By Adam Langer

“Gun control is an extremely destructive policy–it helped clear the way for Nazi ascendancy in Germany,” said Aaron Zelman as he stood before a national board meeting of the National Rifle Association three years ago. “For the NRA to mobilize the bulk of the population, it must–as a matter of the greatest possible urgency–abandon the policy of compromise on gun control. The NRA must be bold and aggressive. It is not enough to focus on leading gun grabbers. It is essential to attack the concept of gun control, to show that this is a blood-drenched concept that has no place in any civilized country.” Zelman hasn’t been invited back to speak since. “Too shrill,” says one NRA member.

That there are members of the Jewish community who are opposed to the policies of the National Rifle Association is hardly surprising. Everyone from Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel to Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith has come out in favor of strict gun-control legislation. But that there’s a Jew–a Jew who keeps kosher and sends his kids to an Orthodox day school no less–who speaks at the invitation of the NRA leadership and then lashes out at the organization for knuckling under to the forces supporting gun control may seem downright peculiar.

But then Zelman, executive director of the Milwaukee-based not-for-profit Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership, has made a career out of alienating mainstream Jewish leaders and finding himself allied with people whose views would seem about as un-Jewish as you could imagine. He’s been criticized by the Anti-Defamation League as “alarmist” and “misguided,” and Ohio senator Howard Metzenbaum has blasted his views as “off base.” But members of militia groups have called him “brave and heroic,” and one member of a neo-Nazi group based in the northwest has said, “For a Jew, he’s not bad.”

In a recent debate conducted on the Internet in the newsgroup on “civilians bearing arms for the common defense,” a discussion group usually devoted to the issues of militia organizations and “ATF thuggery,” JPFO was both lauded as “one of the finest examples of an organization who is explaining to the public the practical reasons of why it is that citizen ownership of firearms should never be outlawed” and blasted as a group of “radical militia followers.” Letters on JPFO’s goal of eliminating gun control have turned up recently in such places as the Atlantic Monthly, Harper’s, and the Wall Street Journal, as well as publications like Guns & Ammo.

JPFO has only about 5,000 dues-paying members. Zelman estimates that 85 percent of the group’s members are Jewish, and some of them attend gun shows and own M1 rifles, Uzis, and Chinese assault weapons. All of which, says one JPFO member who asked not to be identified, challenges the stereotype of the left-leaning, nonconfrontational Jew who’s “very passive and goes to the gas chambers like a sheep.”

Members of the Milwaukee Jewish community bristle at JPFO posters and bumper stickers and flyers. Zelman has distributed flyers with pictures of Hitler and Sarah Brady that ask, “What do these people have in common?” then claim that Brady and Hitler are “cut from the same cloth” and that the Brady gun-control bill is “evil” and “employs Nazi-style tactics.” One poster features a drawing of Adolf Hitler saluting behind the legend ALL IN FAVOR OF GUN CONTROL RAISE YOUR RIGHT HAND. A bumper sticker that depicts an assault rifle inside a life preserver reads NEVER LET GO OF YOUR LIFE PRESERVER! Another poster features a yellow Star of David like those that Jews were forced to wear in Nazi Germany, but instead of the word “Jew” inside the star there are the words “gun owner.” The poster declares, “The government targets honest firearm owners just as the Nazis targeted Jews.”

Despite the incendiary rhetoric, Zelman, with his full beard and slow, methodical way of speaking, has more the air of a Talmud scholar than of a right-wing activist. Even when he blasts the NRA, dismissing them as a bunch of people “who think gun control is about duck hunting,” or when he savages mainstream Jewish leaders as “Jewish gun grabbers,” he never raises his voice. His drive, intensity, and obsessive nature are suggested only by his eyes, which fix on you with a magnetic force–as they fix on me when he tells me that by supporting gun-control legislation Jews and others are “blindly going down a path that is going to lead them into more trouble than they can imagine at some point in time. I don’t have a crystal ball as to when this trouble will arise. It could be a few years. It could be decades. In the Armenian genocide they passed an edict saying ‘turn in your guns,’ and weeks later they were being marched into the desert to die of starvation. Gun control is a very, very dangerous thing.”

There are bars on the windows of Aaron Zelman’s Milwaukee house, which is also protected by a state-of-the-art alarm system. Everywhere you look are books about guns, gun catalogs, gun magazines, gun handbooks, but Zelman says the guns he keeps in his house are only weapons of last resort. He’s cagey about how well armed he is and what sorts of weapons he owns. “I’ve got some guns,” he says. “Let’s leave it at that.”

