As we join in praying for the speedy and complete recovery of Rep. Gabrielle
Giffords, we cannot help but note how splendidly the Democratic congresswoman
from Arizona has served – and, we are hopeful, will continue to serve – as a
Jewish role model.
It was her “sense of the Jewish value around how we
treat the stranger” that informed Giffords on the highly divisive issue of
rights for undocumented immigrants in her border state, according to Josh
Protas, former director of the Tusconarea Jewish Community Relations Council. At
the same time, she did not lose sight of her constituents’ security concerns
over the unchecked influx of illegal aliens.
Perhaps this was thanks to
her acquaintance with Israel’s defense challenges. As representative for the 8th
District in southern Arizona, Giffords had to straddle the disparate political
opinions of liberal Tucson and its rural hinterlands. The eminently Jewish
strategy she employed was a willingness to hear diverse opinions. In fact, it
was during one of these exercises in intellectual openness – outside one of her
signature “Congress at Your Corner” events at the entrance to a mall in Tucson –
that Giffords’s strength as an attentive lawmaker was despicably exploited,
becoming, at the pull of a trigger, her tragic vulnerability.
very Jewishness might have even been a motive in the shooting, according to a US
Department of Homeland Security memorandum. Jared Loughner is believed to have
had links to American Renaissance, an anti-government, anti-immigration,
anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic organization. The memo notes that Giffords is the
first Jewish woman elected to high office in Arizona and that Loughner’s alleged
anti-Semitism is being considered as a possible motive.
HALACHICLY, of course, Giffords is not even considered a Jew. Her father is
Jewish, but her mother is a Christian Scientist.
This genealogy did not
prevent her from stating in 2006, “In my family, if you want to get something
done, you take it to the Jewish women relatives. Jewish women, by and large,
know how to get things done.”
According to JTA, her grandfather, Akiba
Hornstein, changed his name to Giffords after moving from New York to Arizona,
“in part because he did not want his Jewishness to be an issue in unfamiliar
territory.” Perhaps, the grandfather’s visceral survival instinct was right on
target. The shooting definitely raises concerns about renewed anti-Semitism (and
about the highly polarized nature of political discourse in today’s
But the attack, which brought to the forefront Giffords’s noble
and very Jewish personal traits, highlights the changing nature of Jewish
identity in America. An increasingly more inclusive answer to the question of
“Who is a Jew?” has developed in recent years. In part, this is a result of the
Reform Movement’s 1983 decision to recognize patrilineal descent. This
decision, which recognizes Giffords as a full-fledged Jew, made it easy for the
congresswoman to integrate into her local Reform shul, Congregation Chaverim,
when she began to actively embrace Judaism after a transformative 2001 trip to
But the broadening definition of Jewishness is not restricted to
the Reform Movement. A similar trend is sweeping Conservative Judaism, as Dr.
Adam Ferziger, senior fellow at Bar- Ilan University’s Rappaport Center for
Assimilation Research, noted in a recent article in Oxford’s Journal of Jewish
. In “Between Catholic Israel and the ‘K’rov Yisrael’: Non-Jews in
Conservative Synagogues (1982-2009),” Ferziger showed that halachicly non-Jewish
offspring of intermarried Jews were no longer excluded from membership and
active ritual life in American Conservative congregations. This change in policy
is due, in part, to the unprecedented intermarriage rates during the last
decades of the 20th century. Another possible reason might be that more and more
people like Giffords have made a conscious choice to identify as Jews, yet have
no intention of undergoing a conversion.
As it should, Israel’s Law of
Return accommodates this complex Jewish reality by granting automatic
citizenship to people like Giffords, her husband and her offspring. Critics of
the Law of Return might complain that it has extended citizenship to more than
300,000 former Soviet Union immigrants who are not halachicly Jewish. But is it
conceivable to exclude these “non-Jews” despite the fact that the vast majority
integrate fully into Israeli society, serve in the IDF and become productive
citizens? Is it conceivable to exclude Giffords, another “non-Jew,” who is so
With all our desire for a universally accepted definition
of “Who is a Jew?” that would unify the Jewish people, we cannot ignore the
complicated reality that many “non-Jews” are much more Jewish than their
“Jewish” fellows. Congresswoman Giffords is one of them.
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