Jews, Gun Violence, and the Second Amendment

The following is a transcript of Episode 102 of the Identity Crisis Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.

Yehuda: Hi, everyone. Welcome to Identity Crisis, a show about news and ideas from the Shalom Hartman Institute. I’m Yehuda Kurtzer, and we’re recording on Tuesday, June 7th, 2022. 

So I suppose it was inevitable for this show, which responds to and tries to go deeper on issues in the news that we would eventually have to do a gun episode. I think it’s also interesting to think about why we haven’t until now after a hundred episodes.

Jews in America, after all, are deeply implicated in gun violence. Sometimes because we are just among the other Americans who find themselves victims in the wrong place at the wrong time. And sometimes because of course, Jewish institutions are the explicit targets of gun violence. In our research, we counted six such incidents in the last 10 years in Jewish institutions in America, and obviously a lot more threats. 

But I’ve noticed even if just anecdotally that sometimes guns fade to the background of Jewish conversation, even in response to just such moments. So like after the murder spree at Tree of Life in Squirrel Hill, much of the attention, maybe rightly, was on the rise of violent antisemitism in America. Amidst a larger culture of rage and hate against minorities. 

And some of our attention was in conversation was about the particulars of the grievance of the shooter, about this rising story of replacement theory, a newer conspiracy theory that fits nicely into the history of antisemitism’s evolutions. 

And some Jewish conversation and response clearly manifested into a set of questions about whether and how we fortify our Jewish institutions against these attacks and how we balance our need for security, with the obligation to be welcoming.

But lurking behind those important topics and filters of course, is that this was also just another mass shooting in America, it just happened to have been one that was directed, on that occasion, against a Jewish institution. It’s not that I mean to make any light of the antisemitic particularities of that attack or any other, but the emphasis on the antisemitism angle makes us treat the weapon in the attack as functionally irrelevant.

Like it was a gun this time, but it could just as well have been a wrench or led pipe. In America though, that just isn’t so. America is not just a big place with a lot of people where violence with guns periodically seems to take place. It starts to feel as though the gun is somehow particularly emblematic of America, where the referendum on whether and how we decide to regulate the autonomy that comes with gun ownership is deeply about Americanness in ways that I’m not sure I fully understand.

Maybe it means that a lot of us, myself included, who believe in American liberalism, those doctrines that created this country and continue to define its political culture, have to start seeing the Wild West as endemic to America, to understand America as a place that has always tolerated quite a bit of violence as a fair trade for the liberty it placed at the center of its value system for some at the cost of liberty for others. 

That maybe America is defined in some way by its ongoing choice to prioritize the liberty of those with firearms over those who are at risk from those firearms, crudely put. And so then we as American Jews probably need to start unpeeling the layers of how our Jewishness is informed by our Americanness and vice versa to see the ways we are like it or not complicit in this story. 

Those of us who do see American liberalism intertwined with the thriving of American Jewishness need to start reckoning with the choices implied in that and the costs. What have we, as American Jews chosen to be a part of? In what ways are our own struggles for safety, actually, nearly a case study of larger American existential concerns? What does it mean for us as American Jews to participate in a political culture that simply cannot seem to make its citizens feel safe? 

I say all of that, and by the way, acknowledging that plenty of American Jews, probably a growing number are gun owners and or probably agree with conservative talking points about guns, most famous of which is that the best way to stop a bad guy with a gun is to have a good guy with a gun. 

American Jews overwhelmingly support background checks for gun sales. According to one study, it’s 94% of American Jews, but when it comes to most gun legislations, specific gun legislation, the numbers cut closer to the percentages of American Jews that vote democratic. On guns, American Jews continue to show our stars and stripes, our politics witnessing our assimilation into this larger culture.

And in the larger sense, I don’t think we can understand the moment we’re in in Jewish history without seeing the central place of the technological innovation of the gun. You know, sometimes pro Israel folks like to poke at America by talking about how in Israel, where there are guns everywhere, there are far fewer of these kinds of mass shootings. 

That’s true. There is quite a bit of domestic violence. But it also kind of misses the point. In Israel, there’s also far too much gun violence, but of the political and military variety. And really is there such a difference? 

I couldn’t help but feel buffeted over the past few weeks by these two stories, the horrific Uvalde shooting that obviously prompts this episode, as well as the shooting in Jenin of the journalist Shireen Abu Aqleh, a Palestinian American journalist, an event that was at the least malevolently unnecessary, and at the worst maliciously unforgivable. 

Guns are everywhere. Defining the Jewish experience of modernity. To talk about this today, I’m joined by Jay Michaelson. Jay is an award-winning writer, a columnist, a podcaster, he’s kind of a Jewish intellectual polymath, with both rabbinic ordination and a doctorate in Jewish thought.

He has a new book coming out on Jacob Frank, that maybe he’ll come back and talk to us about at another time, but it’s not our topic for today. I’m excited to read it. Jay writes frequently on current events and politics, and he comes on to our show on the heels of one of his latest pieces in Rolling Stone, where he built on earlier arguments, there was a piece that he wrote a few years ago saying quote, explaining mass shootings as a political act. 

And in this particular essay writes that in America quote, the second amendment has become gospel. And that quote our collective refusal to do anything about these horrifying mass shootings is not the second Amendment’s fault, it’s white supremacy’s faults. 

