Guns: A Comparison of Jewish and American Perspectives

Guns: A Comparison of Jewish and American Perspectives


Eugen Schoenfeld
Eugen Schoenfeld

In July, the tragedy at an Aurora, Colo. movie theater brought the issue of gun control center-stage. The same happened in the aftermath of past gun-related incidents, including those at the University of Texas bell tower, Virginia Tech University, Columbine High School and a Tucson, Ariz. strip mall.

Debate is always the result of this issue being discussed, as opinions regarding how best to solve the issue of gun-related violence are bifurcated. There are those who advocate gun control, frightened – and justly so – by the extremely high rate of murder in this country; they seek to control the possession of guns, proposing that their availability gives mentally unstable persons the means to act out violently and often quite randomly.

On the other hand, there are those who oppose any form of gun control. Members of this group quote the Second Amendment to the Constitution, which guarantees the right to bear arms. In the minds of these people, to further restrict the purchase of firearms will push the nation down a slippery slope of restricting the right to own a gun as well as other freedoms of individuals.

I propose that perhaps the availability of guns is not the problem; perhaps the problem lies in a value system arising out of a bellicose people who glorified the wild-west mentality. We in the United States are more likely to agree with the adage that “might makes right.”

For instance, many citizens support our varied military involvements and justify the spending of tax dollars on armaments so that the U.S. may wield power over nations and support our assumed self-interest. I see this point of view as an expansion of the “manifest destiny” doctrine, namely that we have a G-d-given right – even a duty – to expand our territories and our influence.
A Personal Experience

My confrontation with the gun issue and the moral question about using a gun began right after I was liberated from the concentration camp. On the first day of my liberation, I was presented with the moral dilemma of whether to give in to my desire for vengeance or submit myself to the moral teachings of my parents and Judaism.

It was May 2, 1945 that I was liberated from Muhldorf, one of the many German concentration camps, by a squad of American soldiers. Since I was the only former prisoner who spoke English, I explained to the lieutenant about our life in the camp; of the tortures we endured, the beatings we experienced and, of course, the thousands of Jews who died from starvation and were buried in mass graves. The other former inmates and I stood in front of the American soldiers; they had seen death in battle, but never living skeletons, which we appeared to be.

Lieutenant Schwartz, a Jewish boy from Chicago commanding the squad, was very interested in our life in camp. Just as I was telling him about beatings and other tortures inflicted on us by the kapos (supervisors) – many of whom were Jews – the “chief kapo” passed by our group.

This man, appointed to the position that permitted him to inflict pain and suffering, was a German criminal convicted for murder by the civil court. He was my chief tormentor; on a number of occasions, he beat me within an inch of my life.

He was a short man in his late 30s with a very simian appearance: He had long arms that almost reached his knees, a very short brow and a mean, never-smiling face. On this particular occasion, his aggressive air was heightened by the blood caking his arms his arms from butchering a cow.

The lieutenant handed me his pistol and said, “Shoot the SOB. No one will know it.”

“Sorry,” I replied. “I cannot do it.”
In spite the anger I held for the sadistic chief kapo, my Jewish upbringing and what it instilled in me kept me not just from taking a human life but from even holding the pistol, an implement of killing in my eyes.
Looking to Judaism

As I develop my views on social and political issues, I seek advice in the teachings of our ancient Jewish sages and in our cultural traditions. Consider the following:

A phrase commonly used by Jews in greeting is “Peace be unto you.” We love and honor peace.

Our sages advised that the sign that one is a truly a descendant of Abraham is if one seeks peace.

Anyone who was ever called to the Torah is familiar with the yad (literally, “the hand”), the pointer used by the reader to indicate the place of the script that he or she reads. This implement is made either from precious metals, wood or bone, but never from iron. Iron is the metal of war associated with weaponry, and since the Torah is the sacred symbol of peace, Jews feel that it is improper even sinful to use iron implements to touch the Torah.

To Jews, the essential difference between Esau and Jacob is that the former was a person committed to weapons and hunting, while the latter was committed to books and study.

Our hope for a quality of future existence will be assured said Rabbi Yeshevav when we learn to love peace and justice.

Jews, as a general rule, do not hunt and do not consider the killing of animals a sport.

