Alexander Zohar, head of the Association for the Advancement of Firearms Culture in Israel, says the country’s gun laws must be loosened.
By David Isaac, World Israel News
It seems counterintuitive.
One would think that Israel, which has trained most of its young men – and increasingly young women – in the proper use of firearms during their military service, would boast some of the most open gun laws in the world.
The opposite is the case, reveals Maj. (ret.) Alexander Zohar, head of the Association for the Advancement of Firearms Culture in Israel, the equivalent (on a much smaller scale) of America’s National Rifle Association (NRA).
“An armed person is a citizen. An unarmed person is a subject,” Zohar says.
He says there’s a very real scenario where Israel’s government will one day strip firearms from all law-abiding citizens – a possibility made easier by the fact that Israel has no Second Amendment, no constitutional right to bear arms, nor any laws to protect individual firearm ownership.
Zohar has devoted most of his life to protecting the State of Israel. He came to Israel at the age of 16 from Latvia, then part of the former Soviet Union, and joined the army where he became an elite paratrooper.
He then joined Yamam, one of Israel’s premier counter-terrorism units, and eventually rose to become Chief Firearms Instructor of Israel’s Police Force.
Zohar founded the Association for the Advancement of Firearms Culture in Israel five years ago with others who saw the need to organize if there were to be any chance to protect firearm ownership in Israel.
Q: Tell us about the Association for the Advancement of Firearms Culture in Israel.
Zohar: Our goal is to fight for expanding the right of the Israeli citizen to bear arms. And to increase the level of expertise in gun handling. We support everyone who trains, everything that helps people advance their skills.
We work mainly in the area of legislation, providing a pro-firearms voice when regulations come before Israel’s Ministry of Public Security and the Knesset. We participate in all the relevant committees in the Knesset.
The Ministry of Public Security is in charge of gun licensing. The former Minister of Public Security, Yitzhak Aharonovitch, prior to the current minister, Gilad Erdan, was very much against firearms. And during his tenure, 45,000 legal weapons were confiscated from citizens. I’m not talking about illegal weapons. There’s something like 400,000-450,000 illegal weapons, mainly among the Arab sector and criminal elements.
In terms of legal weapons in the hands of Israeli citizens, there are about 150,000 at the moment. It’s nothing – 150,000 among 8.5 million people. That’s a ratio of 1 to every 56 citizens.
All the licenses are “on condition.” For instance, if you’re a competitor, as long as you compete you have a license. The moment you stop competing, you lose the license. Today, over the last five years, everything is conditional. The government requires that you sign that you’re fulfilling the conditions of the license. If the conditions no longer apply, you are obligated to inform them and you lose the license.
At any time they can come and say, “Prove that you are still fulfilling the conditions under which the license was given to you.” If you can’t, you’ve got a problem. The government has taken licenses from many people.
Q: What you’re saying is that there aren’t any legal protections for owners of licensed firearms in the Israeli civilian population?
Zohar: None. There’s no constitution whatsoever here. All the gun licenses hang on the policy of the Public Security minister. If the minister is replaced, he or she can change the policy and take weapons from everyone. And no one can do anything.
This was the case with Yitchak Aharonovitch. After 45,000 firearms were taken, Erdan came and the pendulum went in the other direction, but very slowly.
He started to give more, not much more, but the bureaucrats below him undermined it. That’s to say, the clerks didn’t get the message. They’re still working with old policies. They took licenses in great numbers.
Q: Doesn’t anyone appeal when the government starts confiscating legally acquired weapons?
Zohar: They took from people without any legal basis, in my opinion. They simply cancelled people’s licenses and people didn’t do anything. It’s not like in the U.S., where If you touch the rights of a citizen, he runs to court.
In Israel, the court took the side of the authorities against the citizens.
There’s a law that says only give firearms according to the function, or criteria it fills. A minister can say we no longer give firearms for this or that purpose. They cancel the criterion. That’s it. Those citizens who did complain about the loss of their property, said, “You didn’t give me this firearm. I bought it. You gave me the OK to buy firearms.”
Q: So they just lose their property?
