What We Can Learn From Gabby Giffords

Opinion

By Leonard Saxe

Published January 12, 2011, issue of January 21, 2011.
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I am one of many individuals across our country’s social, cultural and political mosaic fortunate to know Gabby Giffords. The enormity of the attempted assassination is palpable, and I feel profound sorrow for Gabby and her family and all of those touched by a senseless act of violence. It is a deeply distressing moment for our society.

Although our vision of the shooting rampage is still raw, and it is perhaps too early to draw lessons, Gabby would likely be among the first to seek meaning from the tragedy. She would not hesitate to speak out, and I believe she would want to find a way to turn calamity into an opportunity for dialogue and engagement with others.

I saw Gabby just a week before her fateful “Congress on Your Corner” meeting in Tucson. We were together with our families at a gathering of academic, business, political and religious leaders. She had survived a nasty and tough re-election campaign for her congressional seat and, while she was troubled by the tone of the campaign and the corrosive role that money had played, Gabby was hopeful about the future and our capacity to confront what divides us socially and politically.

What impressed me about Gabby’s attitude was that her focus was not only on Washington and the conflict between Republicans and Democrats over their competing visions for America. She had an idealistic and almost pristine view of what it meant to be a representative. In contrast to some of her congressional peers — including some of those whose districts are much closer to Washington — her true home was in Arizona. She traveled — eight hours in each direction each week — to be in her district.

Indeed, in the week before our new Congress convened, she talked more about dialoguing with her constituents than she did about her role as a minority member of the House. She was keenly aware of how her own views — on health reform, immigration, energy and a host of other issues — were at variance with those of some of her constituents. On the one hand, she relished the chance to listen to others’ views; on the other hand, she had her own fiercely held sense of justice.

We hope that Gabby has many years in which to hone her political skills and contribute to a better society. Regardless of how quickly she returns to political life, her approach to public service in our democratic process is a model of respectful listening and civility. It is a paradigm for how our elected officials can both represent us and be true to their own values.

Much of the commentary in the Jewish world has been about Gabby Giffords’s Jewish identity. Indeed, she was a proud Jew and, from the Jewish perspective, her values reflect the best of our tradition. At a fundamental level, she saw herself as part of a community. Her way of creating a more just world was to engage with others, even those with whom she had profound differences.

Giffords is the offspring of intermarried parents, a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother. Her story is emblematic of a central Jewish narrative of post-World War II America. Her grandparents passed on a love of Jewishness and Jewish values, but just as her grandfather changed his name to succeed in a culture suffused with anti-Semitism, she was raised in a home that muted her Jewishness.

A turning point for Giffords was a trip to Israel nearly a decade ago. Her newfound Jewish soul led her to engage with a local rabbi and become public about her Jewish identity. Again, this element of her story mirrors the changes in the American Jewish community and, in particular, the reverberations of the Reform movement’s 1983 decision to accept patrilineal descent.

The fact that Giffords cast her lot with the Jewish people and publicly declared her affinity with the Jewish community is evidence of the malleability of social, religious and ethnic identity. Despite her family’s complex relationship to Judaism and her own intermarriage, she found meaning in her relationship with Israel and her identification as a Jewish woman.

As a politician, Giffords was a member of the congressional Democrats’ Blue Dog Coalition and a representative of a politically conservative state. But if her career suggests anything, it is that labels are not boxes that define a person. As courageously as she differed from many of her constituents on health reform, she also disagreed with her party at times.

For the Jewish community, we should avoid simply pigeonholing her as the child of intermarriage. Giffords is like many in our community today who, regardless of their religious identity, proudly declare their Jewishness. She is Jewish by background and commitment. Just as she has succeeded as a political leader by engaging with those who disagree with her, we too must be willing to engage with the Gabby Giffordses of our community.

I pray for refuah sh’leima for Gabby, for all of the Tucson victims, and for our capacity, as a Jewish community and a larger society, to bridge our differences and repair our troubled world.

Leonard Saxe is the Klutznick Professor of Contemporary Jewish Studies at Brandeis University.


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