I am often asked by friends, colleagues or others who detect my American accent (one doesn’t have to be too discerning to do so) why I chose to leave the U.S. and make aliyah. The question is generally a bit on the cynical side and goes something like, “What was so bad in America that caused you to come to Israel?” Although we might have plenty to complain about here, I still get satisfaction in answering that there was nothing bad in America and that I had a wonderful and privileged life before making my move. It is sometimes difficult given the daily struggles and tension that exist here, for native Israelis or for those who came out of necessity from less democratic or less affluent countries to accept that there are actually those who left the great American life and moved to Israel out of choice. For a Jew, America is also a good place to live. Despite the negative day-to-day hardships, I don’t take for granted the historical privilege of living as a Jew in Israel, which is also an open, modern, democratic and affluent country.
But in recent years I have begun to include a negative reason for not wanting to live in America. This became an issue for me even before the unspeakable and unfathomable Newtown tragedy given the increasing regularity of random mass shootings in schools, universities, movie theaters and even shopping malls. The incident at the Clackamas Mall made it even more personal. While the massacre at Sandy Hook was the most gut-wrenching and devastating of these horrific events, which also include Columbine and Thurston High School in Eugene, this has clearly become an American plague. In certain ways at certain moments, it has made me thankful that my family and I do not live in the U.S.
Not that incidents like this can’t happen in Israel; they have occurred in many countries. In 1992 a deranged security guard entered a mental health clinic in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Kiryat Hayovel and gunned down five social workers, including the pregnant wife of a close friend. But Israel is the polar opposite of America in terms of the conditions that have created the American scourge of mass shootings. Nonetheless, the two sides in the post-Newtown U.S. gun-control debate have both used Israel to lend credence to their positions by applying their own interpretation of our reality and tailoring it to fit their respective positions.
The fact that Israel is a country awash in guns yet still free of such random massacres makes it a tempting target both for analysis and for potential solutions. But the difference between the countries is not in the prevalence of guns but in the regulations that accompany them. Additional differences include the basic fabric of Israeli society, the military context of guns for the vast majority of Israelis, mental health care and the general Israeli mentality.
The huge gap between the Israeli gun reality and that of the U.S. does not bode well for American pro-gun advocates and begins with the simple fact that we have no Second Amendment. No one I know believes we need to arm ourselves for protection against the central government or fellow citizens. The fact that we are surrounded by enemies still bent on our destruction strengthens the feeling that we do not use firearms against each other.
Even if this were not the case, it is extremely hard to legally obtain guns. Licenses are only given to those who work in security or law enforcement or who live or work in settlements.
Anyone who fits these requirements, is over age 21 and has been an Israeli resident for more than three years still must go through a mental and physical health exam. Then he must pass shooting exams and courses at a licensed gun range as well as background checks by the Public Security Ministry.
Once he orders his firearm from a gun store, he takes it home with a one-time, lifetime supply of 50 bullets, which cannot be renewed. The gunowner must retake his license exam and pass tests at the gun range every three years, where he is not required to use his own limited supply of 50 bullets. One licensed owner of a pistol who went to renew his license quoted his shooting instructor: “If you need more than 50 bullets, a pistol isn’t going to solve your problem.”
Israel has been very proactive in enacting and updating gun legislation. This month a new law will go into effect requiring gun owners to prove that they have a safe at home to store their weapon. The law was enacted after the 12-year-old son of a gun owner accidentally killed a friend when playing with his father’s pistol.
Following the Kiryat Hayovel massacre, legislation was enacted requiring much stricter criteria for armed civilian security guards. After the 1995 assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, legislation ensured a continuous reduction in the number of weapons in public hands.
There are approximately 170,000 privately owned firearms in Israel, which means one gun for every 50 Israelis. That is far less per capita than in the U.S., where just over 300 million people own an estimated 300 million guns – roughly one gun per person.
Following Newtown, U.S. gun advocates have pointed out that Israeli schools are well protected by armed guards. One widely circulated photo shows a woman teacher with a rifle slung over her shoulder standing with a group of young pupils. These were the most blatant examples I saw of American pro-gun activists cherry-picking a few facts to concoct their own reality.