So, um, Jay, thanks for coming on the show and let’s start there. Um, maybe give us a little bit of a, of a short history on why you think this is not a constitutional problem in America. Um, why it’s really a result of simply some political, uh, changes over the past few decades. 

Jay: Sure. First it’s, uh, it’s really great to be here even under this, uh, these difficult circumstances. Um, so I guess the first thing is it’s not, this is not my theory. Uh, the Supreme Court and no federal court, in fact, recognized didn’t, didn’t recognize a federal gun right under the constitution until the two thousands.

There is some notion now, you know, in the last 15, 20 years that the second amendment has an, is an individual gun, right. An individual right to bear arms. And that this is a sacred constitutional right that is as important as freedom of speech or freedom of religion. But historically speaking, that’s certainly not true.

Uh, it was an outlier theory that the second amendment had an individual gun right at all. And it would crop up occasionally, but it was never endorsed by a federal court and certainly not the Supreme Court. Um, so we can talk about the sort of specific history of the second amendment, which itself is very troubling.

Uh, but bracketing that for the moment, this was never a constitutional issue. And in fact, it wasn’t even a Republican Democrat issue. Uh, in 1972, the Republican party platform supported gun control, uh, federal gun control. There was a shift that took place within the Republican party in the seventies where sort of the more moderate wing, uh, lost. 

And what had been the Goldwater wing, the more sort of extreme conservative wing won. And that’s, that’s a very complicated history as well, but it’s really due to the Southern strategy during the Nixon era, in which disaffected white voters who had been voting Democrat in the south were attracted to the Republican party in opposition to civil rights.

That sea change between let’s say 1972 and 1980, when Ronald Reagan won the presidency was a 180 degrees shift in Republican party views toward guns and the second amendment in particular. So it’s a very recent phenomena. It’s one that’s connected to the anxieties about guns. I think you’re exactly right. It’s partly the wild west. It’s not a coincidence that Ronald Reagan, you know, Hollywood actor, kind of second tier cowboy, uh, was, was the figurehead for some of those changes.

Uh, but it’s also anxiety about civil rights, uh, growth in so-called crime, inner-city crime, things like that, things that were not born out by the data, but which were born out by white anxiety and, and white fears. 

Yehuda: So when you say it’s not born out by the data. So one of the talking points that’s emerged from, uh, from Republican legislators in the last few weeks in response to, uh, democratic legislators calling for more gun control, uh, Louie Gohmert was one of them, um, kind of flipped out in the debate on this, and then later on, on talk radio saying Democrats have basically failed to police, uh, you know, gun violence in their own cities. So why would you expect that that would be workable on a national level? 

Can you, without defending any of those positions, can you give us some insight into the internal logic of the Republican position? And then I give you permission again to argue with it and tell us why it’s wrong. 

Jay: Qell, it’s, it’s hard to tease those two, those two strands out. Since the 1960s, there’s been a perception, uh, that the inner cities are rife with crime. And that’s been the case when crime has increased and when it has decreased. So crime did increase during the pandemic.

Um, not necessarily more in cities than elsewhere, but I’m sure you saw it. A lot of the bizarre rhetoric, I live in New York city, uh, about New York and other cities that were teeming with crime and there was just violence everywhere. So New York has seen an increase in crime, uh, and it’s incredibly disturbing, right.

Violence on the subway, for example. Um, but to read, you know, what some folks on the right have been saying about it, you know, it’s like we’re in Beirut in the 1980s. I mean, it’s just like we’re living in an insane war zone. Which is certainly not my experience living in sunny Park Slope, Brooklyn.

So, but that perception has been there since the civil rights movement, since the cities became associated with kind of honestly, people of color running amok, uh, you know, it’s not a coincidence that urban is sort of a polite term for Black or for Black and people of color. 

There’s this sort of mashing together of the cities and the term, the inner cities, uh, with black populations, uh, who are armed and who are dangerous, and so that’s why we need again, good people with guns. 

You know, the notion that Democrat cities, uh, are more dangerous than Republican-led cities, that’s just not true. Factually uh, all cities saw an increase in crime during the pandemic, regardless of the leadership. Meanwhile, Police and democratic-led governments and cities are calling for more gun control.

So it’s one of the rare areas, you know, you might think, oh, the Democrats are anti-cop, but actually the cops would like nothing more than to see some of these dangerous weapons, if not completely off the street, then certainly limited and certainly regulated. But again, there’s the kind of I think the phrase you use, the, you know, the internal logic of that position is this fear of anarchy in the cities that’s been with us now for 60 years, 55, 60 years.

And that has been the case when crime has gone up and when crime has gone down, it’s just, it has no connection to the data of, of violent crime.

Yehuda: There are two pieces of conservative logic that I am sympathetic to. One is when we do see conservative Republican legislators talking about, I think if it was Gomer too, like you don’t think we’re sad about this? You don’t think that we have hearts, you don’t think we have children? 

And a little bit of a claiming of those who actually care about things like Uvalde obviously must be Democrat. Cause that’s obviously not true. Um, but be that as it may, it’s kind of irrelevant to the question of how we legislate around these things, but there is a larger question about whether the prevalence of guns in this country actually alters the possibility of political violence. 