Zelman has two sons, ages five and ten, both of whom he’s educated extensively about firearms, though they’re not old enough to be allowed to use a gun on their own. But Zelman says that every once in a while when he’s cleaning a gun he lets them hold it to get a feel for how heavy it is and tells them it shouldn’t be treated as a plaything. He says that by doing this he’s eliminated their curiosity about firearms. “It’s not something they particularly care for. It’s too heavy. They say, ‘Here, dad. Take this back. I don’t want this.’ I’ve let them shoot some guns, .22s. I’ve let them shoot air rifles under supervision. It’s all structured so they know what a gun does. They know it goes bang. They know it recoils. They know that if you clean it you get your hands dirty. And they see a gun and they want to know if it’s loaded, because they know they’re not supposed to get near it. I’ve shown them stuff on television, and I’ve told them this is not the way it really is. People die from being shot. Guns are tools. You don’t play with them. I don’t give my kids toy guns to play with. I think toy guns create bad habits.”

A self-described libertarian, Zelman came to Milwaukee from Tucson, Arizona, where he was raised by his grandmother. Born in 1946, he grew up in an area where the philosophy of the old west was still alive, in a city that, according to Zelman, was “settled by Samuel Colt and his Peacemaker,” a city where his neighbor wrote not for Commentary but for Field & Stream. It was a remnant of a frontier society where a Jewish woman married Wyatt Earp, where Jewish sheriffs walked the streets, and where the most prominent political figure of Jewish heritage is still Barry Goldwater. Zelman’s first job was working for a men’s clothing shop; the Jewish owners’ grandparents had come to Tucson by covered wagon. “You may have never been to Arizona, but to this day people run around with guns in the back of their pickup trucks, and they walk down the streets carrying guns,” says Zelman. “You can walk down the streets in Tucson carrying a gun–a fully loaded automatic machine gun–as long as it’s not concealed. That’s the law.”

That’s not the law in Wisconsin. But no permit or registration is required to buy a firearm, and there’s no waiting period when buying rifles, though for handguns there’s a 48-hour waiting period across the state and a seven-day period in Milwaukee. There are no shops in Milwaukee that sell firearms exclusively, but there are plenty of stores in neighboring West Milwaukee and Menomonee Falls.

Zelman was first introduced to firearms in a rifle class he took at a Jewish summer camp when he was 12. He liked using the guns and continued practicing at shooting ranges with friends and their parents. When he was a teenager he bought his first gun, a British World War I revolver. “You see enough of them and you want one,” he says. “It’s like some people with sports cars or motorcycles and leather jackets. You just want it. You don’t always need a reason.”

When he was still a teenager Zelman began to associate the idea of the right to bear arms with the need for Jews to protect themselves against anti-Semitic or other forms of violence. Many of his grandmother’s friends were Holocaust survivors, and he was troubled by the fact that Jews in Europe had been unable to protect themselves. “I was always making connections about people being disarmed and governments murdering them,” he says. “The question would always come up, ‘How did this happen?’ I’d look at pictures of the Nazi camps, and I’d see huge numbers of people but only a few guards. And I’d look at those people and say, ‘How come those few people can control all those people?’ Those who were being marched off to the showers to be gassed didn’t have guns, and those who were marching them had guns. There was always that connection. They had dogs and whips and whatever else they wanted to use–and the Jews had nothing. Some of the older people I talked to understood. They said, ‘Take the guns away from people, and you’ll see what happens.'”

Anti-Semitism was never much of a problem for Zelman growing up in Arizona, nor did it cause much difficulty when he joined the armed forces in 1964, serving as a medic with the marines and the navy for two years. The only incident he can recall is a marine telling him he didn’t much like Jews. Zelman told the guy, “Well then you’ve got a problem with me, don’t ya?” That was the end of that discussion.

When Zelman got out of the service he worked as a salesman in the garment industry. A job transfer in 1973 brought him to Milwaukee, where he soon got into selling life insurance and financial planning; he later taught continuing education courses on financial planning at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

His interest in firearms never faded. In 1986 he and a police officer, Michael Neuens, wrote The Consumer’s Guide to Handguns. That same year he set up the country’s first mail-order ammunition business, though he quit a year later. He also began researching the history of gun-control laws and trying to establish a link between genocide and government regulations prohibiting gun ownership.

