Most of the children murdered in the massacre at Sandy Hook hadn’t even been buried yet on Dec. 17 when Gun Owners of America, a pro-firearms lobbying group, released a photo of an Israeli schoolteacher herding a group of youngsters on a field trip with an M-1 strapped to her back.
In a posting that quickly made the rounds of Facebook and Twitter and was picked up for news coverage, the organization wrote, “Israeli teachers understand the threat, and act accordingly. Why can’t our teachers do the same? Please like and share!”
Wayne LaPierre, CEO and exec VP of the NRA, the bigger cousin of Gun Owners of America, also jumped on the be-like-Israel bandwagon. Speaking on “Meet the Press” a week later, he 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 in every school, and they have not had a problem since then.”
It was no doubt tempting to draw a parallel with Israel, which consumes much of the same violence-heavy media as its biggest ally and, for all intents and purposes, embraces a fully Western lifestyle.
But Israelis were quick to point out massive holes in the argument. There may be armed guards at schools here (as well as guards outside shopping centers, coffee houses and other public institutions), but the threats are hardly identical. Israel, well-versed in terror attacks, has never had a U.S.-style mass shooting. When students have been attacked in the past, it was by Palestinian terrorists — never by a suicidal youngster in their midst.
The role that violent entertainment has played in the psyche of American killers remains murky, but one thing is certain: When it comes to its weapons and its kids, Israel was not going to stand by and let the U.S. gun lobby paint broad strokes of comparison.
The Israeli Education Ministry publicly condemned such U.S. gun groups’ statements in the wake of the attack, and reiterated that the Ministry of Public Safety here maintains a detailed website laying out the nations’ stringent gun laws.
Here, the message went, guns are never taken lightly.
“We don’t have a culture of gun collecting. We don’t have a culture of hunting. There’s a sense that guns are very serious, and very dangerous,” says David Hazony, an Israeli-American writer, editor and cultural commentator.
And while Israelis play bloody videogames and take in violent Hollywood blockbusters, they maintain a cultural distance from the content. “There’s this sort of undercurrent in Israeli culture that says shooting for its own sake is kind of sick,” adds Hazony. “If it’s American it’s OK to watch (this stuff), but as soon as you make it Israeli, it becomes very painful. People don’t want to be reminded of terror attacks.”
An Israeli program or game about gun violence, then, would read very differently than an American one. Gun violence set in Israel would hit too close to home, and Israelis would reject it.
“The life we live here is very real,” says Aviad Kissos, a television and radio personality who hosts a daily morning show on FM radio called “The Morning.” “I don’t know (gunman) Adam Lanza, and I don’t know what kind of life he led, but I think when you are in a quiet, nice place like Sandy Hook, you hardly ever meet life. Here, we’re in constant connection with the real world. With death and bombs and crises, and with missiles falling from the sky.”
There’s another point that’s missed in the U.S. gun lobby’s argument that Americans should be more like Israel: Israel has universal conscription, so nearly every citizen is an ex-soldier who has learned how to handle, respect and fear guns.
“It’s coming from a place of extreme familiarity, and not foreignness,” Hazony says of the attitude toward weapons here.
“Israelis know exactly what a gun is. If every single person in America who had a gun had served in the armed forces, it’s very possible that alone would radically change the makeup of how Americans relate to guns.”
Moreover, Hazony says, in Israel, there is no right to keep and bear arms. “It is a dangerous world, and therefore there are people who have to have firearms, but they need to be extremely tightly regulated,” he says. “Israelis draw a very sharp line between cartoonish, U.S.-made TV violence and reality.”