And I guess that pulls in both directions, right? If the existence of the second amendment is to prevent massive political violence taking place. I guess that’s why it’s there. On the other hand, every time that these things happen, where they represent a kind of lone wolf, conservatives will basically say, look, the people who have all these guns are not actually perpetrating these crimes. 

So I guess maybe you can help to disentangle this a little bit more because I think there is a logic to, we want to allow people to have either the right to protect themselves or have this hobby, even though, you know, creating a situation where there are 300 million guns widely available is, is patently absurd. 

Jay: Sure. I mean, yeah, as far as I know, you know, only the most extreme edge of the left is really talking about things like hunting rifles or even, uh, small handguns, uh, for self-defense. There’s just no use case for an AR 15 as a defensive weapon for a non-military non-police use. I mean, there’s just, that’s, that’s nuts. 

And it’s also just as a side note, when in DC versus Heller that the Supreme court recognized an individual gun right, they explicitly said, this was the majority opinion that bans on assault weapons would be constitutional in their understanding under the second amendment. 

That wasn’t a holding because that wasn’t an issue in the case, but they said nothing about this opinion should be construed as preventing sensible gun control, such as, and then assault weapons bans was one of the measures that was included. 

So the claim that, you know, we have to be, legislate now, uh, in with respecting the second amendment or our second amendment rights, flies in the face of what the Supreme Court actually said when it first recognized an individual gun right. 

So I don’t, I just don’t agree with the logic that we’re talking about. Hobbies or hunting or self-defense. Um, I think the New York Times just did a really good analytical piece and maybe we could put the link in the show notes, just showing how four gun control measures around specific things, around not letting someone under 21 buy a gun, for example, uh, would have saved lives in, you know, at least 35 different shooting incidents that they documented in this kind of detailed research piece. 

So those should be what, the low hanging fruit. I think we can have an interesting ideological debate about handgun ownership, for example. But we’re so far from that in terms of the political dynamic. And it’s also true that a lot of that low-hanging fruit is as you noted at the top widely supported.

So whether it’s background checks or age limits or an assault weapons ban, or closing gun show loopholes, that the sort of familiar words we hear, you know, year after year, the support for those measures runs in the, in the eighties, uh, 80% of Americans. Iit’s only when we get to some of the more contentious ones that things get more, um, get more well contentious or controversial.

Yehuda: So then why doesn’t it go through? If you’re talking about those types of things, at minimum 50, 53% was one I saw about banning assault rifles altogether, but you’re right. All of the loopholes, background checks, et cetera, poll incredibly high, but when it actually comes to the ballet it doesn’t seem to have, um, significant impact.

And it seems to fade, I would observe, under a perception that it’s a culture war issue. So why can’t this be bipartisan? 

Jay: Yeah. So two answers, one, neither of which may be what you were expecting to hear. One is gerrymandering and the other is a collective action problem. So because of Republican gerrymandering, in every single Republican-led state, congressional districts are increasingly safe for Republicans, but what that has done is empowered extremists, right? 

If you have a state, let’s take, let’s take the current, uh, Senate election in Pennsylvania, right? So this is one of the elections and it’s a senatorial election, not, uh, not, not you know, in the, in the house. That’s going to be really decided a lot by moderates. Right? These are two, I dunno if I would call Dr. Oz a moderate. 

But given the choice, these are two relatively moderate candidates who have to compete for the center. So in an election like that, a widely supported gun safety measures would be an easy yes for a candidate. But if you’re running as a Republican member of Congress in a Republican gerrymander district, where to be seen as less conservative is essentially political suicide, it’s very difficult to make the case that you should support even these low hanging fruit gun regulations. 

Right, if we had competitive congressional districts that wouldn’t be the case. Even on the Senate side, you know, all of these senators have to go through a Republican primary. They have to go through some kind of, you know, very difficult process, right. 

Remember, you know, for folks on the left, Mitch McConnell may be sort of the enemy, but folks on the right see him as insufficiently conservative. So he has to be worried about attacks from the right in the primary. The NRA. They’re not the political force that they once were, but the gun culture that they’re a part of absolutely is.

So we have non-competitive congressional districts, difficult Republican primaries that it’s essentially political suicide to support any kind of gun safety regulation, which is the second issue related issue, which is about collective action. Right? 

So we’ve seen this until this year, I think on abortion politics as well, right. Pro-life voters are a little bit like some American Jewish voters. Single issue voters. This is the most important thing. This is a must have for them. It’s a litmus test. They will vote exclusively on one issue if they have to.

Pro-choice voters have not historically been the same way. It’s an issue. It’s one thing that they care about, but it’s one among many. And so this, the gun issue seems to be similar. For folks who were part of American gun culture, this is an absolute litmus test of what kind of person you are, what kind of man you are, uh, and whether you’re somebody that they’re going to vote for.

That’s not necessarily true or has not historically been true on the gun control side. Uh, people are sort of generally for gun control, but it just, like you said, it kind of fades beneath other issues. Um, and so it hasn’t really been the number one issue. This year might be different on both issues, on both abortion and gun control.

But what you have in Republican primary after primary after primary is that there may be, well numerically, there have to be at least half of Republicans have to be supportive based on the numbers of these various, uh, low-hanging fruit gun safety regulations, but they’re not single issue voters. They’re not going to vote on that basis.

