I was 9 years old when I learned to disassemble and rebuild an AR-15-style rifle.
It was a Friday afternoon in August 2000 and my older brother, Adam who was 18 at the time, had just come home after his first training in the Israeli Defense Forces. We were sitting on the roof of my parents’ house in Tel Aviv and he showed me what he learned in boot camp. Israel has a mandatory draft, and unlike U.S. soldiers who get deployed far away, Israeli soldiers come back home every few weekends — and they often bring their weapons with them.
Even as a 9-year-old kid, seeing assault weapons of the style of the AR-15 was not new to me. You can’t hide from rifles in Israel. Soldiers are on their way to or from a base everywhere you look.
In America, guns are a hobby for some people and often, they’re even a part of a person’s politics and identity. In contrast, Israel has no gun culture — even though military guns are pervasive enough that’s it’s completely normal to see 18-year-olds in olive green IDF uniforms carrying assault rifles into the falafel shops of Tel Aviv. Even growing up with assault rifles around, I never knew anybody who privately owned a gun. And I definitely never thought that one of those soldiers on their weekends at home would open fire at a mall, movie theater, concert, grocery store, or bar.
Israel does have political violence — including a few mass shootings. In 1994, a Jewish terrorist shot and killed 29 Palestinian worshipers in Hebron. In 2009, a gunman entered a meet up place for LGBTQ youth in Tel Aviv and opened fire killing two and injuring 11. There have also been a few Palestinian terror attacks that were mass shootings.
But there’s nothing like the crisis of gun violence that America is experiencing right now, a fact even more baffling when you consider the prevalence of racism and anti-Palestinian sentiment among many Israelis that goes all the way to the government.
This was on my mind last week, as the coverage of the mass shootings in El Paso and Dayton unfolded. As I read about the violence, I couldn’t stop thinking of Israel and the tens of thousands of assault weapons that are outside of military bases in Israel every weekend in the hands of young soldiers.
With so many weapons available, why doesn’t Israel have mass shootings like we do in America?
To help me think this through, I called my good friend Ori Mayer, who’s currently an MD-PhD student at Tel Aviv University and a former paramedic for one of the IDF’s reconnaissance battalions, which are the flagship units of the infantry. I asked him why he thinks Israeli soldiers don’t commit mass shootings in Israeli cities with their army-issued weapons.
For him, the biggest factor is the sense of purpose that comes from being a part of a bigger mission. “When I read manifestos of white supremacists who committed mass shootings, it seems that they view their actions as chipping in to ‘fighting the good fight’ from their racist standpoint,” he told me.
According to Ori, being in the military gives young men a similar sense of purpose. “You put on a uniform and you are actively participating in what feels like ‘fighting the good fight’ without shooting anyone … I don’t remember doing anything too heroic in my military service but I did feel some sense of glory.”
I get that. When I was 18, I refused to serve in the military and instead did two years of national service where I worked daily as a medic on ambulances. It was a hard period in my life. I’d just graduated from high school and everyone I knew went into the military. I felt socially isolated and every conversation I had with a stranger quickly became a political argument when they asked why I hadn’t joined the military. But putting on the uniform of Magen David Adom, Israel’s national emergency medical, disaster, ambulance and blood bank service, made me feel like I was contributing to my country and community. I was pitching in, fighting that good fight. I couldn’t go into a slump or use drugs indiscriminately or go shoot up some place — because I was needed on the ambulance tomorrow morning.
Researchers who studied the shooters in U.S. mass shootings since 1966 found that a common attribute for most shooters seek validation for their motives. For a lost young man in a moment of crisis, planning a mass shooting provides a reason to exist.
I see America’s recent increase in mass shootings as a crisis of purpose. When shooters like the El Paso terrorist post their manifestos on online platforms like 8chan, they receive validation and glory — bonding through their shared hatred. Even shooters who are not motivated by white supremacy and racism, such as many school shooters, see news coverage of previous shooting and shooters as recognition and esteem, something that they long for in a purposeless life — even though it will likely come after their death.
In the days following the shootings in El Paso and Dayton, there were, as usual, calls for reform to America’s gun laws. Those are desperately needed. But to prevent mass shootings, stricter gun control alone won’t be enough.
Efforts should also focus on the reason that someone would want to pick up a rifle in the first place. That means finding a collective mission that young men could be a part of and have a sense of purpose without a destructive goal.
Some Democratic presidential candidates, such as John Delaney and Pete Buttigieg, see this crisis of purpose and propose a mandatory national service program — in military or civil organizations. But their well-intentioned proposals amount to indentured servitude, forcing people into labor with no ability to negotiate terms.
Were it up to me, instead of a mandatory service program I would invest resources in galvanizing young people all over the country to rise to the greatest challenge of our time: climate change. Mass mobilization to address climate change could give purpose and hope to a generation that needs it. For example, the Green New Deal includes guarantee of jobs to help make the transition to a sustainable and green economy. Those jobs shouldn’t be seen as mere income, but as a part of a mission to literally save the planet. The task for our leadership is to make the case that fighting climate change is as sexy as it was in the 1940s to enlist to the military and fight Nazis.
Hate is often discussed as divisive, but among those who hate together, it is a unifier. To battle hate, we need to offer a different purpose and a common villain, not a group of people to demonize but behaviors that stands between us and our future. Climate change is not the only villain that we can unify around in a healthy way — as long as it provides purpose so that potential mass shooters would maybe log off of their hateful online chat rooms, put down the AR-15, and fight for something that is actually good.