Ultra-Orthodox men crowd round a table, leaning toward the merchandise, feeling and weighing and examining every detail. But this is not the four-species Sukkot market — it’s a gun sale in the Haredi settlement of Betar Ilit in the West Bank.
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Some 150 ultra-Orthodox men came to the gun sale held by the municipality on Wednesday evening. Once, carrying a handgun was seen as something of an abomination. But the terror attack on the synagogue in Jerusalem’s Har Nof neighborhood and the current wave of violence led to a turning point in the community’s approach to handguns.
The vendor stands behind the table speaking gravely about the technical specifications, diameter, weight and polymeric material the Glock or Smith and Wesson is made of. “Does it suit me?” asks a Hasidic student, holding up two 9 mm. revolvers, one in each hand.
A day after Barack Obama’s weepy speech in a bid to restrict the race for handguns in the United States, Betar Ilit's mayor Meir Rubinstein stands on the podium and tells his residents, who are buying guns, that “the more the merrier, regrettably.”
The evening consisted of a short lecture on the process of obtaining a permit – those who haven’t served in the army, like most Haredi men, may only apply for a permit from the age of 27 – and a flash lecture on guns and ammunition. Yair Yifrah, the weapon store owner, told the Haredi men: “I brought you a few guns that shoot, reliably. My recommendation is: Buy a gun whose diameter is no less than 9 mm.”
Almost 50,000 people live in the settlement, most of whom tended to ignore its proximity to Gush Etzion. They preferred to see it as a relaxed ultra-Orthodox suburb south of Jerusalem with gender segregated bus lines to the capital’s ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods. But as settlers, bureaucracy gives them priority in obtaining permits to carry guns. Now the terror wave – including a stabbing attempt by a young Palestinian woman at the Betar Ilit gate – has changed their approach. Municipal officials say the number of residents asking for guns has grown and that a group was organized to purchase a large number of guns for a considerable discount. Some 90 people from Betar Ilit registered to buy revolvers and pistols, along with others from nearby settlements, including three women.
“Ultra-Orthodox people recoil from militarism and walking around with a handgun isn’t exactly something we grew up on,” says Shmuel, a Hasidic student. “Once, if you walked with a handgun you’d be seen as a sheigetz (goy). Today it’s not like that, due to the security situation.”
Even the most rigid social norms have softened somewhat due to the situation. Despite this, all those who were interviewed refused to give their family name.
The terror wave has claimed the lives of a number of ultra-Orthodox Jews, but the turning point was the attack on Bnei Torah Synagogue in Jerusalem’s Har Nof neighborhood in November 2014, in which six people were killed. After that ultra-Orthodox rabbis called for arming up. For example, Har Nof rabbi David Yosef, a member of Shas’ council of Torah Sages, told radio Kol Barama (before Shas boycotted the radio): “Not only is there no halakhic [Jewish religious law] problem with it, but it’s preferable to have armed people. If there were people with guns in that synagogue that morning perhaps a large part of the disaster would have been averted.”
Three members of the Boyan Hasidic dynasty say they came to the event on Wednesday without asking their rebbe. But they believed he would agree if they had asked him. Shmuel, now inquiring about buying a Glock, says, “every ultra-Orthodox person goes to pray three times a day and everyone asks himself what would happen if he finds himself in a situation like the one in the synagogue in Har Nof.”
Yehoshua, a Haredi student from Mir yeshiva in Jerusalem, is interested in buying a handgun. “In Mir there are 5,000-6,000 students. What if a terrorist gets in there? That’s why it’s important to have people with guns there,” he says.
Mayor Rubinstein opens the evening with apologies. “It’s very regrettable that we’ve come to the stage of weapons etcbut every day the lone terrorist heaven forbidit’s a thing neither the Israel Defense Forces nor police have an answer for,” he says. He is appalled by the possibility that a terrorist may enter the settlement and attack people, very few of whom carry guns.
“I too, to my regret, am taking part here this evening and I’m telling you gentlemen – concerned citizens, surely members of rescue organizations, teachers, directors of schools who are among children – there may be security guards in the schools, but it’s still preferable to arm up,” he says.