Yehuda: And even when you’re talking about 85% of the electorate, the gerrymandering creates a situation where that doesn’t wind up actually creating political incentives in a district to overturn the status quo. 

Jay: Yeah, no, it’s the great sort, but, and it’s, someone like Mitch McConnell, I mean, his job is quite safe, but someone of his politics, you know, someone who is basically the, the old guard conservative Republican party before Trumpist populism. You know, in a certain way, they made a deal with the devil, gerrymandering in this way.

I mean, they have many more safe districts on the state and the federal level, but on the other hand, they now have this empowered hard right. Uh, that’s really hard to fight off. I mean, imagine for, for liberals to think about it. Imagine if every district was like AOC’s district where someone who is much more progressive than the Democrat mainstream, let’s say, can win an election because their district is drawn in such a way that that’s who’s in that district. That’s true of, you know, hundreds of state and federal districts around the country.

Yehuda: Your single example about collective action was about single issue voting, but it can’t be the only option available to collective action. I mean certainly Bloomberg tried, right, with his gun control effort.

Another way to approach collective action is to try to create, um, I guess the educational systems and the relational systems that help people to understand that they can diverge from their party on a particular issue, but still be supportive of their party on actually the 10 things that they want to be single-issue voters about.

And this feels to me like the obvious place that, the killing of children in a school, where like that’s leverageable to say, this doesn’t need to be a partisan issue. I know that sounds naive in a hyper-partisan moment. 

Jay: I was going to say like,

Yehuda: But why, why is that the only option around collective action to be single issue voters? 

Jay: I mean, like my grandmother used to say, from your mouth to God’s ears. Right. I mean, I wish that that would be true, but what you’re calling for is, you know, truth and reason. And I don’t, you know, without being too grim about it, it’s just, it’s difficult to see that very reasonable, entirely, you know, entirely plausible view, actually prevailing.

Um, and I think it is, you know, I did talk in the Rolling Stone piece about the kind of gun culture and the symbol of the gun, and I should point out, you know, there’s lots of different symbols of guns, right? There’s gangster rap gun culture, there’s hunter gun culture, where you have the hunting rifle over the, over the mantle piece, and that’s kind of part of your family.

And that’s all, these are, there are many different kinds, but this kind of aggressive let’s call it the Lauren Boebert gun culture, where, you know, there were all these pictures that went around Christmas season of, you know, these holiday cards of people posing with their automatic weapons. 

That is new, we haven’t really seen that. It does draw on the mythic ideas about the founders. It draws actually on slave militias, which were a big reason for the slave patrol militias, which was a big reason actually for the second amendment to be passed. And it draws on the kind of the wild west as you noted.

The way it’s manifesting is it seems very connected to this kind of uniquely, I would call it pathological populist moment where this kind of rage and the sense of embattlement is, uh, is so prevalent in a way. It’s not new. I mean, this is kind of Richard Hofstadter right? This is anti-intellectualism in American life, updated for the new century, but it does have a particular flavor, uh, that feels honestly, quite disturbing. It’s just. I wish what you said would be true. It’s certainly reasonable. And why can’t we just see this clearly? 

But you know, look, this is similar for the American Jewish context. We do know about single issue voters. We do know for folks who, 

Yehuda: Yep. 

Jay: And we do know that that also skews to the right there are folks who have a more right-wing view on Israel. And that’s an absolute litmus test. I’ve had conversations many times with folks like this, that they will vote exclusively on that issue. And if that means switching parties, they will switch parties. 

From what I can see, again, just looking as a journalist at the data, that does seem to be how gun culture sees gun issues. 

Yehuda: So you know, the two positions that you took I think are compatible, but they do pull apart a little bit. One of which is, this is not inherent to the second amendment. This is result of some significant political shifts from the 1970s and 1980s over the last 40 years. And it’s reflective of a certain turn in American political culture, but you did allude to the wild west.

You know, there’s no slave trade without the gun. There is no driving native Americans off their land in America without the gun. There’s so much that feels, uh, inherent and endemic to America that makes me feel that even if we had relatively sane gun legislation around some aspects of the most extreme manifestations of gun violence in this country, that there’s something inseparable for Americans about their love affair with the gun. 

I’d love for you to reflect on that a little bit, whether there’s something I can’t shake because what I want to get to next is how Jews enter into that story as incredibly patriotic Americans. 

Jay: Yeah, I think that’s profoundly right. And it’s also, it’s it’s possible to find the middle ground that’s there. A good example might be around hunters and gun safety, you know, the national rifle association started out as a gun safety organization.

It was the national rifle association. It was people who love their guns and who wanted to see guns used properly. Hunters are also, tend to be by the, you know, environmental conservationists, because they want to have their hunting lists. 

There’s a lot of things where we think that, oh, this is part of that American ethos that you know, is responsible for these terrible things. And that’s true to an extent. And also there are these surprising alliances, which also take place, that responsible gun owners know that you don’t want an 18 year old to have access to an AR 15. Any 18 year old, let alone one who has, has showed signs of either mental illness or political radicalization or something like that.

So I think you’re right. There is something in the culture uh, that’s there. Again, though, if we are going to talk about the second amendment specifically, remember that, just for listeners, I know you know this, right. The second amendment has unusually and almost exclusively in the constitution, a reason for the right that’s enumerated. 

