Why Ben Gvir wants more guns on the streets

The Israeli far right sees widespread gun ownership as a means of enforcing racial supremacy — a lesson taken straight out of the American playbook.

Israeli Minister of National Security Itamar Ben Gvir at the scene of a shooting attack in Neve Yaakov, Jerusalem, January 27, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Israeli Minister of National Security Itamar Ben Gvir at the scene of a shooting attack in Neve Yaakov, Jerusalem, January 27, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The recent escalation in Israeli military violence and Palestinian shootings in Jerusalem and the West Bank has been depressingly familiar. Over the past week, the Israeli army raided the Jenin refugee camp, killing 10 people including a 61-year-old woman; a Palestinian shot dead seven Israeli Jews in the East Jerusalem settlement of Neve Yaakov; a 13-year-old Palestinian shot and injured two settlers in the Silwan neighborhood; and across the West Bank, settlers reportedly committed over one hundred “price tag” attacks against Palestinians and their property.

The outpouring of grief and outrage over the Israeli victims — locally and internationally — was similarly familiar. The massive weekly protests against the far-right government’s proposed judicial reforms, which have consumed major Israeli cities every Saturday night since the start of the year, were hastily reorganized to commemorate Friday’s Jewish victims; needless to say, there was no similar public mourning for Palestinians killed, nor any acknowledgement that the incidents were all rooted in a reality of ever-deepening occupation and apartheid. Israeli politicians were also quick to condemn the attacks, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saying he intended to “act decisively” in response.

But if the violence, mourning, and threats of reprisals were routine, one figure made sure to make his own mark on the script. “We need to change the gun laws,” said National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, on the night of the shooting in Neve Yaakov. “We need guns in the hands of more and more citizens.”

Ben Gvir is not the first Israeli official to call for a more permissive gun policy; Gilad Erdan, during his five-year tenure as public security minister (the antecedent of Ben Gvir’s portfolio), also pushed for looser gun restrictions and oversaw a sharp rise in civilian applications for firearms. Yet it is striking how much Ben Gvir’s words — in line with his electoral campaign platform — ominously echo the messages deployed by the American right in the aftermath of nearly every mass shooting in the United States. By mirroring this rhetoric in the Israeli context, Ben Gvir is signaling a renewed frontier in Israel’s efforts to preserve Jewish supremacy and quash Palestinian resistance.

Interweaving guns and supremacy

In his response to the Jerusalem shooting attack, Ben Gvir essentially parroted one of the American right’s main talking points: the only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun. What we need, they tell us, is not stricter gun control, but more guns and fewer restrictions.

Israelis practice shooting handguns at a Jerusalem shooting range, following a recent wave of attacks. April 3, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Israelis practice shooting handguns at a Jerusalem shooting range, following a recent wave of attacks. April 3, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

This idea is most closely associated with the National Rifle Association (NRA), the hugely influential lobbying group that advocates for the proliferation of guns in the United States and the near-total undermining of all gun control legislation. For the NRA, the imagined “good guy with a gun” could well be a police officer. And indeed, Ben Gvir, whose ministerial post gives him command over the police on both sides of the Green Line, has repeatedly exhorted them to act with greater force in response to acts like stone throwing and flag waving by Palestinians.

But gun culture in America has an ambivalent relationship with the police: the reason for a citizen to own a gun, the logic goes, is to be able to protect oneself and others when the police cannot come quickly enough or refuse to intervene. Civilian gun ownership is perceived as a way to maintain order in addition to, or even instead of, the state’s designated law enforcement mechanisms. What emerges, then, is a complementary relationship between the state’s official law enforcement and state-sanctioned yet civilian-led efforts at maintaining order. With civilians enforcing the law as they see fit, the boundary between what is practiced inside the law and outside it is blurred to the point where one simply collapses into the other.

Much like the American far right, the Jewish far right has long touted widespread gun ownership as a practical method of self-defense. When Meir Kahane, Ben Gvir’s ideological forefather, founded the Jewish Defense League (JDL) in New York in 1968, he did so in order “to create a physically strong, fearless and courageous Jew who fights back.” The group, widely considered a terrorist organization, was initially created to protect Jews from violence perpetrated by non-white New Yorkers.

