paths they took me down didn’t lead only to temple; they also led to introspection and growth.

Because I walked, I click on my New York Times bookmark before I click on Facebook. Because I walked, I know what the House Minority Whip does. I’ve pondered the dire straits of the Chilean miners, I know the lyrics to American Pie, and I’ve wondered how cacti survive in 106 degrees. Because I walked, I know what my great grandparents were like. Because I walked, I’m able to wonder and grapple with why I walk at all.

A Weapon of Distraction and Numbness – Fighting Computers in Classrooms

As featured in the Huffington Post, adapted from the original version on The Roar.

I had never seen anything like it. I’d only left class for a few minutes, but as I was about to turn the corner, something caught my eye. I stared, stalled in my tracks, into the classroom window in front of me. Through the half-drawn shades, I could just make out the History teacher and a few of my friends in the class. It wasn’t the people in the room that had given me pause, though; it was the luminous patches of glowing light that lined the desks, almost uniformly.

Computers are killing classrooms.

Without question, online data sharing programs are efficient and both environmentally and financially sustainable. Communication servers like FirstClass keep school communities connected. The notion of “one laptop per student” ushers high schoolers into the same era of globalization that has caused such drastic shifts in self-sovereignty throughout much of the rest of the world.

But there’s a caveat to those advances: Technology is neutral, but its uses and users are not. My independent high school — by its very nature — is frenzied, adrenalized, and consistently active. We may be advancing technologically, but our engagement and education are in retreat. It’s time for teachers and students to begin thinking beyond the laptop’s use as a tool, and realize its quickly solidifying potential as a weapon of distraction and numbness.

Cut back to the classroom: The students may, indeed, be looking at a pertinent document on a school webpage, but the problem lies therein — they are looking, not reading; skimming, not absorbing; hearing, not listening, and certainly not engaging.

A teacher approached me after class a few weeks ago. “Did everyone seem a little bit distant today?” he asked. Yes, we had been distant. Earlier in the year, my classmates and I had been quick to respond to a point that seemed off-color, or to wrestle with the material presented. Now, we’re transfixed. Those glowing arcs of MacBooks in my school’s classrooms are causing a steep and rushed decline in engagement, counterargument, expression, and even interest.

In another one of my discussion-based classes, the teacher often begins with a provocative question as a jumping-off point for active debate. But when I look around the room, almost every student who isn’t responding verbally is faced-down, eyes — and attentions — mesmerized by Tetris,, and the beckon-call of the Facebook news feed. I, too, find the screen an enticing prospect, and (often unknowingly) dive deep within a sea of articles and Internet phenomena that my AP Government teacher would be quick to label “non-germane.”

My evidence is purely anecdotal; I have limited knowledge of statistics or empirical data to support my assertion. But my experiences as a student in classes that range from the standard to AP levels testify to the notion that the digital approach — categorical in its nature, far-reaching in its effects — is hindering my education and undermining the dynamic and participatory environment that student and faculty leaders work so hard to build.

It’s not that we students have a malicious intent. We spend Saturday nights thinking up ways to further distract our ever-distracted psyches. Few of us have a strong-willed desire not to learn. The problem? The modern classroom — an environment that requires us to be present — is simply no longer conducive to being present.

The iPhone has taken my school by storm. The BlackBerry still permeates campus. We use them during class — a shock to neither students nor faculty. In fact, most schools like mine have their fair share of teachers whose phones make all sorts of noises mid-lesson. But the glow of the laptop and the buzz of our phones are denigrating the very basis upon which we learn; they are pulling us closer to the virtual world of profile pictures and pushing us further from the pragmatic and illuminating realms of derivatives, Federalism, Punnett squares, and Nathaniel Hawthorne.

The following is my proposal to begin alleviating the consequences of the transfixing glow. Some will call it radical, I call it practical: Students should stop using their laptops to take notes and revert to the pen and paper. Each student should put his or her shut-off phone on his or her desk before class. Teachers should do the same. Google Docs, Schoology, Evernote, FirstClass, and other digital means of data sharing should be used for reading and submitting; when the primary function of the technology has been accomplished, we should shut our laptop covers and discuss.