Which from a sort of Jewish textual point of view should raise like a bunch of alarms. Right? I imagine Rashi reading this text and like, well, why does the second amendment bother to say all this stuff about the militia, if it’s not relevant, right? That must be a limiting factor. That must be something important. 

The Supreme Court just jettisoned it. They said it’s just a mere introductory language, but really the text says a well-regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed. In other words, the right is there because a militia is necessary to the security of a state.

So even stipulating to the parade of evils, of the slave trade and of the genocide of native Americans. Even those were still accomplished with some notion that it’s not just people being each one a law to themselves, that there was something connected to state power and state militia. That this was a collective right, that it was a right that was connected only to the weapons that were necessary for the militia. And that it’s certainly not a kind of individual right to just, you know, do as one wishes.

Yehuda: So what do you make of my pet theory here that Jews as Americans tend to subordinate guns to other concerns or considerations, even in moments like this. I think it’s clearly true around antisemitic attacks, right? Where we look to probe the anti-Semitic, what did he, what did the shooter say? What’s their last thing that they said? You know, in squirrel hill, it was about HIAS and immigration and it’s like guns become incidental. 

I feel like I noticed that. And I also noticed that this again, to be like, dreamlike. This should be a place where there is kind of wall-to-wall Jewish interest in some measure of gun control, because if you see yourself as a vulnerable population and every statistic around hate crimes indicates that Jews are, you would think that wall-to-wall the Jewish community would be way out in front on this, but somehow the specific concern around guns seems to fall second to the more generalized fear of anti-Jewish hatred. What do you think that’s about?

Jay: Yeah. I feel like those two strands are interwoven in a way that that maybe is interesting. I mean, so that anti-Semitism is our profound trauma. All right. So when there’s an antisemitic attack that’s also a gun attack, there may be some consciousness of this is also about, uh, automatic weapons, but this is triggering our primary collective trauma and maybe even individual trauma, uh, somebody going in and, you know, being antisemitic and murdering innocent people in a shul.

So it feels to me like that, just the gun anger or whatever that is, or a sense of injustice, uh, just pales in comparison to the acute trauma that I think that I personally experienced around these recent attacks and likewise, you know, the sense of resolution around gun issues just seems to me, I don’t have, this I don’t have data for, but it, this, it just seems secondary to the way in which American Jewish identity is constructed. 

And so for someone who connects that to conservative causes, to a certain kind of conservative support for Israel, a certain theory about antisemitism and anti-Zionism and who the enemies are. You know, I’m sure there’s plenty of past episodes where you’ve wrestled with just that question, right. Which is, what’s the real threat, is it left-wing antisemitism is it right-wing antisemitism, which is the bigger one? And so on. 

If you fall down on the conservative side of those questions, it feels to me like that kind of, oh, I’m going to make a terrible pun here. That kind of identity feels more important than the crisis of gun violence. I apologize for that phrasing.

Yehuda: Well done. Yeah, well done. Uh, I wonder whether also it might be partly historical. I mean the American Jewish cultural memory tends to date its point of origin to the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century for that phase of immigration, which allows American Jews to divorce ourselves from having a deep history in this country, that’s connected to colonialism, connected to the slave trade, connected to the persecution and genocide of Native Americans. 

It allows us to be kind of, we were newer onto the scene and kind of visitors into this country, which kind of separates us from some of the core aspects of the American narrative about itself, that are most problematic. And there have been most interrogated in the last 20 or 30 years. I wonder whether guns may be part of that story of a refusal to, like, you know, the exception of the Frisco Kid, how many Jewish

Jay: I was going to say that, I was actually going to talk about that. I was going to say, you know, when we, when we think about Jews in the Wild West, it’s like a joke, right? Like blazing saddles or something, you know? 

Yehuda: Yes. That’s what I mean. 

Jay: And like that juxtaposition is kind of humorous. Right? I think there is a strong Jewish investment in Americanness, but it’s not quite the Cowboys and Indians Americanness.

Right. And. I mean, just think about Cowboys and Indians what that really means, right? You know, that’s like the white people with the guns, subjugating the other people. And it’s true that, that wasn’t really our, you know, we may have grown up on that. And if, depending on our generation, I didn’t, but it’s true that that wasn’t our historical experience.

I mean, it’s literally a joke to imagine a Jewish cowboy out there with, you know, that’s why there’s these funny movies about it. 

Yehuda: And I wonder whether that story that we tell about ourselves makes us incapable of seeing this story of America that’s just baked into this and keeps us, I dunno, peripheral to the story. So let me try a different angle with you, which is

Jay: Yeah, I just want to throw one in, you know, I think there is, one of the most troubling pieces that I see around this issue is the resiliency of this right wing narrative around guns and strength and power. And that feels to me to have very successfully absorbed, uh, politically conservative Jews, who we can talk about Israel in a moment, but who have a notion of the muscular Israel and the strong, we’re surrounded by threats, and we have to be strong. 

Obviously the Israeli experience around guns is actually very different, but that ethos of, I am going to defend my family with firearms. This is about my strength, my power, you know, that narrative is so we would say sticky, right? It’s so resilient. And, you know, it goes back. I didn’t really answer your question about, you know, when Louie Gohmert said, don’t you think we care about these shootings?

