What Americans Could Learn From Israel's Gun Culture
Early in 2002, as the Second Intifada was raging, guns -- normally ubiquitous in Israeli society -- were even more in evidence. In restaurants, at synagogue and especially on the street, you could see pistols stuck into men's belts or pants. One of my wife's closest friends kept a gun in her purse.
Those were dangerous times in Israel. More than once, legally armed civilians killed or wounded terrorists in places as seemingly benign as the grocery store. I decided that, I, too, should probably get a gun license, and promptly went to the appropriate government office to apply.
I'd been told that I'd have to justify my "need" for the license, so I brought a copy of a New York Times Magazine piece that I'd written about the violence. I indicated that I was going to write more pieces like it and that to do so, I would need to go to places less secure than Jerusalem, where I lived. It was entirely true. I filled out a several-page form and was told that were my application declined, I wouldn't be allowed to apply again. I signed the form and turned it in.
Several weeks later, I received notice in the mail that my application had been refused. The government thought I didn't need a gun. So I couldn't have one.
More than a decade has passed, but I still recall that laconic refusal when I read about Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook Elementary and now Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Guns are virtually everywhere in Israel, certainly much more so than in the U.S. Yet as Barack Obama noted in a recent tweet, Americans kill each other (per capita) 33 times as often as do Israelis. When we lived in the U.S., had I walked into any gun shop, I would undoubtedly have been able to buy a gun legally. In Israel, though, even at the height of the Second Intifada, I was told that I couldn't carry a weapon.
In the U.S., every discussion of gun ownership leads to the Second Amendment and a guaranteed constitutional right. In Israel, the ubiquity of guns distorts a deeper sensibility that carrying a weapon is not a right -- it is a responsibility and a tragic necessity.
Most Israelis who carry guns are permitted to have them because they live in dangerous areas, were officers in the army or are currently serving in the armed forces. Thus, almost all Israelis who carry guns had their first encounter with weapons in the army. A longstanding tradition in the Israel Defense Forces is the concept of "tohar ha-neshek," or the "purity of arms." Recruits, from a largely secular society, are taught that the use of weapons must be "pure" -- a term distinctly taken from the Bible. As the conflict with the Palestinians has muddied the waters of who is and is not a combatant, Israelis tend to use the phrase less. But in a country where almost everyone serves in the army -- in which guns are associated with the country's endless battle to stay alive -- a culture of weapons responsibility, rather than rights, has emerged.
Along with that sense of responsibility -- and the knowledge that Israel's enemies, who live not far from us, are constantly looking for weapons to steal -- comes intense caution. When our children were in the army, we got used to them coming home with weapons, disassembling them, hiding the parts separately and locking the doors to their rooms whenever they weren't in them. There was no swagger or bravado about walking around with a gun; the sense was that it was sadly necessary -- and dangerous. Young people in Israel are taught to take both the necessity and the danger seriously. They take their army-issued weapons with them wherever they go -- even to weddings, even to the beach.
Israel, of course, has had horrific cases of gun violence. Baruch Goldstein killed 29 people and wounded 125 in an attack on Muslim worshipers at the Tomb of the Patriarchs in 1994. Yigal Amir assassinated Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. Mentally ill soldiers such as Eden Natan-Zada (who was technically a deserter) have attacked innocent people. Israel has an underworld, and occasionally intended "hits" go wrong, killing bystanders. Israel is hardly immune to gun-related violence and death.
But as Obama noted: Despite the hundreds of thousands of guns legally and illegally owned in Israel, and despite the stresses on society, Israelis kill each other with firearms at a small fraction of the rate of Americans. Just like the U.S., Israel is a society predicated on citizens' rights. Unlike the U.S., however, those rights do not extend to gun ownership. So far, that has seemed to make all the difference.
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