I haven’t yet been able to follow the above rules — but I try to. If I did, I would be both a better student and a more engaged member of my school community. Students don’t need to be convinced that we’re distracted, we just need help becoming less so. These rules shouldn’t be imposed from above, but, rather, should be a community-wide exercise in self-control.

I believe firmly that a transcendentalist strategy or an attitude that lures us to return to antiquity would be better left to Thoreau and his kin. But laptops are moving us further from enlightenment. One biblical prophet’s vision foretold that, in the messianic age, the lion would lay down with the lamb. I’m no prophet, but in my vision, during class, the smartphone would stay out of the hand.

The Force of Apathy – A Piece for the National Journal Sh’ma

As featured in Sh’ma, a national journal of Jewish ideology, alongside articles by former Senator Russ Feingold and Brandeis Professor Jonathan Sarna:

Last spring, a local congressman came to speak at my high school. It was a routine visit: He was to deliver a few brief remarks, answer a handful of questions, and in the process court a soon-to-vote portion of his constituency. That morning, as students were still shuffling into the gym, I spotted the congressman and approached him.

“Hi, Congressman,” I said, as I extended my hand to shake his and tell him about a project I’d helped create on our campus. Our “Global Response” team had made buttons to raise funds for Japan’s earthquake victims. The congressman’s eyes glazed over. When I handed him one of the buttons, he rolled his eyes and shook his head, muttering, “Uch, I get so many of these kinds of things.”

The congressman’s response shouldn’t be read as a sob story. Rather, it’s a wake-up call to the national Jewish community: My generation is plagued by a glaring apathy toward the political process and a crippling passivity with regard to civic engagement. Various outside factors — represented here by the congressman — are hindering our ability to grow beyond that apathy.

Empirical data paint a daunting picture. In the Nixon-McGovern election of 1972, 72 percent of eligible adult voters (ages 30 and above) cast ballots. More than half of eligible young voters (ages 18-24) participated in that same election.1 In the election of 2000, the number of adult voters remained unchanged. The statistic for young voters, however, suffered a rapid and now consistent decline. A marked indifference has crept swiftly over the youngest segment of the electorate.

That decline continues to persist. Recent reports2 estimate that only a quarter of all eligible people between the ages of 18 and 29 voted in the 2006 and 2010 midterm elections. (The 2008 election is, no doubt, a political, societal, and statistical anomaly). Another survey3 found that only one in 20 teens and one in twelve young adults read a newspaper on a near-daily basis. Aside from the obvious changes in reading patterns, apathy about world events and voting — the clout of each vote — is growing exponentially.

I can’t speak to the byproducts of apathy in other communities; to theorize about how the rest of “my generation” contributes to these trends would be hollow speculation. But, as the fruit of a modern American Jewish upbringing, I can shed light on the broader ramifications within my own social microcosm: I study at the largest Jewish community high school in the country, taking classes in Jewish thought, Hebrew, and American government. I’ve spent summers at Camp Ramah, walked through the dimly lit pathways beneath the Western Wall, and chanted kaddish amid the remains of a crematorium at Auschwitz — all alongside my American Jewish contemporaries. I am someone who engages, quarrels with, and appreciates young adult American Jews on a consistent basis.

Some of my peers don’t know the name of our vice president; others are amused to discover that my Internet homepage is; many make lofty, irresponsible, or erroneous claims about the State of Israel — often built on a blind acceptance of their parents’ or teachers’ opinions. In school and synagogue, among my peers, I watch teenagers lay claim to beliefs that are not their own. It isn’t that they’re indoctrinated; it is that they’re indifferent.

That indifference is precarious: Neither passion nor advocacy can grow from the reflexive adoption of someone else’s ideas. My generation is growing up without a sound skill-set or mechanism for expressing or defending statements. Belief without basis is futile; we are writers without a story to tell.

Although several Jewish high schools around the country offer classes like Model United Nations and Model Congress, and even advanced placement courses in government and economics, ignorance wears a stubborn armor. Young people remain uninterested in and unknowledgeable about current events.

