With the Supreme Court opening this week the first extensive examination of the constitutional right to bear arms in nearly 70 years, now seems a pretty good time to ask a question that’s been perplexing me for nearly as long: Why is that American Jews are so overwhelmingly anti-gun?
I’ve been stumped by this communal aversion to firearms ever since I was a 6 year old, back in 1947. While flipping through old Life magazines one day in my grandparents’ living room in the Bronx, I came across photographs taken at the liberation of concentration camps. I saw the pictures of bodies stacked like cordwood, and was stunned.
“Mommy, why are all those people dead?” I asked.
My mother, a brilliant and subtle woman, thought for a moment and said, “The bad Germans called Nazis killed them.” To which, of course, I asked, “Why did the Nazis kill them?”
“They killed them because they were Jews,” she replied.
Although I was only 6 and not yet sure of my identity or its meaning, I asked, “We’re Jews, aren’t we?”
“Yes,” answered my mother.
“Mommy,” I asked, without missing a beat, “do you and Daddy have a gun so we can protect ourselves if the Nazis come for us?”
“This is America,” my mother reassured me. “That can’t happen here.”
All across America little Jewish boys and girls got the same answer, and pretty much all of them accepted it. That answer, though, didn’t satisfy me — and to this day I wonder how it is that Jews in America, despite no small amount of antisemitism, have so strongly devoted themselves to the belief that “it” couldn’t happen here.
During the 1960s I encountered Holocaust survivors who told me that just as American Jews felt secure from genocide, German Jews had felt similarly secure before the Nazis’ rise to power. The average Jew in Berlin during the mid-1920s would have thought you were crazy if you had said it was possible that within 20 years most European Jews would be systematically exterminated by the German government,
So that there is no misunderstanding, let me be completely clear: I have never felt, and do not now, that there is some imminent likelihood of genocide against Jews — or, for that matter, any other group — in America. I just never saw the wisdom of assuming that 50 years from now, or even 20, this couldn’t change.
I also never saw the wisdom in going out of my way to avoid protecting myself. Most of my fellow American Jews, though, have been doing just that — and what’s more, fighting to prevent others from arming themselves. As best as I can tell, this American Jewish aversion to firearms has its origins back in the Eastern Europe of yesteryear, where a centuries-long history of difficult experiences gave rise to what is best described as the “shtetl mentality.”
A great many American Jews had great-grandparents who originally came from shtetls or ghettos in Europe. One of the major hazards of living in another people’s country was that occasionally a few Cossacks would get drunk, ride over to the nearest shtetl, rape a few women, maybe murder a man who protested rather than begging for his life, and then ride off into the sunset.
It had to be inescapably clear to these Jews that dozens of able-bodied and sober men would surely have been a match for eight or 10 drunk Cossacks. It would have been easy, even for Jews not trained in arms, to kill the Cossacks and bury them someplace.
It is obvious, though, why they did not: Had they had done so, swarms of Cossacks would have massacred every Jew in every shtetl within 100 versts. Defense was just not an option.
The women raped and the men murdered were seen as the price Jews paid for surviving as a people. Since no Jew likely considered the possibility that without some major provocation the Cossacks would someday try to kill them all, it seemed like a reasonable, if awful, compromise.
Such a compromise must have taken a devastating and horrific psychological toll on the people forced to make it. In order to maintain self-respect, people in such a condition had to explain it as the result of something that made them better than their oppressors. This was the notion that they voluntarily — rather than of necessity, as was actually the case — eschewed the use of weapons because they understood that violence was evil, while their tormentors did not. It was the key to survival, and to self-respect.
Today’s American Jews, despite being far removed from the shtetl, still carry this shtetl mentality with them, despite the fact that it has long since lost its utility. American Jews are overwhelmingly in favor of gun bans, and are disproportionately represented in the leadership positions of the movement to ban private ownership of firearms.
This shtetl mentality is tellingly absent among Israelis, and another look back at history helps explain why.
Many American Jews are the direct descendants of immigrants who left the ghettos and shtetls with the shtetl mentality intact and came to the United States between 1885 and 1925. They raised their children, who in turn raised their children, to believe that all weapons were wrong because all violence was wrong — even though the conditions in America were different, the horrible compromise of Europe was behind them, and their survival and self-respect no longer depended on a willingness to defenselessly sit by while members of the community were raped and murdered.
The Jews who remained in Europe, on the other hand, were confronted by the Holocaust. The ones who survived saw that the rules had changed, and many of them immigrated to Israel. They saw that not all violence was wrong, that violence could be used to preserve the Jewish people, and that the defensive use of weapons was necessary for the survival of the community. The result has been a greater acceptance of individual use of weapons for personal defense.
Israelis, in short, have learned a lesson that far too few American Jews have yet to grasp: For Jews, the phrase “assault rifle” is a misnomer — the correct term, once the shtetl mentality has been transcended, is “Jewish defense rifle.”
Eric King is a writer living in Berkeley, Calif.