Hundreds of Jewish people in the United States have rushed to undertake training to learn how to shoot, after an attack on a synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on October 27 that killed 11 people. A private company offering "Israeli tactical shooting techniques" has been inundated with hundreds of requests in the days following the shooting and has offered training in how to respond to an active shooter in a synagogue. However, other parts of the Jewish community think that guns should not be brought into places of worship.
"There is no question that Jews are under threat in America. Would you say to soldiers on the front line, 'just lay down your guns and let the enemy kill you?' No. So Jews need to be armed," said Yonatan Stern, the founder of Cherev Gidon Israeli Tactical Training Academy, which offers classes in Pennsylvania and Arizona. Stern, a former officer of the Israel Defense Forces, created the academy six years ago, predicting, he says, that there would be attacks on the Jewish community in the United States.
The shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh was the deadliest attack on Jews in America’s history. Stern says that his organisation has received more requests for training from Jews in the days since the attack than in the entire time the academy has been running.
Normally, the academy offers training with different firearms – rifles, pistols, shotguns and Uzi submachine guns – from a basic level to advanced. But since the shooting, Cherev Gidon has focused primarily on a specific course that deals with how to respond to an active shooter in a synagogue. The course teaches many of the same skills that are taught in other classes, but with added situational details: how to immobilise an attacker in a location where there are a lot of civilians packed into a crowded space, for example.
Stern thinks that it is vital for the Jewish population in the United States to be armed.
“We need citizenry who are going to be able to protect themselves”
The fact is, you can’t have a police officer with you everywhere you go. The police can’t protect the Jewish community at all times. There’s no budget for that; they don’t have the manpower. We need citizenry who are going to be able to protect themselves in the case of these attacks. I’ve actually been getting calls from police departments all over the country congratulating me, because our getting people armed makes their job easier.
Yonatan Stern at the Shot Show 2018, an annual gun tradeshow in Nevada. Source: Cherev Gidon Facebook page.
The climate of anti-Semitism is growing. It’s coming from every direction; from left and right, from black and white. This culture of hate will coalesce into violence. Are we going to be sheep to the slaughter? Are we going to allow them to murder us? Or are we going to stand up and fight? I know what I’m going to do.
There are some people on the left of the Jewish establishment who say, 'Don’t use guns.' Those voices are becoming more marginalised. The voices of reason which promote responsible gun ownership are becoming more mainstream. Obviously gun control does not work. So when we are confronted by evil people who are armed, we need to be ready. Our goal is to get the population trained.
Mendel Levine is a 20-year-old chef living in New York state who participated in a training session with Cherev Gidon on October 30. He says that of the nine people who followed the course, a couple had never handled a firearm before and the others had varying levels of experience with guns.
“After Pittsburgh, I decided that I couldn’t put off firearms training any longer”
I had been interested in firearm training for some time. I already enjoy shooting for sport and have done that for some years now. After the Pittsburgh massacre I decided that it was no longer something I could keep putting off.
The shooting in Pittsburgh intensified a sense that I had that people need to be armed and able to carry firearms for self-defence purposes in areas where they are typically not able to do so. A mass-casualty attack can happen anywhere.
I have noticed a change in terms of people’s attitudes towards guns [after the Pittsburgh shooting]. My boss had previously been opposed to the idea of keeping a firearm in the restaurant and now is becoming more comfortable with the idea. My parents before didn’t want to keep weapons in their home, and are now coming round to the idea.
When I’m 21 I will be applying for a permit to carry a firearm. I would probably get a kind of handgun with hollow-point ammunition. It’s designed to expand on penetration so it’s both more effective on target and also less likely to go through the target and hit someone else. And yes, I hope that if I were in an active shooter situation I would be able to react quickly, to pull the trigger.
Guns in synagogues
However, some parts of the Jewish community think that weapons should not be brought into places of worship.
Rabbi Daniel Swartz from the synagogue Temple Hesed in Scranton, Pennsylvania, in the same state in which Cherev Gidon is based, says that he would not allow guns in his synagogue, not only because he thinks there are more effective defence strategies, but also because he says the Jewish faith proscribes the presence of guns in a sanctuary and emphasises harm prevention and using the minimum of force.
Swartz acknowledges that, “While there are shortcoming to every sort of defense, including high monetary costs that most synagogues are not able to bear, secure and guarded doors, for example, are far more likely to prevent killings.”
He proposes more systemic solutions, such as reducing access to guns and their use, improving access to comprehensive, affordable mental healthcare, and ending violently-charged, racist and anti-Semitic public rhetoric by promoting civility in public discourse.
Studies show that tougher gun controls in US states correlate to fewer firearm deaths. Countries that have brought in gun control laws see vastly fewer gun deaths than the United States. According to the UK Office for National Statistics, there were 26 homicide victims killed by shooting in the UK in the year to March 2016, compared with 11,004 homicides by gun across the United States in 2016.
The Jewish advocacy organisation Anti-Defamation League (ADL) reported a rise of 57% in anti-Semitic attacks in its 2017 annual audit, which is the largest single-year increase on record.
This article was written by Catherine Bennett (cfbennett2).