Now Israel’s Gun Crazy, Too. Just Ask Sacha Baron Cohen.
The season finale of Sacha Baron Cohen’s viral and satirical documentary series “Who Is America” aired on Sunday night, ending a brilliant seven-episode season.
The genius of “Who Is America” lies in Cohen’s ability to hold up a mirror to American society and culture, giving audiences a glimpse of the virulent and entrenched racism and ignorance embedded within popular political discourse, and how it’s disseminated by prominent political elites, particularly on the right.
Cohen’s most effective character has been his impersonation of a fictitious Israeli commando and weapons expert named Erran Morad, who identifies himself as the “terrorist terminator.” The character embodies every white conservative male’s Viagra-driven fantasy of what a typical Israeli tough-guy looks like, complete with a wide-footed cowboy stance, jingoistic military vernacular, a skin hugging muscle top, and military edition cargo pants.
But the importance of Erran Morad goes beyond comedy. He reveals something deep about the Israel-America-guns nexus. For Erran Morad’s sympatico relationship with real life Americans is a camped up version of a new phenomenon, namely, the transformation of what was always a one-way street of hawkish Americans admiring Israeli military brawn into a two-way street.
To an ordinary person’s eye, it’s impossible not see Baron Cohen’s character and costume as anything but a prank. I mean, if the 17 pounds of facial prosthetics isn’t a giveaway, then surely the Astroturf wig and cartoonish Israeli accent should be.
But Baron Cohen not only duped a group of Trump supporting anti-immigration activists, but also senior Republican Party officials and lawmakers. Dick Cheney and Roy Moore are just two of the people Erran Morad’s gun happy “counter-terrorism” spoof managed to fool.
His routine succeeds because he reflects typical right-wing views of Israelis back to right-wing targets in the United States.
You see, in the imaginative mind of a Trump supporting white Christian male, Israel is akin to a mid-19 century American fortress on the edge of the western frontier, with just one small difference: Instead of being surrounded by Native Americans, Israel finds itself surrounded by dangerous Muslim hordes.
In this fantasy that suffuses right wing America, Israel is the noble white man surrounded by savages. To protect themselves, Israelis arm themselves with guns, and carry themselves as though they were tough-as-nails frontiersmen.
Indeed, right-wing gun-rights advocates have recently started citing Israel as a model to justify their advocacy against those who call for tighter gun ownership laws. In the wake of the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, which left 20 six and seven-year-olds dead, the National Rifle Association’s president Wayne LaPierre praised Israel’s gun laws, while reverting to his lobby group’s favorite tagline, “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”
In the same vein, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee responded to the Parkland high school shooting in Florida, which killed 17 people, claiming Israel had “pretty much eliminated” school shootings by “placing highly trained people strategically to spot the one common thread — not the weapon, but a person with intent.”
Ironically, they are wrong. Contrary to these arguments and Baron Cohen’s Erran Morad, Israel’s gun ownership laws are among the strictest on the planet. The government denies 40% of all gun-purchase applications, and applicants must meet a lengthy list of criteria in order to receive permission. Applicants must pass a mental health check alongside numerous other background checks, and then go through the same process every three years.
While there are more than 300 million civilian-owned firearms in the United States, representing nearly one for every American citizen, only around 135,000 Israelis are licensed to own guns — and 37,500 of those individuals work as guards, according to the Ministry of Public Security. That’s a citizen gun ownership rate nearly 60 times lower than America’s.
Moreover, the majority of permits granted in Israel are granted for 9 millimeter pistols; the Israeli government reserves permits for long-rifles such as the AR-15 exclusively for security roles.
American visitors to Israel can be forgiven for thinking that they’ve arrived in a gun utopia, given the fact that semi-automatic weapons are seen pretty much everywhere. But it’s something of an illusion. The guns they see are due to the fact that Israeli soldiers, who are often as ubiquitous on Israeli streets as everyday citizens, carry their guns with them at all times.
Most importantly, the discrepancy between gun ownership in Israel and in the U.S. is reflected directly in the number of gun deaths. If you exclude terrorist attacks, there have been only two mass shooting in Israel in recent memory: a 2009 shooting at the Tel Aviv gay center that left two dead, and the other at a a 2013 attack at a bank in Beersheba, which left four people dead and wounded five.
Since the date of that 2013 shooting, however, there have been more than 1,700 mass shootings in the United States. An even more direct comparison shows there to be approximately two homicides per 100,000 Israeli citizens, compared with a rate that’s roughly five times higher in the U.S.
But that’s all about to change.
It seems that Israel has been admiring the ubiquity of guns in the U.S. and is changing its laws to be more like us.
Under new laws, an additional 500,000 Israeli citizens have become eligible to receive gun permits, almost quadrupling the gun ownership potential in the country overnight.
These new laws are part of a stated goal of improving counterterrorism response, a notion that is not only absurd, but also self-defeating, and one that Israel has devised by mimicking the current president of the United States, Donald Trump.
In the aftermath of the Orlando nightclub shooting in 2016, then presidential candidate Trump claimed the attack wouldn’t have happened if the victims were armed, which was how he fed the NRA’s “good guy with a gun” narrative into the post-attack debate.
And yet, it’s well documented that increased and easy access to guns does not make a country safer from mass shootings or terrorist attacks; it makes it far more vulnerable.
There is an overwhelming consensus in criminology literature showing that the reduction of legal access to firearms dramatically reduces the gun homicide rate.
Israel will make itself less safe by quadrupling the number of firearms in private homes. Not only has the government made it easier for terrorists to gain access to firearms, but now you can expect the suicide rate and murder rate to increase significantly in Israel. This new law will certainly put an ever-increasing number of Palestinians in the crosshairs of guns owned by Israeli citizens.
In taking this path, Israel is now imitating the United States. It’s as though Sasha Baron Cohen’s character Erran Morad has come to life, but in reverse.
CJ Werleman is a journalist, columnist, and security and terrorism analyst.