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Guns and The Holocaust

Guns and The Holocaust

Jewish Week online columnist Rabbi Shmuly Yanklowitz has drawn extensive feedback from commenters on this week’s edition of “Street Torah,” in which he deals with the highly controversial issue of gun control.

People who have guns and/or support the right to own them get very easily worked up whenever you broach the topic of taking them away through legislation. There is a reasonable argument to be made on both sides of this hot-button topic.

One thing that's not reasonable, however, that I have heard time and time again in the discussion of gun control from a Jewish perspective – and appears often in the above-mentioned thread — is the trivialization of the Holocaust when people argue that more armed Jews could have prevented or mitigated it.

The idea that Jews or any of the other persecuted groups facing the Third Reich, the most lethal killing machine in human history could have somehow blasted their way out of Germany or German occupied territory with handguns or rifles from their homes is profoundly absurd.

Yes, armed partisan groups that contained Jews were effective in fighting the Nazis. With perhaps as many as a million fighters interspersed in Europe, they were like an additional army and yes, guns made them effective. But for the most part they worked in coordination with the Allies who provided arms and intelligence. Less organized resistance didn't fare as well.

"The Nazis came in with overwhelming force," says Mitch Braf, founder of the Jewish Partisan Education Foundation. "If you fired at them from a window they destroyed the building." He notes that many of the partisans had prior military training and captured their arms on the battlefield, but still had to learn guerilla tactics to be effective. "I don't think more Jews owning guns in Europe would have made a significant difference."

The fact that thousands of Jews, massively outnumbered and outmatched and in the most hopeless circumstances, did give the Nazis hell as resistance fighters is a testament to the kind of unconquerable spirit that later led to the rebirth and contemporary survival of Israel. But the notion of individual gun ownership evening the battlefield with the Nazis illuminates an exaggerated sense of power some gun owners have.

Someone will no doubt respond that, as Jews in wartime Europe, they would rather go down fighting the Nazis, as did members of the Bielski brigade or the Warsaw Ghetto fighters, did than die at a concentration camp.

I can’t pretend that I know what I might do if placed in such dire circumstances, but I believe it’s human nature to continuously cling to hope, often until it’s too late.

And so I think that even if they had guns, the vast majority of (non-Bielski) civilians would still take their chances praying for the defeat of the Nazis and liberation rather than undertake the certain death of an assault on an SS battalion.

I have argued before that, in these dangerous days, shuls and other Jewish institutions should consider the prospect of professional armed guards, like the heroic Steven Johns who put down a crazed anti-Semitic gun-toting maniac as he stepped in the door of the Holocaust museum, at the expense of the guard's own life.

But I think more laws and better laws, not firepower, are still the best line of defense; laws that keep guns in the hands of law-enforcement and responsible, sane, law-abiding people and out of the hands of criminals and psychopaths.

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