We have had many heroes who used weapons for defense – King David, for example – but the ultimate value to which they subscribed was shalom, peace. The following legend illustrates this perspective:

When King David proposed to G-d his desire to build a permanent Temple (instead of the Tabernacle used in the dessert), G-d declined his offer. Our sages tell us that G-d wanted the Temple to be a symbol of peace, but David was noted for his military prowess, so the task was given to Solomon.

Solomon set about his task under the proviso that no iron – the metal of weaponry – should be used in hewing the massive stones used in building the sanctuary. Thus, Solomon – with great difficulty – acquired the shamir, a little worm with the miraculous power of splitting stones, which he used to build the Holy Temple.

Thus, the Temple was indeed truly a symbol of peace.

The Contrast Laid Bare

These facts having been set forth, let’s face it: The long history of the Jewish people attests that while we honor the ideal of peace, we unfortunately live in a world where war has often been thrust on us.

Abraham, as the head of his tribe, fought wars to defend his land and water rights. Our forefathers fought the Amalekites who attacked our ancestors in stealth on their way out of Egypt, and our ancestors had to defend themselves from constant attacks by the Philistines, the Syrians, the Babylonians, the Greeks and the Romans.

Today, we have to defend ourselves against attacks by Muslim individuals and Islamic countries. We use weapons and have created new weapons.

There isn’t a single person born in modern Israel (with the exception of the Haredi) who is not familiar with and skilled in the use of the myriads of weapons. Anyone who has been to Israel has seen far too many young people with a weapon slung around their shoulders, and what’s worse, there is hardly a single family in Israel who has not suffered casualties in the various wars and skirmishes over the nation’s 64 years.

But in spite of the great importance of weapons in Israel’s struggle for survival, no image of a weapon appears as a national symbol. Sometimes it is necessary to shed blood in defense of one’s country, or of one’s life or the lives of members of one’s family, but we undoubtedly hold as fundamental values peace and the non-glorification of weapons.

In my mind, the American view is just the opposite. “Real Americans love war,” said Carl C. Scott, portraying the titular character in “Patton.” Consider also that we in the U.S. do not have legends that glorify the scholar, the philosophers or the Nobel Laureates, but we have the cowboy hero, the legends of the gun-slingers and a “John Wayne philosophy.”

The fact is that Americans love weapons; specifically, we love guns. We fondle them, display them and, in the case of Governor Sarah Palin, kiss them. The ironically titled Colt revolver known as the “Peacemaker”, the most popular and noted weapon produced in the U.S., has become a household name and synonym for the word “firearm.”

Whereas Jewish legends seek to de-glorify not only weapons but also the material of which weapons were made, guns in America have assumed a sacred quality. What other term is more appropriate, considering priests of the U.S. will act as spokespeople for the National Rifle Association?

My Own Conclusion

Based on the lessons I have learned from Jewish historical experiences, I do not own or use – nor do I desire to own or use – guns. I would prefer that the world, in general, and this country, in particular, denounce guns and violence and become the seekers of peace.

But for the present, it is not my desire to forbid gun ownership; I advocate the idea of laissez faire et laissez passer. Nonetheless, I do wish that our value system would diminish the glory of the gun and the idea that manhood should be defined by gun skills.

Perhaps there is something Freudian at play here – the “He Man” keeps and uses guns because he is the defender of his home; he is the possessor of the mystical quality of Nimrod, the hunter who provides food.

Of course, today’s hunter’s aim is not to feed his family, yet for whatever reason he is defined as “sportsman.” More likely, he is a lover of guns who kills for the sake of killing, sitting on a comfortable stand on a tree, dressed in warm camouflage and fortified with alcohol as he shoots unwary deer.

But I digress. My point is this: Before we create effective laws against gun possession, we must tarnish the shiny halo of the gun. We must de-glorify those who seek to emulate the character of John Wayne and his way of life.

We must realize that guns do not bring peace and that a gun owner is neither a hero nor a peacekeeper; we must realize that the real hero is a person who conquers his anger and his desire to kill.

We need to follow the advice of the ancient Hebrew prophets, who tell us peace can occur only when we dispose of weapons, when swords will be made into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks.

Editor’s note: Eugen Schoenfeld is a professor and chair emeritus at Georgia State University and a Holocaust survivor.

By Eugen Schoenfeld
AJT Contributor

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