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Yes, it’s about self-defense but, then again, it’s also about love. Carrying a gun in Israel, that is.
In Israel, at least for me, carrying a gun, besides allowing an immediate response to potential terrorist acts, is an expression of love for those around me, my extended Jewish family. And when you love those around you, you not only want to protect them in every possible way but you want them to feel protected, too.
Throughout history, and until today, we Jews have been the target of random violence by people who hate us just for being Jews. But until the enterprise of modern Israel, we seldom had weapons at our disposal to fight back.
When I see a Jew in Israel carrying a gun, it gives me a feeling of security, to be sure, but also a keen recognition and sense of appreciation that, at long last, we can defend ourselves against random violence.
I imagine that those around me have similar feelings upon seeing their fellow Jews with guns, and if I can make other Jews feel more secure upon seeing my gun, then carrying that gun is worth it.
When you obtain a gun license in Israel and procure a gun, you are given a holster along with it. It is assumed you will carry that gun at all times, although you are not required to do so, as long as it is at home locked in a safe. But there is no separation between being licensed to have a gun and being allowed to openly carry it. The government wants people with gun licenses to carry their guns, visible in holsters, because a display of firearms among the civilian population is a deterrent to terrorist acts.
That being said, only a very small percentage of the Israeli population is entitled to apply for a gun license. People who can apply for a gun license include those who currently serve in the military at the rank of lieutenant or above, serve currently or served previously in special forces units, work for private security firms, farm in fields at risk for terrorism or agricultural arson, work as firefighters or veterinarians, transport explosive materials, collect old, non-working guns, work in the national parks service and must occasionally hunt down dangerous animals, participate in shooting competitions, or work for Magen David Adom, the Israeli equivalent of the Red Cross, since saving lives from fresh terrorist acts may involve encounters with the terrorists themselves.
The largest category of people who can apply for a gun license is the population who live or work in a neighborhood or a town designated as a security risk, consisting mostly of those who live in Judea and Samaria, the so-called West Bank. (Of course, gun licensing is not required of soldiers on leave who carry military issued rifles, a ubiquitous sight in Israel.)
If you live in Tel Aviv, for example, or in most other cities and towns in Israel, and do not qualify for a gun license through military rank, special forces experience, need for a gun as part of your profession, or heightened exposure to possible terrorism through a job that takes you into high risk areas, you will not be eligible to own a gun. The same is true if you live in Jerusalem. Even though Jerusalem is home to 330,000 Arabs, there are only a handful of neighborhoods considered sufficiently dangerous that their residents are allowed to apply for a gun license.
When I first applied for a gun license due to a spike in terrorist activity two years ago, I did not know the rules and filled out most of the paperwork until I discovered that I lived in a Jerusalem neighborhood that did not qualify as a security risk, despite the fact that, a number of years ago, three Jews were randomly murdered by an Arab construction worker close to my apartment. I regularly walk by the memorial erected on the spot where the murders took place and dozens of Arabs still walk through my neighborhood every morning and afternoon on their way to and from work, yet living in my neighborhood is not considered a security risk.
I should have guessed that my neighborhood was not considered a security risk if only because of the grocery store located at the end of my street. This store is renowned for the high quality of its poultry and beef and the meat counter is always crowded with customers. Three men work at the meat counter and show great proficiency with knives. Would you be surprised if I told you that all of these meat cutters are Arabs? In fact, throughout Jerusalem, in grocery stores and supermarkets, those who cut meat are typically Arabs. You might think this would be a security risk but, until now, has not proven to be the case.
It needs to be said that the vast majority of Arabs living in Israel, including those in Judea and Samaria, are focused on living regular lives and have no interest in engaging in terrorist activity. The problem is that you never know who is absolutely benign and who is not. There are many cases where Arabs who were employed by Jews for years and seemed friendly enough who, seemingly out of the blue, came to work one morning with an ax or a knife and killed their employer or fellow workers.
Mob terrorism can also take hold at any time. There are many cases of Israelis mistakenly entering an Arab town or even an Arab neighborhood in Jerusalem where their car was suddenly surrounded by a hostile crowd and only by quick maneuvering of their vehicle did they manage to escape with their lives. In one horrifying case, two Israelis who mistakenly entered Ramallah were dragged out of their car and lynched.
About a year ago, I was hired by a company that does business in towns in Judea and Samaria. These towns, branded settlements by those who wish they would go away, are considered a sufficient security risk that anyone who lives or works in them may apply for a gun license. Ironically, perhaps, even though just about anyone living in these towns — around 135 in number with a total population of 430,000 — could apply for a gun license, only a small minority actually do.
When you apply for a gun license, the first step is getting a form signed by your family doctor which declares that you do not have a serious physical health issue or a history of mental illness. Once you turn in that form, your background is investigated by the Ministry of Health and by the police. Since medicine in Israel is socialized (to the tune of less than $50 a month, by the way), the Ministry of Health can quickly examine your complete physical and mental health history. The police will check to make sure you have no criminal record.