It is my contention that in these months of fervent national conversation — and into the foreseeable future — Jewish professionals who teach, motivate, influence, and interact with Jewish youth must consider a paradigm shift. In the impressionable eyes and hearts of my generation, modern Judaism — at least for the time being — is in need of recontextualization. A focus on the spiritual is valuable, but a focus on the experiential, practical, empirical, and political — exposure to civic responsibility and our role as global citizens — is invaluable and imperative. Such an investment may help to usher out an era of apathy; it can drive the perseverance of a people and their values. We are the youngest members of the American Jewish electorate. Educate us: Teach us to use our collective, vital, and ever-potent voice.

Restraint – Gilad Shalit’s Return to Israel

As featured on the Huffington Post:

After five years in the custody of his Hamas captors, it seems that Gilad Shalit’s painful and much publicized saga is finally winding down. The Israeli government has struck a deal with Hamas: Israel will release upwards of a thousand terrorists (most of whom were serving life sentences for murderous crimes) in exchange for one honest young man who was in the wrong place at the wrong time.

On a trip to Israel in August 2010, I had the opportunity to spend a few fascinating moments with Gilad’s father, Noam Shalit. We exchanged pleasantries. He asked what my tour group was doing in Israel. I explained. He nodded. Then I asked him what people like me could do to help his son’s situation.

He shook his head, and almost in a whisper: “Nothing.”

Slightly over a year later, I, indeed, haven’t done anything to help his son’s situation. With the exception of keeping informed and posting sporadic “Gilad” Facebook status updates, I’ve done nothing particularly profound to help bring about Gilad Shalit’s homecoming. Few have. In the end, as Noam Shalit foresaw and foretold, it has had everything to do with political negotiation tactics and diplomatic deals that surpass the powers of ordinary Israelis – let alone high schoolers in California.

Nevertheless, in the days following the announcement of the deal, the emotional investment of Jews internationally is visibly coming through. Some advocates of the exchange – certainly many in the global Jewish community – see Shalit’s return as a form of justice. Many see it as an inevitability that completes an era and finishes a story.

But to approach the deal as a justice implies some sort of return to equilibrium; an evenness, a moral balance between loss and gain. In truth, no such balance exists, nor will one.

Yesterday I heard Sharon Brous, a prominent Los Angeles rabbi, frame the Shalit exchange by describing the extraordinary nature of a country who is “letting love dictate policy.”

Indeed, Israel is that country. The trade is a present-day embodiment of the pervasive Talmudic adage, “to save one life is to save the whole world.” It restores confidence in the hearts of soldiers that regardless of circumstance, they will come home. Indeed, this trade, in all its controversy, seeming paradox, and ardent instability, is a consequence of a deep and overwhelming love of life.

But among those being released is a woman who – over the internet – lured a heartbroken Israeli teenager to a Palestinian city, where he was promptly murdered; a man who planted explosives in a Tel Aviv nightclub and killed twenty-one young partygoers; a woman who escorted a suicide bomber into a jam-packed pizza parlor where he blew up sixteen people; a man who orchestrated a hotel bombing that killed thirty people who were celebrating the Passover holiday; a man who bombed a bus in Haifa that killed seventeen travelers; the men who founded Hamas’ armed wing; a man who, along with several others, pulled an Israeli man out of his car in Ramallah and – because he was Israeli – lynched him.

The Shalit exchange is hardly justice. The songwriter David Ford puts it more eloquently: When victory comes at too heavy a price, there’s honor in choosing defeat. Undoubtedly, the world needs Gilad Shalit to fall into his mother’s arms; but it doesn’t take a skeptic to wonder if the price of that reunion is exorbitant.

I urge the global Jewish community to exercise delicate restraint in its recognition of Gilad Shalit’s return to Israel. Jews and Israelis and champions of peace worldwide have attained a goal, though not a victory. It is a time for joy, though not a time for celebration. We have seen a deal, but we have certainly not seen justice. “Nothing” is not a response we want to have to hear again.