Appearing on Meet the Press, National Rifle Association’s Wayne Lapierre said: “Israel had a whole lot of school shootings until they did one thing, they said, ‘We’re going to stop it,’ and they put armed security at every school, and they have not had a problem since then.”
That was, to put it lightly, a deceptive manipulation.
Israel has had one school shooting: the 1974 Ma’alot massacre, which was perpetrated by Palestinian terrorists who murdered more than 20 schoolchildren. Terrorists have also attacked school buses, such as the Avivim attack where 12 were killed. Yes, schools, like almost all other public institutions, are fenced in and have an armed guard at the gate. But teachers are not armed as a matter of policy, nor do they need to be. Schools in Israel are no more (or less) in danger than other institutions. Following Ma’alot, armed guards were posted at schools; but this is not the reason there have not been more school shootings.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor told the New York Daily News: “What removed the danger was not the armed guards but an overall anti-terror policy and anti-terror operations which brought street terrorism down to nearly zero over a number of years.” He wisely added, “It would be better not to drag Israel into what is an internal American discussion.” Prof. Gerald Steinberg of Bar-Ilan University was interviewed in the same article and noted: “The attempt to compare the two tragedies is absurd.” He noted that Palestinian terror attacks such as Ma’alot – the goal of which was to use the children as hostages to free other terrorists – are totally different from crimes committed by deranged people with guns.
Israel’s strict gun-control laws are not the only reason this danger does not exist here. One reason is Israel has no gun culture. Most Israelis have had enough of guns in their military service. There are very few gun shops, and the few that do exist have few products to show and are pretty drab. As law professor Aaron Zelinsky wrote: “Most Israelis would like nothing more than to have a country where they needn’t carry guns, where they live in peace. Most Israelis are not gun ‘enthusiasts;’ they’re reluctant warriors. And they’ve been dreaming of the day they can turn their weapons into plowshares for thousands of years.”
Moreover, Israel’s universal health care is very successful in its efforts to locate and care for those with mental and psychological disabilities and handicaps. Once individuals with limitations are “in the system,” they are “red flagged” in terms of guns, military service and the like. The problem of illegal firearms remains. The number of contraband guns is estimated to be equal to the number of legal ones. But illegal guns are mostly in the realm of the criminal underworld, which is a separate problem and a top priority of the police. Possession of an illegal weapon carries an automatic jail sentence. Israel’s reality is vastly different from America’s in one other very important way: A small country, Israel has a close-knit family structure, and an intimacy and informality among strangers of all backgrounds and social classes.
I am not much of a sociologist, but from my personal experience in Israel, this social reality creates a mentality that encourages people to be more direct and to express and externalize both positive and negative feelings. One of the more exaggerated manifestations of stereotypical Israeli behavior is the “trash talk” that sometimes evolves into pushing and maybe a jab or two over anything from a place in line or smoking in a public place. At first this was quite a shock for a naïve boy from the Pacific Northwest. Though this is limited to certain segments of the population, it is nonetheless disturbing. Yet, it is perhaps another reason that mass shootings are not part of our reality. This behavior functions as a valve to release pressure that could, if pent up, result in someone snapping. That is often the catalyst for road rage shootings commonplace in the U.S., where externalizing frustration is very unacceptable. This negative phenomenon on the micro level might be a positive on the macro level.
Yes, Israelis, like everyone, can snap, and the results can be tragic, but for all of the above reasons, the “snap” has not and hopefully will never result in the swath of destruction we have been accustomed to in America.
In our neighborhood where we are in a permanent state of “snap” when it comes to Israel’s Jews, our efforts at protecting ourselves need to be directed at this threat. Israel has many problems, but thankfully, civilian gun violence is not one of them.
Mylan Tanzer is a Portland native who moved to Israel in 1981. He was the founding CEO of the first Israeli cable and satellite sports channel. Since 2005, he has launched, managed and consulted for channels and companies in Israel and Europe. Tanzer lives in Tel Aviv with his wife and five children. He can be reached at email@example.com.