Although I served in the Israeli military, military service is not a requirement for obtaining a gun license. For example, men who study in a yeshiva or religious seminary are currently exempt from military service but may still obtain gun licenses. The only advantage for those who serve in the military is that they are eligible to obtain a gun license at the age of 21, while those who never served in the military are eligible for a gun license at the age of 27. Many women, but also some men, who do not serve in the regular army, but fulfill their military obligation through national service, usually as aides and mentors to poor or underprivileged children (including Arab children), may also apply for a gun license at the age of 21. Non-citizens are eligible for a gun license at the age of 45.
Having obtained all the security and health clearances, I was ready to select my handgun. With the exception of competitive shooters, veterinarians, and park service employees, the only gun a licensee is allowed to purchase is a handgun (semi-automatic pistol). It is also worth noting that a gun license entitles you to ownership of a single gun only.
Before you are allowed to take your gun home, you are required to listen to a half hour lecture on gun safety and lawful rules of engagement. Shooting at a suspicious individual is a crime. Unless you see someone with weapon drawn who has already committed or is clearly on the verge of committing a terrorist act, you are instructed to hold your fire. If you must shoot, you are told to aim at the torso since it is difficult to hit the legs and, if you miss, the terrorist could get away. After hearing these instructions, you are required to practice shooting your gun. You are accompanied by an instructor to an adjacent firing range where you shoot 50 bullets at paper silhouette targets.
In Israel, the only place you are allowed to practice shooting is at an authorized shooting range. You can’t just go out to some isolated spot in the desert and shoot tin cans. You must have 50 bullets at all times, no more and no less, including those in your ammunition clip. This means that if you shoot all 50 bullets at the shooting range, you must purchase 50 more upon leaving.
Gun safety in Israel is an extremely serious matter. By law, you must have a safe, located in a hidden place, affixed to a wall or to the floor, where your gun is kept at all times, unloaded, when the gun is in your home. Several years ago, there was a famous case where a boy told his father about a handgun he had been playing with at a friend’s house. The gun did not fire and no one was hurt but the boy’s father notified authorities about what had happened. The owner of the unlocked gun was taken to court, made to pay a heavy fine and nearly sent to jail. His gun license was permanently revoked.
If you leave your residence with your gun, it must be with you at all times. Leaving your gun in your car, even if the car is locked, is a criminal offense. If you plan to be away from Israel for more than 30 days, you must leave your gun at an authorized gun storage facility.
Should I quit or get fired from the job that takes me to Judea and Samaria, I would have to immediately deposit my gun (along with its 50 bullets) for storage at the nearest police station. My gun would remain there until I had a justifiable reason to carry it again.
Although there are strict guidelines as to who can own and carry a gun, I wonder if there would be a significant increase in gun ownership if the guidelines were more lax. Handguns are not manufactured in Israel and, like all imported products, they are expensive. A new 9mm Luger, the most popular type of handgun, costs around 3000 shekels, which is more than $800. When you consider that the average salary in Israel is $2500 per month, a gun is a luxury item. I was content to purchase a used handgun for half the price of a new one.
There is also a strongly fatalistic bent among Israelis that, in my opinion, discourages gun ownership. There is a widespread notion that “if God has decided it’s my time to go, nothing will make a difference, including my carrying a gun.” In Israel, death is a stranger to no one. There is no Israeli who has not experienced the loss of family or friends through either war or terrorist attack.
And then there is also the matter of personal courage. Israelis are, simply put, the bravest people on the planet. Despite regular broadcasts that demand death to all Jews — from Hezbollah to the north (where 150,000 rockets are stockpiled in Lebanese villages and ready to launch) and from Hamas (whose schools and summer camps glorify terrorist acts) in Gaza to the west — Israelis do not interrupt their lives with obsessively cautious behavior. Even when a gruesome terrorist attack takes place, once the victims have been removed, body parts and pieces of flesh have been carefully picked up and preserved for burial, and blood stains have been power washed from the pavement, life quickly returns to normal, usually within a few hours, at the site of the attack.
Speaking of courage, there are a few towns in Judea and Samaria (the so-called West Bank) that, despite close proximity to hostile Arab towns, refuse to be fenced. The residents of these towns maintain that a fence is actually a sign of weakness and serves as an invitation to terrorists to cut through it. And, as previously mentioned, only a small minority of Jews who live in Judea and Samaria carry guns.
I believe that the motivation for owning a gun among most Israelis has less to do with concern for personal safety and more to do with protecting the public which, in Israel, is equivalent to your extended family. Israel is a small country and it often seems like, to one degree or another, you are kin to everyone else.
There is a strong, if unspoken, bond between Israelis that gives each individual a deep sense of responsibility for every other. Gun owners probably feel this responsibility more intensely than those who, although eligible to apply for a gun license, choose not to do so. Among everyone, however, there is a keen awareness that violence could erupt momentarily. This awareness is soothed by an unspoken understanding of mutual assistance which guarantees that those around you would rush to your side if you ever needed help.
Ultimately, carrying a gun is simply the most visible sign of your determination not to be a passive spectator to the carnage of those you love.
Addendum: It has just been reported that, due to the proliferation of lone wolf terrorist attacks, anyone whose military service included standard infantry rifle training may now apply for a gun license.