Zohar: They lose their property. Theoretically, they can sell it. But think, they cancelled a criterion that stripped 5,000 people of their firearms. In this case, I’m thinking of when they cancelled it for diamond merchants. There was a criterion that allowed those who dealt in jewelry to legally carry. Then the ministry decided they didn’t want a “war” inside jewelry stores. So they cancelled it. 5,000 firearms went to market. How many new licenses did they give during that period – 300, 400? Who was left to buy?
Q: Describe the process for getting a gun for the average Israeli citizen.
Zohar: First, what you, the Israeli citizen want doesn’t interest anyone. What the authorities here say is that they will give firearms to those who they think need firearms and where they think firearms need to be.
Here there’s a mass of criteria as to who gets firearms. It would take two hours for me just to explain all the criteria.
There are something like 25.
There are criteria as to where you live, whether the area is considered dangerous. Metulla near the Lebanon border is thought of as dangerous. Ra’anana in the middle of the country isn’t thought of as dangerous.
Where have there been more terror attacks – Metulla or Ra’anana? You guessed it – Ra’anana. But Metulla gets the firearms because it’s on the border. That in itself is crazy. Hezbollah will cross the border and someone with a pistol will stop them? The policy reflects the fact that people have been unable to free themselves of their tunnel vision.
Once, in the 1950s, it was dangerous on the borders. Today, the borders are less dangerous than here in the center.
I’ll give you another example. In Gilo, a Jerusalem neighborhood, there’s a street that goes toward Beit Jalla called Anafa Street. On Anafa Street, they get gun licenses. But one street further in they don’t. Now do you think a terrorist won’t walk the extra block?
This system is broken. These criteria aren’t the right criteria. Instead of 25 qualifying criteria, there should be at most five, six disqualifying criteria.
If you aren’t disqualified, you’re approved. That’s what we think.
Q: Was it always like this?
Zohar: Basically, all these categories started after the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. They started to tighten firearm policy. Why? Because that idiot shot him with a licensed handgun.
Q: Would you say there’s a hostility toward firearms on the part of the government?
Zohar: Yes. There’s a lot of hostility also in the media. They’re almost all against an armed citizenry. They align their attitudes with the Left.
We try to push into every media channel we can, to speak to every journalist possible. A portion of them interview us but then don’t publish. Because they don’t hear what they want to hear.
They only invite us after mass shootings in the U.S. And then try to drag us into saying how bad firearms are. Even Channel 9, the Russian channel here, which used to be balanced, got a new anchor and he is already leaning in the other direction.
A good part of the political parties – everyone to the left of the Likud – is against armed citizens. They say the Army will defend us. The police will defend us. If someone draws a weapon now, where we’re sitting, point out to me the Army, the police. There’s nobody.
You know who will always be at the site of an attack? The victim. So give the victim a weapon. What stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.
Q: In America the Left is also against guns. So here it’s the same?
Zohar: All the Left here, and this now is my personal opinion, are afraid of the armed citizen.
Their argument is, “Look what happens here. Everyone draws a knife. What would happen if everyone had a gun?”
I’ll tell you what would happen. Nothing.
In the 1990s, there were almost 400,000 legal guns among Israel’s civilian population. Were there piles of bodies in the streets? It was much more secure in the ’90s than it is now. And there were two-and-a-half times the number of guns as there are now.
Our greatest nemesis is the ‘Gun Free Kitchen Tables Campaign’ – it’s an umbrella group. They’ve pitted the women’s movement against gun ownership. With them, the instant there’s a gun in the house, it’s only there to kill women. They completely ignore the fact that of the 384 women who were murdered between 2000 and 2018, only 10 were killed with personal weapons.
We have the names of each one, when they were killed and how. When we brought that to the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women and Gender Equality, Gun Free Kitchen Tables people shouted at us, “Who authorized you to collect this data?”
Where did we take 80 percent of the data? From their own website. All the statistics from 2000 to 2016 were on their site. The moment we said, “We got this from you,” they stopped publishing the data.
Q: They’re hiding the truth?
Q: What is the attitude toward firearms in the general Israeli public?
Zohar: There are people who think that we do need more firearms. There are others who think we don’t, that it’s dangerous. There’ll be accidents. There’ll be thefts. People aren’t well trained enough, and so on.
It’s true that if there are more firearms, more will be stolen. But perhaps more assaults will be stopped.
Q: Israelis are used to firearms. Most served in the army. You would think they’d be used to guns and therefore less worried.
