By Jessica Hanewinckel
When I traveled to Israel for the first time, one of the things that surprised me was the presence everywhere of soldiers with machine guns. Coming from Jewish America, where so little is spoken of guns, and what little is said is generally negative, made this discovery most unexpected. But in Israel, no one takes a second look. It’s a very necessary part of life there. Without weaponry, Israel wouldn’t survive 10 minutes. It started me thinking about the relationship between Jews and guns.
“It’s ironic, isn’t it?” Rabbi Dovid Bendory says in the film “No Guns for Jews.” “We Jews, we sit in America and most of us don’t own guns. Most of us think guns are somehow non-Jewish in some strange way, and yet we’re very proud to see an Israeli soldier carry an Uzi, an M-16, whatever it is. Flying a fighter plane. That makes us proud. And yet in some strange way, it’s not for us. These things don’t happen here.”
The Orthodox rabbi, a resident of Livingston, N.J., and a member of the city’s Congregation Etz Chaim, is perhaps the country’s most outspoken advocate of Jewish gun ownership. As rabbinic director of the organization Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership, he is himself a certified NRA instructor and range safety officer who regularly gives lessons to local Jews who want to learn how to safely operate a firearm to protect themselves and their families should their lives ever be threatened.
In a June 15, 2011, article in the New Jersey Jewish News, Rabbi Bendory is quoted as saying, “Jews have a very long history of being at the wrong end of a gun barrel. When we think about guns we think about them being used against us. We have a tendency not to think about the gun as an incredibly valuable defensive tool. In a world where you have arrests in New York City of ‘home-grown terrorists’ who are buying guns to go have shootings in synagogues, in a world where you have a shooting at the Holocaust Museum in Washington and the JCC in Seattle and the JCC in LA — and I could go on and on — the reality is that for certain kind of attacks, the handgun is the best defensive weapon we have.”
Rabbi Bendory explained in the article that, having grown up in a Jewish home with zero guns, he began to think harder on the subject after Sept. 11, when Islamic terrorism fundamentally changed life in the U.S. He was quoted as saying, “I started seeing events in the world change. I started asking questions on Halacha: What does Halacha have to say to me about firearms as a means of self-defense? So I spent some time in the Talmud and learned that Halacha has a very clear message…. Basically, your life is a gift from God and if someone tries to take it away from you, you have an obligation to try to prevent that.”
In Leviticus 19:16, we are told not to stand idly by while our brother’s blood is at stake. Similarly, the Talmud (Sanhendrin 72a) teaches, ha-ba le-horgekha, hashkem le-horgo: “If someone comes planning to kill you, you should hurry to kill him first.”
Man’s law, at certain times in history, and even in many places today, has kept people disarmed, leaving them no choice but to die at the hands of an attacker, whether that be a common criminal or a member of the state militia. The Jews have experienced this time and again throughout history. According to Rabbi Bendory, Jews haven’t been allowed to own any kind of defensive weaponry since the time of Babel, when the Babylonian Talmud was written.
“From then until today, Jews by and large have been disarmed, and so we have not been prepared to defend ourselves,” Rabbi Bendory said in the film. “We are not used to this way of thinking. We are very much used to being the victim.”
There’s nothing wrong with having as many interfaith prayer circles, Holocaust education seminars and solemn entreaties of “Never again” as we can. They’re helpful and eye-opening to many who experience them. But there will always be homicidal, anti-Semitic people in this world, regardless of our efforts. God forbid, if anything like the Shoah ever happened again, what would be done to stop it?
At the onset of Hitler’s Final Solution, he confiscated all firearms (1,702), hand weapons like knives and clubs (2,569), and ammunition (20,000 rounds) from Jews, threatening death or forced labor for those who didn’t comply, according to a Nov. 9, 1938, New York Times article, “Berlin Police Head Announces ‘Disarming’ of Jews.” Shortly thereafter, Hitler and his minions took to the streets for what would become known as Kristallnacht. Hitler, Joseph Goebbels and other Nazi higher-ups sent orders to Nazi security forces: “All Jewish stores are to be destroyed immediately…Jewish synagogues are to be set on fire…The Führer wishes that the police does not intervene… All Jews are to be disarmed. In the event of resistance they are to be shot immediately.”
It’s interesting to wonder if the outcome of the Fogel family massacre in Itamar in March 2011 would have been different had the family had a means of self-defense. The same goes for any number of the families living near Gaza or the West Bank who experience home invasions by Palestinian terrorists. My understanding is that though some of these people do legally possess guns, Israel makes doing so very difficult.
In the future, should anything happen, I’d like to see the Jewish people have a fighting chance, whether in Israel or the Diaspora. But that requires the acknowledgement that firearms can be a valuable, life-saving tool when law-abiding citizens use them legally, responsibly and safely. Not taking steps to self-defend is suicidal. It’s what Israel does via the IDF and its countless armed soldiers. It’s what Jews like the Bielski partisans (whose story was portrayed in the 2009 film “Defiance”) did during the Holocaust, and what the first Israelis did during the 1949 War of Independence. They used firearms to protect and defend themselves and the innocent — noble, honorable purposes, if you ask me.