Opinion

As an American I Feel Safer in Jerusalem Than El Paso

My parents back home in Brooklyn ask me to text that I’m OK here in Israel — but maybe in wake of El Paso, Dayton and other mass shootings I should start asking them that

Mourners gathering for a vigil at the scene of a mass shooting in Dayton, Ohio, August 4, 2019.
John Minchillo,AP

I am an American living in Israel and I feel safer. The reality is, I am safer here in Israel than I am in my own country — statistically speaking.

Between August 2-4, 143 people were killed in the United States as a result of gun violence. This number includes the mass shootings that took place Saturday in a mall in El Paso, Texas, a nightlife area in Dayton, Ohio, on Sunday and other isolated incidents across the country that went unreported by the mainstream media.

These deaths account for less than 1 percent of gun violence in the past calendar year. According to the Gun Violence Archive, there have been 33,192 incidents involving guns in 2019, which includes mass shootings, home invasions, defensive use, officer involvement and unintentional shootings.

Since being in Israel, it is hard for me to ignore the visibility of firearms. But it is also hard to ignore the situational differences between Israel and the United States.

An 18-year-old Israel Defense Forces soldier hugs his M16 waiting at a bus stop in Jerusalem, steps away from the Mahane Yehuda market where several terrorist attacks took place historically. A tour guide explains a war with Lebanon breaking out in his backyard, as he shifts car gears with a gun tucked next to his thigh. A stranger hosting Shabbat dinner says he has a gun in the next room.

Armed Israeli soldiers on the streets of Jerusalem in 2015.
Olivier Fitoussi

I was never comfortable around guns, but being around people who are trained in how to use them puts me more at ease.

I have never been involved in a shooting, but gun violence has infected my life in other ways: When I hear firecrackers in my home neighborhood in Brooklyn, I hold my breath; when I eat at a restaurant, I face the door to see who’s coming; I observe NYPD officers place their hand on their gun holsters when they approach a rowdy group of teenagers on Flatbush Avenue.

In Israel, the annual rate of gun deaths per 100,000 people in 2015 was 1.38 percent, with 111 deaths. Meanwhile, in the United States it was 11.28 percent per 100,000, with 36,247 deaths. (Finding the data to even compare Israel to the U.S. was more complicated than you might think.)

According to the Small Arms Survey, in Israel there 6.69 firearms for every 100 people — a total of 557,000. In the United States, there are 120.48 per 100 persons, or 393 million firearms. This means Israel accounts for less than 1 percent of civilian firearms held in the United States.

Taking into account my privilege in both the United States and Israel as a white woman, I understand that my safety in terms of gun violence when it comes to law enforcement is not comparable to young black men or Palestinians, due to racial discrimination or other political factors. But that’s a whole separate issue.

People taking part in a rally against hate a day after a mass shooting at a Walmart store, El Paso, Texas, August 4, 2019.
\ JOSE LUIS GONZALEZ/ REUTERS

My concern is how easy it is for a civilian to obtain a gun. My concern is a lack of federal background checks, which gives guns to men who openly share racist manifestos online. My concern is for a Second Amendment that lets someone use military-grade weapons and open fire in an elementary school. My concern is for the “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” that is taken away from Americans who end up in the wrong place at the wrong time.

In El Paso, investigators are looking into hate crime charges as a result of a four-page manifesto being posted online minutes before the alleged shooter took the lives of 20 people in a Walmart in the Texan border city. The document refers to a “Hispanic invasion of Texas.”

In the United States, walking out of your front door and fearing for your safety in the most “normal” settings has become normalized.

Why do I care?

As a young journalist, I have the desire to travel to conflict areas in order to understand and share stories with people back home. But being away from home has opened my eyes to the regular everyday existence here in Israel, a place where religion and politics consume the headlines and overshadow the culture and life. Meanwhile, back home, there is a crisis that moves policy here nor there.

The first article I ever wrote as a budding journalist was an event for The Coney Island Anti-Violence Collaborative in Brooklyn, just 15 minutes from my childhood home. Each person in the room had a family member who was injured or killed due to gun violence. I didn’t even know one. I was living in a bubble.

I walked out of the event, wrote the article, and got to go home to my safe and oblivious neighborhood. But the people I met earlier didn’t have that choice. They were, and still are, defending their right to live in a safe community.

And in Israel, the reality is different. Gun safety is not a political conversation — it’s just how it is. Yes, this is a country where about two-thirds of young Jews are conscriptable and where they are trained during their army service to use a gun, but not necessarily to own one.

For those who don’t serve, they understand what it means to live in a volatile country and be on the brink of war — from every remark made by leaders in the Middle East (or via tweets from others abroad).

Perhaps this is why they don’t take safety for granted. Perhaps this is why the country has gun control laws that are responsible when it comes to who actually owns a gun. And perhaps this is why Israel doesn’t have politicians who accept money from the gun lobby. In Washington, by contrast, the gun lobby spent a reported $12.4 million on “gun rights” in 2018 — the highest since 2013. On the other side, gun control groups spent $2 million.

The next time my parents ask me to text them that “I’m safe” and “Everything’s OK,” perhaps I’ll ask them to do the same.

Patty Nieberg is a reporting fellow for Haaretz with the Jerusalem Press Club. She finished her MS in Journalism at Northwestern University, where she spent the last year reporting on national security and defense stories from Washington for several publications. Twitter: @pattynieberg