Zohar: First of all, there are people who were in the Army and have a counter-reaction. They say enough with weapons. I don’t want them in the house. And there are so many limitations on firearms here that people simply don’t want to deal with it. In every mall, they check your license.
And then they worry that once criminals know you have weapons in your home, they’ll break in when you’re not there and steal it. And then it enters the marketplace for criminals. They’ll open a criminal case if you were neglectful guarding your gun. They won’t give you a license afterwards. You’ll have a criminal file the rest of your life.
Q: In the U.S., the NRA has support among the general public. It doesn’t sound as if that’s the case here.
Zohar: In the U.S., gun ownership is linked to the freedom of the individual. So everyone who is for individual freedom stands with them. All the hunters are with them. All the sportsmen. Here, we don’t have that. There almost aren’t any hunters at all. The rights of the individual isn’t something that’s on people’s minds. They don’t understand yet that it’s possible to argue with the government.
There’s a real public inertia. The public’s indifferent.
Q: It sounds like there’s a problem with the Israeli worldview that goes beyond firearms.
Zohar: I don’t know how to overcome this. I’m not capable, not myself, not the organization, to change the way of thought of an entire nation. It’s an entire nation that’s not aware of its rights, that concedes its rights. It’s not just with firearms.
There are many government bodies that do as they please and the nation doesn’t cry out. Legal weapons are just one niche.
Q: Does Israel have anything to teach America about firearms?
Zohar: In spite of everything, yes, I think Israel does have something to teach America on firearms. Background checks – the system of who does and does not get firearms. I’m talking now about sifting out for mental health, criminals, those who want to harm the state.
First of all, you have to increase the training. It has to be more serious. Only give to those who pass the training at a high level. Because the intention isn’t to have people walking the streets with firearms they don’t really know how to use.
Firearms are power. But on the other side there’s responsibility. You can’t have one without the other.
Q: What can Israel learn from the United States?
Zohar: America understands the link between the armed citizen, individual rights and freedom.
It can’t be that Israel takes a person who’s 18 years old, puts an automatic weapon in his hand, sends him to protect the state, and the same person once he’s released from the Army can’t get a firearm to defend himself.
Once a year, they take the same person and again put an automatic weapon in his hand and tell him to defend the state.
Either he’s dangerous with firearms or he’s not dangerous with firearms. If he’s dangerous, don’t put him in the Army and don’t give him firearms. If he’s not dangerous with firearms, why not let him have his own weapon?
Q: When Gilad Erdan said he wanted to expand the number of people who could carry firearms he said the reason was that statistics show that Israeli citizens with guns have stopped terrorist incidents.
Zohar: I’ll tell you exactly how many. From 2000-2018, 51 terrorist incidents were stopped and there were another 17 shootings in legitimate self-defense.
Q: When Israelis hear this does it change their attitudes?
Zohar: Those who are against firearms – nothing interests them. They stick to their pre-conceptions. They won’t let you confuse them with facts. They’ll always shout: “They murder women. They murder women.” Guns don’t kill people. People kill people. The gun is just an instrument. Who wants to find a way to kill will find a way.
Since when do people put firearms on a kitchen table anyway? You know what lies on a kitchen table? A knife. 149 women were stabbed to death in the period between 2000-2018.
Q: Those mass shootings in the U.S., do they make your job here harder?
Zohar: In some ways, yes, but in some ways even easier. Because I always say don’t bring me examples of what happens in the U.S. What happens there isn’t what happens here.
Why not give me examples from Zimbabwe? Where they murder left and right. Why not from South Africa where people are afraid to leave their homes if they’re not in an armored car? Why just America?
We want to bring about a situation where, if and when something happens, there will be someone who will know how to stop it.
Q: What’s the ideal situation that you’d like to have here in Israel. Describe the laws you would like to see.
Zohar: That an Israeli citizen, an army veteran with an honorable discharge, who’s interested in obtaining a firearm, and can pass the training, will be eligible without any “criteria.” We want to get to that point.
I feel I represent many people, not just those who carry firearms, but all those who want to but can’t.
I believe this is a battle for our homes. It’s a battle for our lives. People don’t understand that yet. Because the moment they take all the guns, it will be open season. There are 400,000 guns in undesirable hands. Those weapons aren’t just for shooting into the air at weddings.
At some point, they’ll be turned against us.