The problem is that they have this embedded narrative that, yeah, I believe that they care about the shootings. I saw the Jewish meme going around. I forgot the source. That if you say you care about something, but you don’t do anything, it’s like a bracha l’vatala. It’s like you’ve said it in vain, basically, which I think is great. Right. I I’d love to. I agree with that. 

But that does miss the point that there is, I believe that, um, you know, Greg Abbott’s, uh, the governor of Texas really did shed real tears and he does care, but that’s not enough to crack this sense of self and identity that’s connected to masculine strength. I would also say white masculine strength, but let’s just leave it at masculine strength and power. And that’s connected to the gun.

Yehuda: Yeah. Well building on that, you know, I want to do want to talk about Israel a little bit, but even before we get to Israel, maybe three examples in the last 20, 30 years out of Hollywood of Jewish redemption narratives are actually tied to gun violence.

Munich. Uh, the movie Defiance. And certainly Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds, which is like the most pornographically violent, anti-Nazi vision of like, how do we actually bring justice back into the world, it’s through guns.

So I, I do wonder whether part of what’s also happened for us as Jews is of course we want to not have gun violence directed towards us and towards our communities, but there’s a little bit of a kind of common, even mainstream Jewish narrative out there as the way that Jews are going to protect themselves is not simply by relying on the state and legislation, but by envisioning scenarios in which we’re actually able to protect ourselves.

And I, let me build on that a little bit and let you take this. I found myself really struggling. So we’ll talk about this more around the securitization of Jewish institutions and synagogues, which I’m nervous about for a whole bunch of reasons. And then realizing that, like, I don’t know whether the, are the guards who stand outside of my children’s Jewish day, schools are armed. 

They don’t tell you for a whole bunch of reasons, but I would be very surprised if they weren’t. And so I’m relying on that system already in place and then resenting it or resisting it politically in the mainstream. 

Jay: Right, in A Few Good Men, you’re Tom cruise, depending on Jack Nicholson, but, uh, but you can’t handle the truth, which is that you depend on that 

Yehuda: You need me on that wall. Exactly. 

Jay: That’s right. Exactly. It’s strange, I think. And I’m curious for your response to this. I, I strangely don’t share, I think some of that ambivalence around synagogue security and school security.

I guess I was just sort of used to it based on the Israeli experience and it feels like a necessary evil to me and tragic, and obviously what we really should do is not have semiautomatic weapons being pointed at us all the time, but it’s strange that I don’t share that, I mean, I’m not happy about it. So I guess I shared the ambivalence, but I don’t, I don’t share the angst around making sure that synagogues are more secure.

It just feels like this is the world that we’re living in. But I, you know, I think even on, on two of your three cinematic examples, and this, again goes back to the Israeli case. I think where I don’t agree with your analysis at the beginning was your allision of state violence and individual violence.

It wasn’t an allision. I mean, you notice that there’s two different things. But you, you said there they’re both concerning. So, and yes, state violence is very concerning and I have my views about Israel-Palestine, but it feels like a different phenomenon. And maybe I’m wrong about this. Maybe I’m in delusion about it.

It feels as though when there is the apparatus of a state with some process and maybe accountability, you know, which obviously falls down a lot, but where there is some kind of a structure, it feels like that’s a different phenomenon from individuals, completely unregulated, unchecked, untrained, carrying around weapons of significant lethal impact.

And it’s notable to me that Israel does have a very strict gun safety regime, uh, where permits are required, where explanations are required. We can only get a gun that’s tied to the specific reason that you say you need a gun. And it, it’s always struck me. I think every tourist who visits Israel is struck by the fact that you see soldiers with M16s on buses.

And it may seem very militarized, but what you don’t see. And it’s, I remember when I first started seeing settlers having guns, you know, on an open carry, right. Which is all that’s available there. And it started to feel a little bit more American. A lot of those were sort of were actually an American background.

I started feeling as though American gold gun culture was starting to seep into right-wing Israeli gun culture, but that notwithstanding. It’s surely not an accident that the country that has a high amount of militarized presence on the streets. And a lot of gun violence in the military recognizes the, the lethal nature and the sort of ethical quandary that having firearms around on the street presents.

So it strikes me as there’s this, this kind of strange dissonance where on the one hand? Yeah, there is state violence, but that feels like a whole other set of concerns from the ones that animate individual violence.

Yehuda: I think you’re right. And I, I’m definitely not trying to ally the two. Um, but I’m trying to, I guess what I’m trying to tease at is the question of what happens when we become. When we create a sense of intimacy with this kind of weaponry, what happens to us? Um, and that’s one piece and the other is what is, what becomes our imagination around violence.

Munich and defiance are both stories of self of basically re either revenge or self-defense right. Those bleed into each other. Um, but they are, they are imaginary activities sometimes based in real life and sometimes based in fantasy around what we would do if we were able to do to those who did to us, what we wish we could do to them.

And that’s what I’m trying to kind of get at that. I think that we are more intertwined with this than we like to think. Listen, I, I have fired semi-automatic weapon when I was 17. I was taken by my Yeshiva. I think they probably thought I was 18. 

Jay: I was, too. I was, I was in Gadna, I think I was 16 actually. 

Yehuda: Well, this wasn’t a summer program. This was, we were living in a West Bank Yeshiva and we had to do guard duty. So they took us out to a, an open field and handed us M16s and we fired it at a target. I don’t recall them showing us if we hit anything. I assume we didn’t. I came away from it basically in fear of ever having to fire that gun again.

