By Becky Akers
Purim will likely resonate with a great many residents of Connecticut and New York this year, even if they aren’t Jewish. After all, who can better appreciate the self-defense the holiday celebrates than the citizens Hartford and Albany have tried to disarm?
Purim commemorates the salvation of Jews in ancient Persia when their own government declared open season on them. At the urging of an official named Haman, King Xerxes decreed that Jews’ property could be plundered and the owners themselves murdered. Then his beloved wife, Queen Esther, revealed her Jewish identity and pleaded with her husband to spare her and her people. He instantly agreed, but unfortunately, Persian laws were as entrenched as any modern bureaucracy: Once dictated, they were irrevocable. So the king issued a second law, allowing the Jews to take arms against their assailants.
That ability to fight back, to defy rulers and the regulations that benefit them at taxpayers’ expense, is the reason governments throughout history have tried to disarm their subjects. Contemporary politicians disguise their motives with rhetoric about public safety. But at bottom, they fear our weapons. Why? Because guns level the field, giving us the same power to defend our rights that the state wields over us.
Of course, Haman wasn’t the last tyrant hoping to exterminate an entire people. Fast-forward 2,500 years from ancient Persia to Eastern Europe during World War II. In Belorussia’s immense, hundreds-of-square-miles forests lurk bands of refugees from the Nazis’ atrocities – many of them Jewish and armed despite gun-control laws. Nechama Tec discusses one such group in her book, “Defiance: The Bielski Partisans.” She says that despite “the prevailing image of European Jews during the Holocaust years” as “helpless victims under a death sentence,” the Bielski partisans not only survived Hitler’s genocide, they “mount[ed] the largest armed rescue operation of Jews by Jews” during the war. The guns they bought, found, or stole saved them. Professor Tec doesn’t tell us how these rebels celebrated Purim, but surely they savored the dignity and protection self-defense conferred on their forebears – and on themselves.
The company took its name from the trio of Jewish brothers leading it. In 1942, these 20-somethings flouted orders to move to the ghettos when the Nazis invaded. Instead, they fled to the forest – and just in time, too: the Einsatzgruppen slaughtered their parents, two of the brothers’ wives and one baby.
The Bielskis knew they needed arms to survive in the wilderness, though not for hunting; constant firing could betray their location. Rather, they must defend themselves from the SS and collaborators. But the Nazis were such rabid fans of gun-control that they’d made owning arms a capital offense. That created a black market, as usual when government prohibits goods, in which the Bielskis bought their first pistol and sub-machine gun.
Other runaways joined the brothers. Eventually, about 1,200 men, women and children either fled the ghettos on their own or benefited from the rescues the Bielskis organized. And each refugee longed for a gun.
Firearms in the forest did more than save lives; they also lent enormous prestige to their carriers. The Bielskis always insisted on welcoming any Jew who escaped the ghetto, whether he was able-bodied or not – but that increased the numbers of mouths to feed, bodies to clothe and people to protect. Armed raids of farms, villages and the Nazis’ supply lines provided the partisans’ subsistence (and more weapons). No wonder everyone admired the daring raiders with their guns.
But many refugees, displaced and traumatized, could do nothing beyond try to recover. Their more productive peers disdained them – a status that changed when the person acquired arms. One woman recalled, “My husband came [to the forest] without a gun” because he was a skilled craftsman at home. Meanwhile, a “common man, limited in many ways” became the camp’s hero because he was “a great fighter.” Guns equalize us. They compensate for physical and other disadvantages, resulting in a more equitable world.
Whether it’s ancient Persia, 20th-century Belorussia, or modern Connecticut and New York, Purim proves that American Founding Father Richard Henry Lee was right: “… to preserve liberty, it is essential that the whole body of the people always possess arms. …”
Becky Akers is the author of two novels, “Halestorm” and Abducting Arnold.” Both are set during the American Revolution, when guns were hot and men were free.