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Guns 'n' Moses

Washington Diarist

This week's news of the politically weird comes from Log on to the Internet, point your Web browser to that address, and you'll come to the homepage of Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership. JPFO's founder and executive director is Aaron Zelman of Wisconsin, who claims that gun control caused the Holocaust. Well, that's not quite right. Zelman believes gun control merely permitted the Holocaust to occur--because, if Hitler hadn't outlawed guns, armed Jews could have fought off one of the most powerful militaries in world history. Zelman's evidence consists, in part, of a JPFO study that shows how "'gun control' laws cleared the way for seven major genocides between 1915 and 1980, in which 56 million persons, including millions of children, were murdered." Zelman also claims that the U.S. government lifted language for its 1968 gun control laws from Nazi statutes.

Zelman realizes that he's in a minority. Most American Jews seem to support gun control, and many took exception to his 1994 public relations campaign, in which he created billboards depicting Hitler, in the familiar Nazi salute, beside the caption, "All in favor of 'gun control' raise your right hand." But such criticism doesn't really worry Zelman. As he explains on his website, his Jewish adversaries--who include everyone from the Anti-Defamation League to Congressman Charles Schumer--are merely the products of a craven culture: "Because 'gain control' promotes victimization, and [Jews] glory in being victims, they promote 'gun control.'"

As you may have guessed, I am not Aaron Zelman's kind of Jew. I have never touched a gun and have no desire to do so. And, while my father fired an M-16 twice while he was in the Army, I suspect he's not Aaron Zelman's kind of Jew, either. Dad was an Army doctor, drafted into service along with all the other young doctors of his era. His officer status was mostly symbolic (physicians automatically received commissions), and so was his basic training: just two half day trips to the shooting range. Physicians were notoriously bad shots, and the trainers used to joke that they'd buy a beer for any doctor who actually landed a round on the target. Dad entered the Army more or less as a teetotaler, and he left that way, too, which tells you all you need to know about his marksmanship.

My father's life as an Army doctor lacked the comically miserable atmospherics of "M*A*S*H." The draft board took pity upon him--perhaps because he had a six-month-old (me) in tow--and dispatched him to Fort Devens, Massachusetts, just an hour west of Boston. I don't remember much of Fort Devens, but Dad tells me it was one of the happiest times of his life. There were no profit-minded insurance companies to second-guess his treatment decisions, and the Army really seemed to take the well-being of its patients seriously. Case in point: After my father violated standard operating procedure by expediting some discharge exams in order to get five infantrymen home by Christmas, the Army gave him an award for "superior achievement" and promoted him to major. This is not to say Army life was without disadvantages. For one thing, my father made a lot less money than he does now. But he's said that he'd gladly give up his surgeon's salary and let the government run things again if it meant he could go back to practicing medicine without having to meet an accountant's definition of profitability. Even allowing for his dewy-eyed nostalgia--and my admittedly generous impressions of him--I believe he's telling the truth.

Nowadays rhapsodizing about government-run health care the way my father does can get you branded a believer in socialized medicine. (Come to think of it, nowadays talking about even modest, market-based health care reforms can get you branded a believer in socialized medicine.) My father is no socialist, though. He's just a liberal, and an anachronistic one at that. Most of the liberals I know are interventionists who are contemptuous of the military itself. Not my father. He has great, romanticized admiration for the military; he also has a minor obsession with military vehicles--armored personnel carders, fighter planes, and especially warships. His main hobby is building intricate models based on blueprints he culls from books and research libraries. But, strange though it may sound, my father hates violence and can't stand guns themselves. I can't even take him to bubble-gum cop movies like Lethal Weapon--too much shooting and gore, he tells me. Like I said, Dad just isn't Aaron Zelman's kind of Jew.

My great uncle Binyamin Siegel on the other hand--now there's a Jew who would make Aaron Zelman proud. When Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, Benek--as they called him there--escaped to Russian-controlled territory, temporarily changed his Jewish last name, and joined the remnants of the Polish Army. Fighting with the Russians, he was wounded four times and received more than a dozen decorations--presumably for battling adversaries more threatening than strep throat and military red tape. In 1948, Benek emigrated to Israel, joined its army, and helped train the state's nascent police division. (The Jerusalem Post later called him a "near-legendary policeman.")

Aaron Zelman is fond of citing Israel in his tirades against gun control: "As in biblical times, Israeli Jews have enough faith in the A-mighty to take up weapons in self-defense." And it's true: Guns are much more a part of daily life in Israel than here in the U.S., in part because nearly everyone has military experience. But Zelman glosses over a few details, like the fact that Israelis must obtain permits for their firearms. To get the permits, they must demonstrate good mental health, go through gun-safety courses, and take target practice. Oh, and one more thing: Israel won't give a permit to anybody with a criminal record.

JPFO opposes mmost gun permit laws. And, after the shooting in a Springfield, Oregon, high school on May 91, another pro-gun group cited a JPFO report in a press release titled, "Lesson of School Shootings: More Guns Needed at Schools." The release came from the Gun Owners of America, a group headed by Larry Pratt, who, as it happens, has a longstanding relationship with Zelman. When Pratt took a leave of absence from Pat Buchanan's 1996 presidential campaign amid charges of anti-Semitism, Zelman defended his fellow gun enthusiast as a "righteous gentile." (Pratt, for his part, called the anti-Semitism charges "outrageously false.") It was quite a statement on Zelman's part--after all, Pratt had appeared at rallies alongside supremacist groups that portray gun control as the work of conspiring Jewish lawmakers. Maybe Uncle Benek really isn't Aaron Zelman's kind of Jew after all.