You know, I really do think the alliance that has emerged over the past generation between the American right and the State of Israel is a good thing. Having been born a dual citizen of Israel and America, and having spent the past two decades living in Israel and speaking Hebrew, I can understand the Israelis’ need to build alliances with people who share their commitment to democracy and the Bible, and who have influence in the halls of high politics.
But sometimes an Israeli must take exception with the way his country is used in American domestic debates. One big recent example concerns gun control.
Surely you recall when Wayne LaPierre, executive vice president of the National Rifle Association and a man who rarely chooses his words carefully, spun the following yarn after the Newtown, Conn., catastrophe. “Israel had a whole lot of school shootings,” he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” “until they did one thing. They said, ‘We’re going to stop it,’ and they put armed security in every school and they have not had a problem since then.”
LaPierre was rightfully taken down a notch by Israeli officials who pointed out that (a) Israel never did suffer from “a whole lot of school shootings,” but rather from a tiny number of very high-profile terror attacks on schools; (b) Israel did not do “one thing,” but rather took a vast array of anti-terror measures of which the posting of armed guards was far from central. “We’re fighting terrorism, which comes under very specific geopolitical and military circumstances,” Israel Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor rebutted. “This is not something that compares with the situation in the U.S.”
Yet these responses did not get at the heart of how wrong LaPierre was — or how grand is the canyon between the culture he promotes and Israel’s.
There are three deep differences between Israel and America when it comes to guns — differences that have nothing to do with terror and random school shootings, differences that should lead American supporters of the Second Amendment to wish that LaPierre had held his tongue.
First: Generally speaking, Israelis do not like gun sports, especially hunting. Just like their fellow Jews around the world, Israelis feel that all life is precious, and even if most are happy to wear leather goods or to eat meat, the idea of killing creatures for fun simply crosses an unspoken line of cruelty. Judaism always taught us to avoid causing too much pain to animals even when slaughtering them — so how can killing be a part of leisure?
A second, perhaps corollary point is that Israelis do not “collect” guns. I have probably lived among the most gun-friendly parts of Israeli society — I’m referring to some pretty die-hard roughneck West Bank settler types. Even during the early Oslo years, when they imagined a massive conflagration between themselves and the Palestinians about to engulf them, and accumulated weapons in preparation for such a day — even then they never described themselves as “collectors” of firearms.
But the most important conceptual difference — and this gets to the heart of the matter — is that Israelis do not believe they have a “right” to bear arms. Israel has no Second Amendment, nor would it ever dream of introducing one.
Part of this is, of course, historical: While America was created through the federation of sovereign states, which, in turn, were built on a loose confederation of individualistic pioneering communities, Israel started out as a tiny besieged state in desperate need of centralized mobilization to keep everyone alive, where government was first of all the protector of the citizens.
But alongside the history, there is a deeper reason that Israelis don’t believe in a right to bear arms. Guns are not seen by Israelis as a good thing. At best they are a necessary work tool. Seeing an armed soldier walking around in Tel Aviv is neither more alarming nor more inspiring than seeing a repairman with a hammer in his belt.
More often, however, guns signal a societal imperfection, a failure in the national enterprise that necessitates the security and deterrence that come with guns. There is nothing good, in the Israeli mindset, about having to wear our prowess — and our implicit vulnerability — on our sleeves.
The settlement I lived in had no security fence around it. When I asked why, I was told that a fence signals insecurity and invites attacks: “Better to keep the terrorists wondering how far out we can see them.” It’s true for the flaunting of firearms, as well. Even at their most muscularly militant, Israelis have never celebrated their guns the way Americans do.
David Hazony is the editor of The Tower Magazine and a contributing editor at the Forward