As I write this—
— Israel continues to mourn its deaths and fight its enemies and the true extent of Hamas’ savagery against innocents and its disregard for its own citizens has been revealed. The current death toll from the October 7 attack stands at 1400 and counting– the highest number of Jews killed in a single incident since the Holocaust. Israelis are fighting and dying to rid the world of Hamas.
–Some of the world supports and empathizes with Israel, while much of it continues to demonize Israel and all Jews, declaring a preference not for a “two state solution”, but for the “Final Solution”. Meanwhile, the so-called “social justice warriors”—both Jewish and non-Jewish– are rightfully being chastised for their unfathomable moral obtuseness.
–A Jewish man died after being assaulted by a pro-Palestinian protester and the president of a Detroit synagogue was murdered, possibly by a “lone wolf”. Violent anti-Israel protests have taken place around the US. Muslim children in Philadelphia are learning to chant, “We will chop off their heads!”. Anti-Semitic incidents are up 388%.
The litany of hate grows daily. Jews have been put on notice that widespread and institutional Jew hatred in the civilized world did not end eighty years ago. On the contrary, we are experiencing in real time what the Passover haggadah speaks of: In every generation, there are those who seek our destruction. Apparently, now it’s this generation’s turn.
The question is: how will this generation respond? Of course, it will respond with official outrage, sermons from the pulpit, letters to legislators, vigils, rallies, renewed calls for educational programs and dialogue with our foes. But there is one way to respond that American Jews have avoided up to now, but is now being seriously considered among the rank-and-file: learning and becoming proficient in the defensive use of firearms.
Since the defeat of Bar Kochba, armed resistance against their enemies was not an option for Jews in the Diaspora. For almost two millennia, Jews responded to persecutions, pogroms, expulsions, and the hysteria of mobs bent on killing them (anticipating the current hysteria around the world) mostly by calling upon God to redeem them. But even as they lamented the martyrs and prayed “Pour out Thy wrath on the nations who don’t know You…for they have devoured Jacob…”, they believed that their suffering was a righteous consequence for their own covenantal unfaithfulness.
With the birth of modern Zionism, this belief no longer resonated. Challenging the reliance on the Almighty’s timetable, Zionism advocated replacing the mindset of passive, long-suffering victimhood with a pro-active, optimistic self-redemption, reflected in lyrics of the Zionist-inspired Hannukah song: “Now all Israel must as one arise/Redeem itself through deed and sacrifice.
Given the violent Jew hatred of the time—its crescendo being reached during the Third Reich—Jews learned that self-redemption included the need to learn self-defense. After almost two millennia there was a renewed focus on the Talmudic dictum, “when someone comes to kill you, rise up to kill him first”. After almost two millennia the world once again saw the phenomenon of “the armed Jew” –the Jew who understood that in a world seeking to annihilate him, self-determination meant learning the necessary, albeit regrettable, use of weapons.
Stoked by the memory of Auschwitz’s ashes, self-defense is virtually tattooed onto Israel’s psyche– a sine qua non its survival. The concept of Jewish self-defense was gloriously realized in 1967. It inspired the slogan “Never Again”, invoked often in the past 75 years, and especially during events of these past weeks. Following the 1973 Yom Kippur War, singer/author Kinky Friedman composed a song that echoed this sentiment, with the unforgettable refrain: “They ain’t a-makin’ Jews like Jesus anymore/We don’t turn the other cheek the way we done before.”
Certainly, these lyrics reflect the reality of Israel’s Jews. They are no longer “Jews with trembling knees”. It is not unusual to see kippah- and tsitsit-wearing Jews with pistols on their hips. Young female soldiers in evening clothes shlepping Galil rifles don’t raise eyebrows. In the wake of October 7, Israel’s government has committed to strengthening civilians’ ability to defend themselves by distributing rifles to those who need them.
And yet… so many American Jews who “shep naches” at the sight of Jews with guns in Israel have been the very people who believe that Jews “packing heat” in synagogue is anathema. Instead of taking a cue from Israelis who hear “Never Again” as a call to becoming proficient in defending themselves and their families, American Jewry has used it as a slogan to promote unoffensive vigils, rallies, educational programs, etc. Instead of promoting these words as a full-throated call to learn self-protection (and not rely solely on law-enforcement) they have morphed it into little more than a bromide for “doing something”.
What accounts for this “disconnect”? Why is it that a community who honors the warrior king David and prays for the appearance of his descendant (the Messiah) is crippled by an acute case of hoplophobia (fear of weapons, especially guns)? How is it that Jews who celebrate Hannukah, commemorating an armed rebellion that insured the survival of Judaism, have attitudes about the use of force that are so at odds with those of the Maccabees?
One explanation is how American Jews view guns per se: not as tools for self-preservation (like a fire-extinguisher), but as a source of goyishe naches (what makes gentiles happy) or simply an a priori evil. Perhaps these are vestiges of a “morally virtuous” Diaspora victim mindset. Another explanation is that their attitude toward guns reflects their politics. Most American Jews still vote “left of center” and many if not most have assimilated the Left’s attitudes about guns and gun ownership. Perhaps both explanations are accurate.
But even if the synagogue attacks in Pittsburgh, Poway, and Colleyville and the attacks on individual Jews in northeastern cities didn’t convince us, surely the events of the past several weeks– and what may still occur in the United States—should be the “wake up call” to change our minds. The time has come to abandon the “virtue” of noble victimhood and join our Israeli brothers and sisters in embracing the wise directive of taking pre-emptive action when someone wants to kill you.
Fortunately, many are doing just that. October 7 has caused the scales to fall from the eyes of many Jews who believed that their goodhearted friends and all goodhearted people would naturally side with Israel. Feeling betrayed by responses of “moral equivalency” or deafening silence—not only the massacre in Israel, but also to the virulent Jew hatred coming to the fore in this country– Jews who had been adamantly “anti-gun” are realizing that “hope and good will” is not a plan. Finally theyare realizing that learning how to protect oneself with force is necessary, even if regrettable.
In cities all over the country, Jews are purchasing firearms and learning how to use them responsibly. In the Jewish communities of Chicago and LA, there are long-existing organizations that not only work with law enforcement to provide security for Jewish institutions, but also train individual Jews in situational awareness and responsible firearm use. In other cities, Jews have formed “gun clubs”, emphasizing self-defense as a mitzvah. One group made up largely of Orthodox Jews is known as “Group 1441”, taking its name from Psalm 144:1: Blessed is the Lord my Rock, who trains my hands for battle and my fingers for war.”
Yet, despite current events and concern about future ones, encouraging responsible firearm training remains a “hard sell” among Jewish institutions. Focusing on the protection offered by law enforcement, rabbis and lay leaders remain doubtful and skittish about laypeople bringing guns into their venues. In light of what we are witnessing daily, it is clear that their focus on the safety and security of Jews needs to expand and include ways to help individual Jews be more pro-active.
In addition to current robust efforts made to counter threats to Jewish institutions, synagogues and Jewish federations need to provide programs/classes for their constituents on basic self-defense: situational awareness, martial arts, “stop-the- bleed” and firearm training classes for those who are willing and able. Taking a cue from the rabbinic dictum that children should be taught how to swim lest they drown, the time has come for Jewish schools to make it possible for their older students to learn defensive gun use, so that they don’t “drown”.
In another song on the same album by Kinky Friedman, he sings: Now it’s time for the chosen ones to choose/Before all hell breaks loose.
Israelis have made their choice.
How will we in the Diaspora choose… “before all hell breaks loose”?
(An earlier version of this essay appeared in JNS.org)