In 1989 Zelman started JPFO. It was a one-man operation, with Zelman lobbying state politicians on gun issues, writing them letters and meeting them in person. He made little progress, and four years later, disillusioned with the whole “disgusting political process,” he set up a board of people who’d responded to letters and articles he’d published in gun magazines, then incorporated as a not-for-profit organization dedicated to educating the public in general and the Jewish community in particular about the need to obliterate every form of gun control, including registration, waiting periods, prohibitions on the sale of assault weapons and even cop-killer bullets. “I never met a gun I didn’t like,” Zelman says and laughs. “Our goal is to destroy this monster, to eradicate this cancer called gun control, and then go on and do something else with our lives.”

JPFO, which Zelman now runs full-time out of his home, doesn’t even want laws that decide which sorts of people should own weapons and which shouldn’t, though not all members are as strident about background checks and registration as Zelman. “A lot of Americans are just damn stupid,” says Zelman. “They don’t understand that criminals will always have firearms. You can’t legislate morality. We’ve been trying for decades in this country, and it doesn’t work. You either have morality or you don’t have morality–but you’re not gonna legislate it.

“Our interest is destroying gun control worldwide and making sure that we don’t have the problems in America that there are in other countries where people have been disarmed and evil people are gaining power and you have bloodshed. We have a bumper sticker that says, Gun Control Puts Criminals in Control. In New York City criminals don’t think about the average person having a gun, because there are no firearms allowed in the city. That’s why people there have developed this idiot mind-set of carrying mugger money with them. ‘Here’s $200–please leave me alone. Go away.’ To me that’s obscene. Our goal is to make sure that Americans keep their guns.”

To make its case, JPFO begins by citing the Talmud. For instance, Zelman points to the statement “If someone comes to kill you, rise up and kill him first” as justification for the use of guns in self-defense.

JPFO also cites history. “The Nazis didn’t bring gun control to Germany,” says Zelman. “They didn’t have to–it was waiting for them. The Nazis came to power in 1933. In 1928, five years before the Nazis took power, the Weimar Republic registered guns and gun owners–so when the Nazis came to power five years later they simply took over the registration lists. That’s an important word to remember: registration. Because when a person registers a firearm with the government, the government knows who owns the guns. The Nazis took over those registration lists and determined who they would continue to issue permits to and who not. In 1938 they passed specific laws forbidding Jews to own firearms. The day after Kristallnacht they passed laws forbidding Jews from owning guns, clubs, or knives. They also forbid Gypsies from owning firearms. That was the Weimar Republic which made it easier for the Nazis to round up Gypsies.”

In Gun Control: Gateway to Tyranny–a book he wrote in 1994 with JPFO’s research director, Jay Simkin–Zelman suggests that these German laws inspired the 1968 U.S. Gun Control Act, which called for local firearms registration, the establishment of a national firearms registry, and the disarming of “lawless persons.” As evidence he cites a July 12, 1968, letter written by the chair of the hearings on the legislation–Connecticut senator Thomas Dodd, who’d worked as a prosecutor at the Nuremberg war-crimes trials in 1945 and ’46–in which he requested a copy and translation of the 1938 Nazi weapons laws. Zelman and Simkin exhort their readers to use the book to “de-Nazify America.”

In a comic-book pamphlet he wrote in 1996, Gun Control Kills Kids, Zelman provides a chart of genocides–the 1915-’17 murder of a million Armenians by the Ottoman Turkish government and mass murders in the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany, Maoist China, Guatemala, Uganda, Cambodia, and Rwanda–drawing a link between each extermination and restrictions on gun ownership in the country where it happened. He claims that if, for example, Jews had been allowed to carry firearms the history of the Holocaust might have played out quite differently.

“The Nazis won with about 43 percent of the vote,” says Zelman. “It was split three ways. There were a lot of folks in Germany who were not wildly ecstatic about the Nazis. Those folks, if they had been able to keep their firearms, could have resisted better. You hear a knock at the door, you know it’s the enemy, you open fire and shoot through the door. That’s one way to kill off Nazis or other people who are Nazi-oriented or sympathetic to Nazi practices. A modern-day example of that would be Afghanistan. Here you had for the most part sheepherders who started out with old rifles left over from World War II, and when they would kill a Russian soldier they would pick up his AK-47 and whatever other equipment he had. Once other countries saw that these people were taking on the Russian army, other people joined in with them by giving them supplies, including, from the United States, Stinger missiles to shoot down Russian planes. That’s a modern example of an armed citizenry against tyrannical force.”

Zelman also publishes a heavily footnoted quarterly newsletter, which has featured articles decrying the demonization of militia groups, trumpeting the accomplishments of Jewish patriots, such as Revolutionary War hero Haym Salomon, and railing against the Anti-Defamation League. “There is a lot of leadership in the Jewish community that continues to support gun-control schemes. Eight years after we started the organization they still haven’t learned much from history. Some of them are less vehement toward me because they can’t defend their arguments, because all they’re doing is parroting gun prohibitionists. But we’ve published enough information so they can’t defend their arguments rationally. They can do it emotionally, but not rationally. The facts are on our side, and history is on our side–that gun control is a dangerous idea for a civilized society. Most people think that gun control makes a society more civilized, but history hasn’t proven it.”

Zelman blames a flaw in Jewish character for the strong support for gun control in the Jewish community, suggesting that Jews support gun control mostly out of a desire to appease the establishment. “There’s a long history of Jews making compromises with evil in hopes that by not making waves things will be better for Jews,” he says. “Jews have done this throughout history, not just in World War II. For thousands of years Jews have tried to ingratiate themselves and go along with whatever the powers that be are proposing. To be accepted. To be liked. And when the powers that be in a country are supporting chain-saw control, or bubble-gum control, or gun control the Jews will go along with it.”

Zelman thinks that rather than gaining them acceptance in mainstream society, Jews’ support of gun control is creating more problems, by inflaming anti-Semitic opinion among right-wingers. Ignoring the fact that he could easily be accused of trying to appease the conservative establishment, he insists that legislators like Wisconsin’s Herb Kohl and Russell Feingold, California’s Barbara Boxer, and New York’s Charles Schumer (whom a JPFO ad once called a “stupid Jew” for supporting gun control) are creating “animosity towards Jews,” which could result in “more hate rhetoric” or violence.

“These leaders in the Jewish community don’t understand the American psyche very well. Gun control is not looked upon by millions and millions of people with a kind eye. They don’t like it, and that could create problems for Jews. Heaven forbid if we have a financial turndown in this country and Alan Greenspan is still director of the Federal Reserve.” Zelman shudders. “They’ll blame the Jews for the financial problems.” He thinks the Armenian and black communities in this country are doing the same thing to themselves. “They’re all very shortsighted.”

Zelman knows that militia groups have used a lot of his literature for their own purposes and provide links to JPFO on their Web sites, but he says he’s been careful to stay away from other groups. “Sure, we’ve been approached by some folks who aren’t necessarily hate mongers, but they’re wacko,” he says. “We are approached by all sorts of people who believe in all kinds of conspiracies. But I stay away from those sorts of people. I need to see data. I need to see proof. We’re very much loners.”

He even refuses to deal with other right-wing Jewish groups, such as the supporters of the late Meir Kahane. “They want to get into street politics and nose-to-nose confrontations with neo-Nazis? That’s fine. I’m not going to stop them. If they’re doing some good in the world, let them go do it. But that’s not our focus. We have a very, very narrow focus, and that’s eliminating gun control.”

Zelman’s out-of-the-Jewishmainstream views are not limited to gun control. He also has highly conservative opinions on abortion and school prayer. He says even a Christian prayer would be better than nothing. “I don’t think American people put a real high value on human life,” he says. “Maybe more so than other countries, like these Arabian countries where they don’t care about human life at all. But there’s just this lack of real support for human life, real concern. And when you hear about genocides going on around the world–how concerned were the American people about Rwanda? You hear about people talking about the Holocaust today. There’s this real ‘Ho-hum, don’t bother me about that again. I don’t want to hear about it. It’s 50 years ago. Forget it.’ This is a real danger signal. This should really be a red flag for the Jews. When you have a society made up of people who are ignorant of history, I think it’s very dangerous for Jews. This is not the same America I grew up in. The values aren’t there. The morals aren’t there.

“When I grew up crime was not tolerated. You’ve got a coarsening of society. The number of repeat offenders we have is appalling. If you want a 90 percent reduction in crime in America you take the repeat offenders out of circulation so they never see the light of day again. And you make the time they are incarcerated so damn miserable that these wannabe punks and these gangs get the message that their future is awfully bleak if they don’t behave and respect other people.

“I think I would start with simple things. If you wanna eat you work hard enough to earn your food. You’re not coming here for three square meals a day unless you’ve earned it. You want to sleep on a mattress? Well, get used to sleeping on that hard cement floor for a long time, and if you work hard enough maybe we’ll give you a straw mattress or maybe we’ll get you a cot. Prison has got to be a place where you don’t want to go, so that even the dumbest criminal would figure that out. I’m not saying you ought to be brutal to people or beat or torture them or do horrible things to them, but you have to make it so that it would not be a pleasant place to be. No television for sure. If they show up and they don’t have a high school degree, at least they’re gonna earn one. They’re not gonna get out until their time is really done. No parole. If I were running prisons in America they would be the most unpleasant place to be on the face of the earth for your career criminal.”

Zelman says he doesn’t see any imminent danger of genocide in America, but he does see a race war coming, which he says should encourage all Americans to want to hang on to their arms. And given the change he’s seen in values in this country, he doesn’t think the idea of government-sanctioned murder is particularly far-fetched. “I find the acceptance of murder in this country just to be appalling, particularly the abortion issue. I’m not getting into that, but people are callous enough to think that it’s nothing. I find that acceptance to be frightening, and when you’ve got people who get to that level of accepting abortion I think you’ve got a situation where the public could be turned against a group. The three steps toward genocide are: you target a group for hatred, you make sure that group can’t defend itself, and you have a government that’s gone bad to the extent that they will perpetrate murder. So you demonize a group of people and disarm them. I think that the mind-set of the American people could justify horrible things happening.”

“You don’t have to have any fear of me owning a gun,” says Jon Sadof, a member of JPFO who will say only that he’s worked in a number of fields and is now a health-care professional. “Honest to God, you don’t. Nor do my neighbors. Nor does the government. Nor does anybody else have to have any fear of me owning a gun–except a tyrant or someone who has come to hurt me and my family. They have got to worry, and that’s my belief.”

The 52-year-old Sadof, an alternately gentle and feisty army veteran, bears a striking resemblance to Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. His face reddens noticeably when he speaks of communists, liberals, “krauts,” or the free Milwaukee alternative weekly newspaper I’m holding, which he says is so liberal it “isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on.” A lifelong resident of the Milwaukee area, he has a menagerie of friendly pets in his house, including a monkey and a golden retriever. He also has a bumper sticker on the refrigerator with a picture of a gun on it that reads Don’t Beware of Dog! Beware of Owner! “I’m very conservative,” says Sadof, who regularly attends gun conventions and is a UFO enthusiast. “I vote Republican. I support very conservative people for the legislature. Most people think I’m a nut and don’t even want to discuss it with me.”

Sadof, whose son is getting ready to join the Israeli army, grew up with typically liberal Jewish parents who would never think of allowing guns in the house. He was always an opponent of gun control, and after he saw an ad for JPFO in a gun magazine he became friendly with Zelman. Soon he was active in JPFO. “Look, Jews consistently vote liberal,” he says. “Eighty percent of the Jewish vote goes Democratic, liberal. And Jews go along with gun control. My mother lives in Shorewood–she’s lived there for 60 years. I love my mother, but she’s a liberal. So the village decided that they were gonna pass a law that nobody could own a handgun in Shorewood. Isn’t that nice? No guns in Shorewood. Everybody’s going to be so happy. My mother thought this was such a wonderful idea, and I said to her, ‘Mother, where do you think every crook in the world is gonna go? To the next village, Whitefish Bay, where everybody’s got a gun?’ She said, ‘Well, I never thought about it that way.’

“I think that a lot of it is that Jews have the mentality of the oppressed, like the Jew in Europe who would think he was not as good as everybody else. He would think that when a gentile passes him he should get in the gutter. I can give you a lot of stories. I have cousins who survived the Holocaust who are to this day antigun. Antigun! One of my cousin’s daughters was up here not too long ago, and I took her shooting for the first time. She said, ‘If my mother and father knew I had a gun in my hand they would go absolutely ballistic.’ And I love these people, I truly love those people. That same cousin, he and his wife are both Holocaust survivors. They went to Israel, and they saw unbelievable horrors. On the tour they happened to pass an Israeli tank column that was forming up to go into Lebanon, and they started to cry. Why? Because here are Jews who are willing to defend themselves. Now I never cried over a fucking tank.”

Sadof is every bit as committed to opposing gun control as Zelman. He has essentially memorized Zelman’s positions and can very effectively paraphrase the JPFO party line. “There was this one German Jew I know who was in the camps,” he says. “One day they got up and the Nazis were gone. They heard shelling, and they didn’t know what was going on. They also knew very clearly that if they were to run because the Americans were coming, the Nazis would be back to kill every survivor–they wanted no witnesses to what was going on. So this guy and five other guys broke into a shed where weapons and ammunition were stored. The five other guys knew nothing about weapons. This guy knew. Now the Nazis didn’t leave any whole weapons. They left parts. A barrel there, an assembly there. He was able to assemble five rifles. They went to the front of the camp, and lo and behold the SS was coming back to murder everybody left in the camp. They got in a ditch and started firing into the SS. The SS stopped, thought it was maybe Americans and ran. This guy, because he knew about weapons, saved every poor soul in that camp.”

Sadof dismisses all gun-control efforts as “liberal hysterics,” especially the banning of Uzis. He produces two shells, one about the size of a pen cap, the other twice the size. Holding the smaller shell, he says, “You see this? The Uzi shoots a shell like this.” He picks up the larger shell. “The guns they didn’t ban shoot shells like this. An Uzi is effective for a maximum 200 yards. The .30-06 they use for deer hunting that shoots these shells is good for 600 or 700 yards–but they didn’t ban that one. And yet which is more dangerous? It’s just hysterics. I don’t know of any police officer that was killed in this country with an Uzi, and yet they ban them. Less than 1 percent of any crimes in this country are committed with any kind of rifle, and look at all the rifles they want to ban. It’s just politics. It’s just because it makes politicians look good.

“A few years ago in New York some guy got pissed off at a big nightclub. He took a book of matches and lit the place on fire and killed 86 kids–with a book of matches. What are we gonna do? Control matches? This is silly. No, we don’t control matches. We throw this sucker in jail for the rest of his life. Or if there is capital punishment in New York, they should do that. But to let him out on the street again where he’s gonna get another book of matches if he gets pissed off at somebody else? That’s insane, but that’s what’s happening in the system. ‘Let him out, give him parole.’ That’s what’s crazy. And that’s what liberals want. They’re like, ‘It’s so good we’re getting rid of all these things that will make the world a better place.’ Well, get rid of matches, man.”

Sadof smiles. “You know what Winston Churchill said about liberals and conservatives, don’t you?”

“No. What?”

“Churchill said, ‘If you’re not a liberal when you’re 25 you’ve got no heart. If you’re not a conservative by the time you’re 35 you’ve got no brains.” He laughs. “That’s the way it is with me. The older I get, the worse it gets.”

Last year Viktor Kemper, a JPFO member who’s an English professor at Western Illinois University, became the subject of some unwanted attention when Harper’s published a letter he wrote to the JPFO’s Firearms Sentinel. In the letter Kemper congratulated Zelman on the publication of the Gun Control Kills Kids comic book–which, in addition to charting genocide figures, shows how more children die in swimming pools, car wrecks, and bicycle accidents than by gunfire–claiming that he was using it as a text in his sophomore composition course and that it had helped change some of his students’ minds about gun control. Kemper says he didn’t assign the comic book with the intent of changing student opinion but rather to stimulate class discussion on a volatile topic.

“While I hold very strong views regarding legislation aimed, whether intentionally or not, at infringing our right to keep and bear arms, I do not preach this in my classes. I don’t even whisper it,” Kemper wrote me. “My job here is to teach research writing, not what I believe about anything else.”

In the letter to the Sentinel Kemper had written, “For the last four semesters I have been using David Kopel’s splendid study, The Samurai, the Mountie, and the Cowboy: Should America Adopt the Gun Controls of Other Democracies? However, as eminently readable as the book is, it has always taken the threat of quizzes and, in two semesters, the assigning of chapters for presentation to the rest of the class to get most students to continue reading it–or, for that matter, any other book-length work of non-fiction taught by me or anyone else up here.

“All of us have also experienced the same kind of resistance among students to reading the supplementary non-fiction articles and, of course, the additional books we have put on reserve for use by our students in the library. Only once has this pattern of resistance been broken, in the three classes to which I also gave copies of ‘Gun Control Kills Kids.’ Not only did everyone in all three classes seem to have read the comic, and without any threat whatsoever, but it was the students themselves who initiated discussion of the material covered in it. In each case, several days after I had handed out the comics, a student would raise a question about or make a comment on some aspect of the book, and then would be responded to by another student, before I could reply. Then someone else would join in, and all of a sudden, there it was, every teacher’s dream, a student-generated, intelligent discussion that would go on for the rest of the class period….Let me also add that while few of the students who came into class convinced that we need to have a total ban on the civilian ownership of firearms have changed their minds, it is clear that five of them have, and for no cause as much as what they read in ‘Gun Control Kills Kids’ and the books which that led them to read on their own. They had known little of the Holocaust before this, and virtually nothing of Kent State or the massacre of the Bonus Marchers, much less the other six (now eight, I guess) genocides of this century. As one girl from the ‘projects’ in Chicago put it, ‘I had never heard anything good about guns before.'”

Kemper, who has been a professor since 1984, designed his composition course around the gun-control issue, requiring each of his students to produce a research paper from a list of subjects, which include “Children and Guns: Do the Costs Outweigh the Benefits?” and the pros and cons of “Keeping Firearms Out of Public Schools.”

“It tends to get argumentative,” Kemper told me in March. “Once in a while kids object to the material. Some kids ask why they didn’t get any crayons, and we have to put a sack over their heads. The usual reaction you get is discussion about whether you could have a genocide in the United States, and that’s what they begin to argue about. Some think so. Some don’t. The argument that is used in the comic book is that we’ve come close to that with the Japanese internment during World War II. Perhaps it was only our success at the Battle of Midway that didn’t make things much worse for the Japanese living in the United States.”

Kemper says he too joined the JPFO after coming across one of its ads in a magazine. “I thought they sounded like a delightfully interesting group. It takes a stand that is unusual. The last people who were saying anything like this were the [Jewish Defense League]. I always found it peculiar that the Anti-Defamation League took the antifirearms stance they do after the pogroms in Russia and the Holocaust and what happened in medieval Europe. You haven’t heard anything like this coming out of the Jewish community for quite some time.”

“Mr. Zelman comes from Arizona. And so he comes from the west, and he comes from that sort of culture, and he has pursued tactics that have put a lot of people’s backs up. Like this.” Leon Cohen points to the JPFO poster depicting Adolf Hitler giving a Nazi salute.

As opinion editor of the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle, a free weekly that’s funded by the Milwaukee Jewish Federation, Cohen has had numerous dealings with Zelman and JPFO, and he’s written several articles about JPFO for the Chronicle. “Occasionally we have gotten calls at the Chronicle where somebody saw one of these signs and wondered what on earth was going on. The majority of the Jewish community here tends to favor gun controls of various kinds. In fact, you’ll even see here the National Jewish Community Advisory Council, which is the umbrella organization of Jewish community relations councils nationwide, and they have a strong handgun-control position.

“Mr. Zelman has made some fairly extreme statements. He’s very emotional about this issue. If you’ve talked to him for ten minutes you know that. He is adamant about gun control being a bad thing and bad for the Jewish community, bad for the country in general–to the point where it’s very difficult for him to see the other side in any particular way. Some of his group’s statements are extreme. Some of his tactics and their literature have really alienated people in the community and elsewhere. On the other hand, I also have to say that he is dedicated, and the organization is dedicated, and they have done some very thorough research.”

The Jewish community in Milwaukee is relatively small, only about 25,000 in the metropolitan area. The majority are reformed or conservative, and they don’t tend to be activists. Meir Kahane spoke at a Milwaukee synagogue a couple of times in the 80s, but aside from that the community has been a quiet one. Since the 70s, when the Nazi Party was active in the city, there have been very few incidents that involved anti-Semitism. The only recent examples Cohen can point to have been on the University of Wisconsin campus, where there have been disputes between Arab and pro-Israeli students and where Jewish students protested anti-Semitic statements in speeches given by a former member of the Nation of Islam.

Very few members of the established Jewish community in town would consent to speak about Zelman and JPFO, perhaps because they’d rather not start a debate with the organization and give it more publicity. Several calls I made–to the Wisconsin Council of Rabbis, numerous area synagogues, and community leaders–were not returned. Paula Simon, executive director of the Milwaukee Jewish Council for Community Relations, suggests that people don’t talk because JPFO is a marginal organization in Milwaukee. “They are very definitely a fringe organization,” she says. “We have yet to find any person in Milwaukee who is a member of the organization. Aaron Zelman, the executive director or whatever he calls himself, is a gun salesperson, and he has a particular bent. But we really don’t believe that he speaks for the organized Jewish community. He has some negative tactics. He uses the Holocaust and Nazi Germany as a rationale for why Jews should be armed. It’s offensive. It’s offensive to Holocaust survivors. I haven’t heard anybody, not one person on our board, who has spoken on behalf of him. Nobody has argued that he has a legitimate concern.”

When told that anti-Semitic militia groups have voiced support for him, Simon snaps, “Well, I’m glad that he’s got somebody out there who kind of likes him.”

Over the years Zelman has tried to get a representative of the Anti-Defamation League to debate him. But so far his calls have gone unheeded. “Why engage them? You’ll just get into a diatribe,” says Harlan Loeb, midwest counsel for the ADL in Chicago, which has been keeping tabs on JPFO. “Some of their religious-based claims are misguided and misleading, such as their claim that the Jewish creed provides them with a right to take up arms. I don’t necessarily view them as dangerous. I view them as alarmist, and they provide a skewed access point. I wouldn’t say that they are any more dangerous than any other group with their views might be. But in the abstract any fringe group that has this obsessive arms infatuation or ammunition fascination can be dangerous.”

In a 1992 article he wrote for the Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle, Leon Cohen quotes the American Jewish Congress as labeling JPFO’s literature a “noxious smear campaign.” Cohen also quoted the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, which lambasted Zelman for using “the rhetoric of gutter bigotry [which] degrades the democratic process and belittles the need for civilized dialogue.”

Milwaukee-born sociology professor Jack Nusan Porter, who now teaches courses on genocide at the University of Massachusetts and has written nearly 25 books, including Genocide and Human Rights, has become one of the few outspoken opponents of JPFO, labeling as “ludicrous” Zelman’s claims that the absence of gun-control laws in Nazi Germany could have changed the course of history. “True, there was a gun law in Germany. So what? Let’s say you shoot a few. They’re gonna come back with 10 more, 20 more, and blow up your house. It’s rubbish. You’re talking about a Nazi state, a war machine, an army of SS soldiers. If someone wants to kill you they’ll kill you. The best thing is not to be armed, because the opportunity to use a gun is almost nil. Even if every Jew had guns, what are you gonna do? Russian soldiers had guns. They were tough. They died like flies. I think that JPFO’s arguments are very specious, and using the Holocaust turns me off. The double insult is because my father was a Soviet partisan commander, and he knew how to use a gun–and once the war was over we never had a gun in the house growing up in Milwaukee, not even a can of Mace. Who’s gonna attack you in your house? No serious Holocaust scholar would take what Zelman says seriously. It’s total rubbish.”

Porter also asserts that Zelman’s views are counter to Jewish law and custom. “A Jew bearing guns is not really a Jew. If the Jews had been into guns we would not have survived to this day. Our secret to success is we’ve talked our way out of trouble and we’ve not held the gun. We are the people of the book and not the people of the gun. We are the people that use talk and charm and mediation and discussion to get out of trouble. We don’t use guns. Guns are dangerous. Why Zelman is interesting is here’s a Jew who supports guns. A non-Jew owning a gun is not an interesting story. I’m worried about Jews who have to prove they’re macho to America. What does he have to prove himself for? You don’t have to prove you’re a tough Jew. If you wanna be a tough Jew, be a boxer. There are many ways to be a tough Jew. It’s a deep insecurity. I don’t know who his audience is. Is it Jews? Who is he trying to impress?”

Porter sighs. “It’s a strange group, a very unusual group. I can’t figure them out. I don’t want to demonize them or marginalize them, as the Jewish community of Milwaukee has done. They have a right to their position, just like the [Jewish Defense League] has their right. You don’t have to give him a platform, but let him be. Leave him alone. And hopefully he won’t go away, but hopefully he won’t influence too many Jews either.”

Aaron Zelman is sitting at his desk, looking through his barred windows at the house across the street. He’s never had any safety problems here in the southern part of Milwaukee and has never had to use a weapon. When he got threatening calls from some Milwaukee neo-Nazis in the late 80s he called them back and told them to lay off. And he says that when they saw him at a gun show shortly after they decided to leave him alone. “The light bulb went off with these clowns. They said, ‘Here’s a Jew with guns. He doesn’t like us particularly, and we’re aggravating him. Why do we want to do this?’ They put two and two together, and they stopped bugging me.”

One of the pamphlets he’s shown me is called “Dial 9-1-1 and Die,” in which he cites legal cases to show that, contrary to the general assumption, people have no guaranteed right to police protection. “There is actually case law proving that if you call 911 and say you’ve got someone breaking into your home the police are not obligated to respond,” he says. “You should know that.”

“So what would you do if you saw someone breaking into that house across the street?” I ask him. “Would you draw a weapon?”

“No,” he snorts. “I don’t have a deputy sheriff badge. I would call the police and say, ‘Burglary in progress. Here’s the address.’ They’re not endangering me. Other people, if they value their lives, they need to do anything they can to protect themselves.”

“Would you call 911 if someone was breaking into your house?”

“I don’t think so. I’d call them after the fact.” He stares at me. “Would you?”

“Would I what?”

“Would you call 911 if someone was trying to break into your house?”

“Sure. Then again, I’m not armed.”

“Well, you’re at the mercy of the criminal and the police then. Let’s hope the police get there first. For your sake. If you want to live in this fuzzy world of ‘it can’t happen to me,’ that’s your privilege.” He smiles. “It’s a free country.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Fliers and bumper sticker by JPFO, photos of Aaron Zelman and Jon Sadof by Nathan Mandell.