But the JDL’s mission quickly became broader. In the words of the Southern Poverty Law Center, the JDL aimed “to target … anyone it considers a threat to the survival of radical Jewish nationalism,” especially entities the group perceived as preventing the full realization of Israel’s identity as a Jewish state. The response to such threats, for Kahane, was vigilante justice: referring to the caliber rifles and pistols, he coined the slogan “Every Jew a .22.”

A poster reads "Kahane was right" on the side of a road in the West Bank. November 19, 2013. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
A poster reads “Kahane was right” on the side of a road in the West Bank. November 19, 2013. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Since Kahane’s assassination in 1990, and the arrest and deaths of subsequent JDL leaders, the group’s influence has shrunk significantly. But the ideas it espoused about gun ownership remain popular, albeit in slightly altered form. Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership (JPFO), self-styled as “America’s most aggressive civil rights organization,” echoes much of Kahane’s and the JDL’s language. Where the JDL spoke, for example, about needing to change “the Galut [exile] image of the Jew as a weakling … who does not fight back,” JPFO speaks about “the historical evils that Jews have suffered when they have been disarmed.”

JPFO fears this kind of disarmament in America, and argues that even well-intentioned gun control laws have historically led to disaster. In an amicus brief filed in the landmark 2010 gun rights case, D.C v. Heller, JPFO wrote: “Nazi augmentation of Weimar gun control laws [in Germany] rendered Jews defenseless to officially sanctioned arms roundups and eventual victimization.” But despite the stated goal of JPFO’s agenda being to protect people from tyranny, the history of the broader gun rights movement suggests that, coupled with the movement’s distrust of big government, it reflects a desire to assert social control through racial domination.

Throughout its history, the U.S. gun rights movement has been consistently interwoven with white supremacy — from the ratification of the Second Amendment through to the peak of the Ku Klux Klan’s power, and from the aftermath of the Civil War right to the Jan. 6 insurrection. It is this deep interconnection between white supremacy and the gun rights movement that helps explain why Kahane would advocate so strongly for Jewish gun rights, and why his ideological followers would do the same.

A joint effort

The lesson Ben Gvir seems to have taken from these histories is clear: widespread gun ownership among the most privileged social group can function as a tool of racial domination that is permitted, but not explicitly carried out, by the state. In Israel, this would translate to widespread Jewish gun ownership to maintain social control over Palestinians on either side of the Green Line.

A vendor sells guns at a Jerusalem shooting range, following a wave of attacks in Israel. April 3, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
A vendor sells guns at a Jerusalem shooting range, following a wave of attacks in Israel. April 3, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israel’s current gun laws already privilege Jewish applicants. While there is no equivalent to the Second Amendment guaranteeing the right to bear arms, Israelis who have served in the military (which nearly all Jewish citizens are technically required to do, while most Palestinian citizens do not) or who live in so-called “dangerous locations” (i.e. settlements and outposts) are more likely to be approved for gun licenses. If the current government does indeed change gun laws, it would almost certainly entrench this bias further.

Netanyahu’s statements since the attacks last weekend reflect the strategically ambivalent place guns can have in society. On the one hand, the prime minister cautioned, “I again call on the citizens of Israel: Do not take the law into your own hands. We are not in the days of the underground [the Zionist paramilitary groups that operated during the British Mandate]. We have a sovereign state, with an excellent military and security forces. Let them carry out their work.” By contrast, he also announced that one of his proposed policy goals in light of the attacks is to “increase the number of gun-carrying citizens by thousands through speeding up and broadening the firearm licensing process.”

Though these statements seem to contradict one another — one reassuring the public that state institutions should be trusted, and the other urging civilians to arm themselves and not wait for the state’s intervention — when taken together, they outline how this far-right coalition seeks to continue strengthening Jewish supremacy between the river and the sea. The effort will not come from either law enforcement or individual citizens; it will come from both.