Wrestling with the Ethics of the Sochi Olympics

The following is reprinted with permission from MyJewishLearning.org. We thank them for their words on this year’s Olympics which we know is weighing heavily on our readers’ minds. 

By Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz

Sochi peace logoThe more I read and learn about what has been happening in Russia, the more I am afraid for its citizens. The attention that the fairly recently implemented “anti-gay propaganda” law is getting is certainly high on the list of reasons to be concerned. What begins as fines quickly becomes imprisonment. There is already more than enough evidence that creating an environment of state-sponsored discrimination against a section of the population based on an essential part of their being leads to violence against those individuals. There are numerous accounts of LGBT Russians being attacked by vigilantes and thugs.

We should all be concerned by these stories. As a Jew, and as a lesbian, I cannot help but think about Germany in the 1930s. We teach that history precisely so that we might better recognize the early signs of state-sponsored prejudice that can quickly escalate into something more. I don’t think I’m being reactionary. I’m truly and deeply concerned.

What does this mean for the Sochi Olympics, and beyond the events of the Olympics themselves. I admit, I find myself at a gut level drawn to the idea of boycott – of simply not watching. But I’m not convinced that this is an effective or meaningful response at this stage.  I would have supported the International Olympics Committee if they had made a decision to relocate or cancel the games at an earlier juncture, and I also recognize the logistical, legal, and political complexities of making such a decision.

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Gabrielle Giffords

This weekend, tragedy unfolded when a gunman opened fire in front of a grocery store in Tucson, Ariz. Six people were killed and 14 others were wounded, including U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords.

Giffords was the youngest woman ever elected to the Arizona state Senate, and then in 2007 became the third Arizona woman ever to serve in Congress. At that time, she also became Arizona’s first Jewish congresswoman. Raised in an interfaith family, Giffords didn’t always identify as Jewish.

[Giffords' father], Spencer, married outside his faith. Gloria Giffords is a Christian Scientist. The couple say they always encouraged their children to learn about other religions.

“We were kind of neutral,” Spencer Gifford said. “We let them decide for themselves. That’s what Gabby did.”

When his daughter was a state senator in 2001, she traveled to Israel for the first time with the American Jewish Committee on a trip that turned out to be life-changing.

“It just cemented the fact that I wanted to spend more time with my own personal, spiritual growth. I felt very committed to Judaism,” she said. “Religion means different things to different people. It provides me with grounding, a better understanding of who I came from.”

Upon returning from Israel, Giffords introduced legislation, which became law, to help protect the claims of Arizonans seeking unpaid benefits under Holocaust-era insurance policies.

On a personal level, she made contact with Rabbi Stephanie Aaron of the Reform Jewish Congregation Chaverim in Tucson, and began a deeper exploration of both her faith and heritage. She already was technically considered Jewish since the Reform movement of Judaism says that the child of one Jewish parent, mother or father, is presumed to be Jewish. (Read more in a profile in the Arizona Daily Star of Giffords.)

We find more about Gifford’s Jewish heritage in the Forward:

Giffords’ Jewish roots run deep. As the Forward reported back in 2006, her paternal grandfather, the son of a Lithuanian rabbi, was born Akiba Hornstein. He changed his name, first to Gifford Hornstien and later to Gifford Giffords, apparently to shield himself from anti-Semitism out West.

“I was raised not to really talk about my religious beliefs,” Giffords said, in an interview with Jewish Woman magazine. “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.”

She is also among five members of Congress to serve on United States Holocaust Memorial Council.

We wish her an easy and fast recovery, while her husband says, “There is little that we can do but pray for those who are struggling,” Giffords included.

Our condolences go out to the families and friends of the victims: Christina Taylor Greene, 9; Dorothy Morris, 76; John Roll, 63, U.S. District Judge; Phyllis Scheck, 79; Dorwin Stoddard, 76; and Gabe Zimmerman, 30, director of community outreach for Giffords. May their memories be for blessing.