Between the lines: Cotton, NRA darling, comes to NJ

Between the lines: Cotton, NRA darling, comes to NJ

The Orthodox community, Israel, and the gun debate

Is support for the Jewish state so important to some American Jews that a pro-Israel politician gets a free pass on virtually every other issue?

Consider the case of Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), a major pro-gun advocate who spoke in Englewood on Feb. 25 at a fundraiser for NORPAC, a pro-Israel political action committee, in the wake of the Parkland, Fla., high school killings.

Cotton is one of Israel’s staunchest supporters in Congress. He was a leader in trying to stop the Iran nuclear deal and has called the Israel Defense Forces the “most moral, humanitarian fighting force in the world.” In addition, he supports providing Israel with U.S. B-52s and “bunker buster” bombs that could be used against Iran, and he sponsored a bill to label products made in Jewish communities in the West Bank, and even Gaza, as coming from Israel.

Bill Kristol’s Emergency Committee for Israel donated nearly $1 million to his 2014 Senate campaign.

Cotton is also a leading voice in the Senate in supporting the agenda of the National Rifle Association, which gave him an “A” rating in endorsing him in his 2014 Senate race and contributed several million dollars to his campaign. The NRA cited him as a “solidly pro-gun legislator” who “strongly opposed the Obama-Bloomberg gun control agenda, including their so-called ‘universal’ background check,” opposed “anti-gun” Supreme Court nominees Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan, and opposes the United Nations or any other global organization that would “impose restrictions on American gun owners.”

Michael Eidman, an attorney and local concert promoter, wrote a letter to the hosts of the NORPAC event expressing dismay after failing to convince them to cancel the senator’s appearance. “In the wake of this latest wave of American carnage,” he wrote, “I am horrified that our community is welcoming with open arms and ready checkbooks a proponent of ‘guns for all Americans’ (including assault rifles).”

NORPAC, which describes itself as non-partisan, garners most of its support from the Orthodox community, with which Eidman is affiliated. Its focus is Israel, and its mandate is to back those committed to the Jewish state’s security. But there’s more to Eidman’s political outlook than the Jewish state.

The scene this week outside of Marjory Stoneham Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. The shooting there, which killed 17 students and teachers, reignited the debate about assault-style weapons.  Photo by Richard Waloff

“Israel is a very significant issue to me,” Eidman said in an interview Feb. 26. He has organized and led several successful fundraisers for various Israeli charities and communal organizations. But he seemed to feel that some in his community lose a sense of moral perspective by focusing exclusively on the Jewish state. (In political terms, an increasing focus on Israel tends to distance mainline Protestants, blacks, and other minorities from making common cause with the Jewish community.)

Citing the Talmudic teaching that “all Jews are responsible one for another,” Eidman noted that Jewish children and a Jewish teacher were victims in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas high school shooting of a “mindless cycle of violence” that has to be stopped.

“To raise funds for a purveyor of AR-15 violence,” he wrote in his letter, “within a community that purports to espouse Torah values and which claims to value life above nearly all else, calls into question the sincerity of those claims.”

On the day of the fundraiser, Eidman took part in a protest, along with about two dozen others, holding signs in the rain outside the home where Cotton was speaking. One sign read: “Sen. Cotton: Thanks for supporting Israel. Now please support Israeli-style gun control.” Another said: “Cotton’s Arkansas: #1 in gun violence; #49 in gun laws. Not a coincidence.”

While rabbis and other leaders in the liberal Jewish community have been vocal in their call for more forms of gun control, it seems that Orthodox leaders have been more reticent. In a recent statement, the Orthodox Union called for “banning certain sophisticated assault weapons such as the AR-15 used” in the Parkland attack. It called for “federal and state funding programs for school safety and ‘common sense’ measures to reduce gun violence.”

But an Orthodox official who spoke on background observed that there are a number of Orthodox rabbis who focus on Israel-related issues to the exclusion of all others in assessing political candidates. He noted, though, that groups like NORPAC have been criticized in the past for supporting liberal Democratic officials who are advocates of Israel but not sympathetic to funding for day schools or other religious liberty issues important to the Orthodox community. “So it works both ways,” the official said.

Some Orthodox leaders have observed that people in the Orthodox community seem to have embraced Trumpism, tending to side with the president on a number of issues because they appreciate his stands on Israel, including recognizing Jerusalem as the state’s capital, moving to relocate the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, speaking out against Palestinian intransigence on the peace front, and pledging to toughen up or tear up the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement.

Will there be a backlash against NRA supporters in the pro-Israel community to mirror the new #BoycottNRA movement? Companies like Hertz, Delta, United Airlines, and Best Western have done away with discounts and perks for NRA members in the wake of the Parkland tragedy. But such a response seems unlikely among die-hard pro-Israel supporters on the right.

This is a tribal moment in America, in its politics and social culture, and filled with contradictions. It’s a time when the great majority of evangelicals ignore the president’s immoral behavior and praise his stands against abortion and immigration. In the Jewish community that mood is exemplified by the deep and growing rift that pits a majority of liberals appalled at Everything Trump and Almost Everything Netanyahu vs. a vocal minority of conservatives who admire both men for their tough and unyielding stands.

As for Tom Cotton, as long as he speaks up for Israel and against Iran, he can go on saying that now is the time to mourn the victims of gun violence, not to discuss gun laws, and few in the world of pro-Israel lobbies will call him out.

read more: