Since the massacre in Newtown, Connecticut this past December, my teenage daughter has been tracking reports of gun crimes on an almost daily basis. She expresses outrage every time she reads about a child who has accidentally shot a playmate, sibling or himself. She could barely contain her contempt for the parents in Kentucky who purchased the Cricket rifle for their five year-old son. This weapon, marketed for children, ultimately killed a two year-old girl, the shooter’s little sister. And while this particular incident really got her going, she speaks with only slightly less vehemence about the teenage murder rate in Chicago, or the most recent gun violence in a local neighborhood where an emotionally disturbed twenty year old went on a shooting spree.
And to a large extent, I’m right there with her. Why do individuals, and particularly individuals in the city, need guns? And why do so many people need personal arsenals? No statistical proof demonstrates that owning or carrying a gun makes you safer. Personally, I favor aggressive gun control laws and bans on assault weapons rather than a total ban on guns because I think of myself as a legislative realist who recognizes the virtual impossibility of outlawing them altogether. (There is the issue of the pesky Second Amendment.) Yet while I commend, and even agree, with my daughter’s anti-gun position, I find her fascination with the topic, with the details of these violent situations, disturbing. The violence of American culture engages her, and she can be so emphatic in her objection to guns and the dangers they pose that her language sounds downright … well, threatening.
So how will my daughter react when she sees young Israeli soldiers walking in Jerusalem or taking the bus with their guns in tow? When I asked her, she seemed genuinely surprised by the question, as though visible firearms in Israel are simply a given. There seemed to be no sense of cognitive dissonance whatsoever. This didn’t surprise me, though. A few summers ago, as I rode the bus in Jerusalem and watched young off-duty IDF soldiers climb aboard, not only wasn’t I disturbed by the fact that their firearms were in full view, I found it totally reasonable. How could our reactions be so disparate and yet consistent? Did a military uniform make all the difference? Why are we so comfortable with this this discrepancy?
I revisited this response in thinking about “Jews and Guns” and realized that to a large degree this apparently inconsistent reaction exposes the fault-line in my identity as a Jewish American/American Jew. When I am confronted with guns in America I respond primarily as an American. My moral and ethical concerns, which are dictated by Jewish principles and beliefs, are backgrounded by my understanding of America’s founding ideals and legal processes. In the U.S. personal possession of a gun (or guns) has been upheld as a constitutional right. We generally don’t see military personnel mingling with the general population, so unless you are or you know someone who works in law enforcement, the primary interaction that you have with a gun will probably be personal (and hopefully that contact is one of choice rather than force). The debate around the possession of firearms plays out within this context of personal liberty and individual rights, and the need for “a well regulated militia,” mentioned in the Second Amendment, refers us back to a communal existential threat (the British) that has since been replaced by a narrative that emphasizes personal and individual existential concerns (street crime, home invasion, anxiety about government overreach, exercising one’s right to have guns, etc.).
The visibility of guns in Israel conjures a different narrative, however. Here, the explicit relationship between guns and the militia (even off duty) serves as a reminder of the persistent anxiety about the conditions of Israel’s existence and, to some extent in our post-Holocaust age, Jewish existence. This concern is not necessarily as concrete or direct as fear of a terrorist attack — what good is a gun against a suicide bomber, really? Instead, Israelis specifically and Jews more generally, remain aware of the tentative state of peace in which Israel currently abides. The ubiquitous nature of military and national service ensures that this sensibility remains alive in the Israeli national (and Jewish international) consciousness. And although it is legal in Israel to own personal weapons and to openly carry with a permit, the rate of firearm possession per 100 people is 7.3 while in the U.S. that rate is 101.[*] We might think of these numbers as a demonstration of the consequences of the different narratives that motivate gun possession and that also engage public feeling about gun ownership. Despite Meir Kahane and the JDL’s slogan “Every Jew a .22,” the concept of a militarized civilian population remains unactualized in Israel. The guns carried by soldiers on the bus speak of a country concerned for its survival in a hostile region (and by extension may engage the fear of our existence as Jews in a hostile world) while the guns in America tell the story of a population afraid of an enemy within.
As a Jewish American I do not live in a state of fear. I do not feel a sense of immanent threat from those around me. I have faith in the established systems of civil governance regarding my rights and freedoms, including my rights as a Jew in America. As an American Jew and a Zionist, I recognize the threat that persists within Israeli consciousness and that results in virtually universal conscription and the high visibility of soldiers and their weapons in Israel. From this perspective, I recognize guns in Israel as a response to a real existential threat. And, as a Jew in the world, I pray for the day when such weapons will no longer be necessary in Israel, the United States, or anywhere else. When the day comes that the soldiers in Israel can put their guns down it is my Jewish hope that Israelis will not follow in American footsteps and pick up guns in their homes. We continue to struggle for peace. Guns are evidence of that struggle, not of its resolution.