But I did have to carry it multiple times in the middle of the night, walking around Alon Shvut at dark, not knowing how to use it if I actually had to use it. Um, and it, it generated fear. But I think for a lot of people it generates actually not only, not fear, but intimacy with something really powerful, in ways that I don’t think can I don’t, I think it alters you. I think it changes you to be in proximity of the gun. 

So I’m not, again, I’m not trying to say these two things are the same, the assault rifle culture in America and assault rifle culture in Israel, of course they’re different. And one of them is about hobby and actually about pornographic violence.

And one is rooted in a perception of the need for defense, oftentimes the reality of a need for defense. I just think that we are intertwined with guns in ways that are deeper than just a political challenge that faces us in both of our societies. 

Jay: Yeah, I think that’s interesting. Um, I want to repeat one distinction I tried to make earlier around different American gun cultures, because there are gun cultures which have a lot, I think intimacy is a really interesting word that you’re using. Um, there are cultures that have a lot of intimacy around guns, but also a lot of respect for guns and nothing like, you know, the kind of gun culture with the, that we’re seeing now, which again, I’m filing under Lauren Boebert cause she poses in front of her semiautomatic weapons all the time. 

Again, the sort of imagining the, the hunting rifle over the mantle piece kind of gun culture. That feels like a lot of intimacy. And as someone who, my parents wouldn’t even let me have toy guns when I was growing up in 1970s, Long Island, uh, I was horrified or scandalized when my non-Jewish friends told me that they had those in their homes. 

And yet, despite that intimacy, there felt like a level of respect and seriousness for the weapons that felt more like the Israeli example. I remember. So my firing an M 16, was in Gadna, the week-long kind of summer program where Americans get to play Israeli soldier, American kids get to play Isaeli soldier for awhile. They did show us the targets. I can safely say that no one needs to be afraid of my M 16, except people on the side, who might be bystanders.

And I, I thought it was pretty cool. I was 16. So I had a different response. Cause I guess it was fake, right? You were actually patrolling an actual place where there could conceivably be a real situation where you’d be called on to possibly take someone else’s life to defend other lives. And that’s, uh, that’s real. For me, it was, it was play. Um, and so I thought it was kind of cool that we had these M 16s. 

That felt like not respect for the weapon. That felt like an intimacy that was more about my own ego. But I think if we could parse those holiday pictures in a way that if we could ask and we can ask the sort of Republican politicians who send out those pictures of here’s my family with all of our guns, like, what does that mean?

There I think we do get to see some meaty philosophical stuff, or there is part about patriotism and the second amendment. It’s a lot about protecting my family. No one’s going to come and hurt us, but that to bring us back to where we started to me is tied to even more problematic ideologies.

Like who’s the person who’s coming to get you, how does, who, who is that person? What’s their skin color? Like, what is their background? Why are they coming to get you? You know, so when its not racialized, sometimes it’s anti liberal, right? So the government’s going to come and they’re going to try to do this or propose that, and I’m going to stop them over, you know, over my dead body kind of thing.

There’s intimacy and intimacy, and I’m fascinated, darkly fascinated by digging deeper into the intimacy of those holiday cards with gun photos. Um, and it just gets darker and darker, it feels like, as we get closer.

Yehuda: Yeah, I got into some trouble a few years ago. Cause I wrote about, I wrote an opinion piece about, um, the role-playing of violence that happens at Jewish summer camps. And people got very upset because they said like, no, this, we’re participating in the collective Jewish narrative or you’re analogizing role-play at summer camp to actually imagining violence against Palestinians or.

But what I’m trying to name is similar to what you’re talking about with trying to think of what’s at stake in a Christmas card. When I have an imagined story, uh, and it’s connected to weaponry, I don’t know. It just feels like too close of a bridge. I also, you know, I don’t like when people bring back bullets that they wear around their neck, when they visit Israel, I actually, I’m not particularly fond of IDF apparel.

You have to have to have an army. Right. The army is the defensive army. It has to do what it does. It should hate weaponry. People at senior levels of military hate weaponry, because they know it’s the stuff that they have to use. If you’re actually morally serious about it, then you despise these tools of violence that you’re forced to carry around with you in order to defend your lives and your families.

But to turn it into a plaything, feels to me participating in a culture that I just don’t think we as American Jews really want to be involved in. 

Jay: I think that’s right. Yeah, I’m just thinking of my t-shirt from when I was 16, the don’t worry America, Israel is behind you T-shirt with the, the IDF, with the airplanes and stuff. 

Yehuda: that’s right. With the F 15? Yeah. 

Jay: I think where I’m thinking around this has to do with these parallel, but different narratives of persecution and the need for self-defense.

Um, I think most of us when we look at you know, fairly well-off white Americans think it’s preposterous that they really feel like they’re embattled and they need to defend themselves. But subjectively clearly they do feel that way. And not just the people on January 6th, but you know, and a lot of tens of millions of Americans feel that way.

It’s not so hard to imagine that from the Israeli point of view, maybe because we’re closer to it, but obviously a lot of that machismo and love of the weapon ties to the trauma, whether of the Holocaust or antisemitism or the weak Jew and, and not wanting to be that weak Jew ever again, which of course at the very heart of Zionism and its rejection of diaspora Jewry. 

They feel different to me. But it’s certainly the case where if someone more to the left than I am on Israel-Palestine issues cause has seen it similarly, how can these agents of colonialism see themselves as the oppressed people who need to arm themselves up? Clearly, they’re the oppressors, they’re oppressing the Palestinians. 

That’s that’s not my narrative, but that narrative makes it very similar to the Lauren Boeberts and Louie Gohmert of the world feeling like they need to defend themselves against some imagined enemy. I guess it’s that 200 plus year of structural racism in America that that history and that tie that makes it that much harder for me to relate to the Lauren Boebert version. 

Yehuda: Yeah. So I’ll ask you a last question. It was striking to me when you said earlier that you tend to be, uh, basically on the side of synagogue security, and obviously, it’s not one side or the other. It’s kind of a dumb formulation. 

Uh, but where this has started to emerge on some sectors of the Jewish left is to acknowledge that synagogue security is not a zero-sum thing that is good for synagogues but that there are all sorts of Jews who are not white for whom the police is a source of anxiety, a source of an actual threat. 

And that um, there is going to have to be some values calculus around whether more securitization of our Jewish institutions against gun violence, some calculus of what costs it has to incur, or what variables or factors it has to consider in order to, to do this correct correctly.

And not to mention the fact that many of us feel very badly about the fact that by putting major security outside of our buildings, even if it’s a necessity, like I want my tent to be open on all four sides. So, I am also kind of, I’m happy, my kids schools have the security that they have. There’s a volunteer security service at our synagogue together with professional security. I think that that’s necessary, but maybe you could tell us a little bit of your own calculus of what we gain and what we lose when we engage in this conversation. 

Jay: I agree with everything you just said. It reminded me of a memory from almost 15 years ago when I was working as a Jewish LGBTQ activist and we had a retreat. I was running an organization called Nehirim. We had a retreat that was being protested by the Westboro Baptist church.

So that was great for us. I thought that was really good publicity in terms of, you know, and it was at the JCC in Washington DC. So it was very, and we had that same conversation 15 years ago, you know, like, do we want a line of police keeping those people? They’re not known to be violent, the Westboro protesters, they’re just incredibly offensive.

Um, and that same calculus was, was in play. So we had non-white queer Jews who have complicated relationships to put it mildly with the police. And it was that same kind of balancing around how can we be sure that we’re safe while making sure that all of us feel safe because what that perception is will differ depending on our backgrounds. So that feels right. 

I feel like my worst nightmare, which is likely to come true is my daughter, who’s now four years old, so I’m just starting out on this journey, will have to do those active shooter drills, which seem incredibly traumatizing and awful, and the worst case scenario. 

So maybe some of my putting up with the difficulty of secure synagogues is like, so we can stay away from traumatizing our kids, uh, in these preposterous and probably not even helpful drills. But everything you just said is true. I mean, there’s not, the idea that, oh, well let’s just double the security guards, you know?

And when I was a teenager growing up in Tampa, Florida, we always had a police car outside the synagogue during the high holidays. Tampa back then was not like Tampa it is now, it was a little more rough in the sort of, uh, Southern sense of rough. There were, what I would call low-level antisemitism fairly frequently.

And so, you know, hundreds of Jews coming together on Rosh Hashana, there was the police car out front. As a privileged white kid, I felt safe about that. Then as an angry white teenager, I felt like F the police get out of my, you know, like I felt bad about it, but generally I, those that increased my sense of safety rather than decreased it. But yeah, that was my background. 

And so I think, I certainly don’t want to suggest that, yeah, let’s just do the secure synagogues thing and not think about the costs and only think about the benefits. Um, I guess, as on the hierarchy of horrible things, you know, so we’re members of congregation Beth Elohim, which is a Reform temple here in Park Slope in Brooklyn, which wrestles with that all the time. 

It’s a very politically liberal congregation, but also in Brooklyn. Uh, and most of the violence that’s happened here in Brooklyn, antisemitic violence, has actually been directed at Haredim, or mostly at Hasidim. It’s a big temple, right, on a big street. And it’s got a huge, you know, big dome on it. And it’s, so it’s a target. 

And, uh, we wrestle with it every day. Uh, I’m very grateful to those security guards and they found a way to, I think, I think a lot of the problems and concerns that you raise are solvable. With even more money, you know, with, with the right kind of training, with not just going to cops, but figuring out a security solution that doesn’t rely entirely on the police.

And maybe in the future, even with thinking a little bit about architecture and right, there’s this ridiculous, um, sub story now around Uvalde about whether the door was locked here was the door locked there. You know, finding procedures like that can actually, I think minimize the need for lots of security presence. But again, that’s, that’s quite an investment.

Yehuda: Well, thanks so much Rabbi Dr. Jay Michaelson for coming on our show this week. And thanks to all of you for listening.

Identity Crisis is a product of the Shalom Hartman Institute. This week’s episode is produced by David Zvi Kalman and edited by M Louis Gordon with assistance from Miri Miller and Shalhevet Schwartz and music provided by so-called. Transcripts of our show are now available on our website typically about a week after an episode airs. To find them and to learn more about the Shalom Hartman Institute, you can visit us online at shalomhartman.org.

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