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Q&A

Gun control activist Fred Guttenberg raises concerns over left-wing antisemitism

In an interview with JI, Guttenberg says: ‘I spent the past five-plus years fighting with these people for safety in America, and I'm realizing it's not the same when we're talking about Jewish people’

Eugene Gologursky/Getty Images for Just Majority

Mondaire Jones and Fred Guttenberg speak at the "Just Majority" Supreme Court Reform Press Conference With Gun Violence Prevention Advocates on April 30, 2023 in White Plains, New York.

After his 14-year-old daughter Jaime was murdered alongside 16 of her classmates and teachers at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., on Feb. 14, 2018, Fred Guttenberg emerged from the tragedy as one of the nation’s most vocal gun control activists.

Guttenberg, who is Jewish and has long been a supporter of Israel, has also emerged in the last month as a leading voice calling out hard-left politicians and activists who failed to denounce Hamas’ terrorist attack and criticized Israel’s military response in Gaza.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Jewish Insider: As a Democrat, how concerned are you that some left-wing lawmakers in your party have come out against Israel?

Fred Guttenberg: I’m extremely concerned, I’m extremely upset and I’m extremely offended. I am concerned, because I spent the past five-plus years fighting with these people for safety in America — and maybe this hits to why I’m offended — and I’m realizing it’s not the same when we’re talking about Jewish people. I’ve spent the past five-plus years going to communities in America, standing with groups across America, working to reduce gun violence and violence in communities across America, and I believe everything, but here we are now, and I need those same lawmakers and those that they represent, to stand with me, and they’re standing against me, and that is hard to deal with.

JI: Does it change your view toward the party?

FG: Not toward the party, toward those who choose to represent themselves this way. Listen, when I think of the party, I still think of the work that our president is doing, and he’s been terrific, and he’s been strong. I think of former Speaker Nancy Pelosi just, I think, a day or two ago, having a chance to respond to this and being very strong. I think of members all across the party, of [House Minority] Leader Hakeem Jeffries, of so many who have stood strong for Israel and against antisemitism. This isn’t the party, this is a radicalized group that have chosen to run in this party, but they don’t represent this party.

JI: Would you support a Republican running against a Democrat who is embracing anti-Israel rhetoric?

FG: Well, I’ll start by saying, a) I would support that Democrat being primaried first. If that Democrat doesn’t lose in the primary, then I would support that, yes. I think people need to understand, I’m not an ideologue. I’m a moderate, pragmatic person. I want to reduce gun violence. I am a fierce defender of Israel and its right to defend itself. And any member of Congress who stands against Israel’s right to exist and its right to defend itself and incites antisemitism here at home, whatever it takes, they should be fired from Congress.

JI: More personally, how are you feeling as an Israel supporter in the U.S. today?

FG: Worried. I see not just what’s happening in the U.S., but across the globe, and I’m worried about Israel’s future security, but as a U.S. citizen, I am truly worried about the level of discourse, the way we talk to one another, and the amped-up rhetoric and hate that comes from it. I’m worried about the incitement to violence on college campuses and in communities. I worry that a Jewish man was killed [earlier this week] in California, and how that might drive more Jewish people to feel this need to defend themselves, and that’s only going to bring more violence. I’m worried.

JI: What are your thoughts on Gov. Ron DeSantis’ banning of Students for Justice in Palestine chapters on Florida’s public campuses?

FG: It is rare, in fact almost never, that I find myself in agreement with Ron DeSantis, but I do on this.

JI: You said on the second anniversary of your daughter Jaime’s death in 2020 that her murder had caused you to question your relationship with God and even to leave your synagogue. Has your faith changed since Oct. 7 and your continued activism?

FG: My faith hasn’t. I still struggle with the reality that I have to visit my daughter at a cemetery, and why, and the environment that exists that made that possible. However, the other part of what I said and have said since is, my faith always rests in some of the amazing people who I know and get to know, who are like minded, who want peace, and I still believe that. I believe as hard as things are today, as challenging as things are today, there’s too many great, amazing people who are going to show us a path forward, and that we’re going to be OK.

JI: You’ve shared on social media the comments and messages that you’ve received from former allies and supporters now taking issue with your stance on Israel. Were you surprised by that response?

FG: I was. Listen, the comment that I got a lot the past month was, “I used to like you,” and there’s multiple ways to take that, but many of the people who did it I just don’t know and they could just be trolls, but there are people there who I know I’ve stood with in other instances over the past years. And, you know, when they say “I used to like you” because I’m a defender of Israel and I stand against antisemitism, that’s a hard, hard pill to swallow. And so I was surprised. 

I was surprised at how easy it was for some people to turn against support of me and defending me and the Jewish people the way that I felt I stood with them over the years. It did surprise me. I hope that we can all pause, lower the temperature and remind ourselves that we all stand for peace, that we all stood together for the right reasons in the past, and I’m asking for anyone to stand with me now against antisemitism in this country, and I hope we can find a path forward to talking again.

JI: What has been the most disheartening to see?

FG: Misinformation that is fueling hatred. It is the same thing I saw in the fight against gun violence. The level of misinformation that was driving gun sales and gun violence was incredible, and seeing misinformation now about what’s happening in this country, about what something like “the river to the sea” actually means, about the history of Israel and how we ended up in this conflict, about what happened on Oct. 7, literally seeing people forget the fact that hostages are still being held and trying to explain it away. It is the way people use information, or misuse information, that has just been the most shocking thing for me.

JI: The Sun Sentinel put out a story about Jewish individuals who have purchased firearms in response to rising antisemitism, which you were critical of. How instead do you feel communities should be protecting themselves or responding to increased threats?

FG: The Sun Sentinel did, but there’s been national stories about this too, and mostly focusing on the same couple of gun shops down here in South Florida, which I fear these gun shops are profiting off of people’s fear and anxiety, as the gun lobby always has. 

And the truth is, in 20 years we’ve more than doubled our arsenal of guns in this country, and it’s always been driven by the gun lobby overstating people’s ability to defend themselves from anxiety and fear. And the same thing is happening here. Jewish people who are concerned about antisemitism running to gun stores, isn’t going to make them safer. In fact, the data is clear, in most instances where those people own a gun, it’s more likely to be used on them than by them. I am not telling people you shouldn’t be concerned about antisemitism, that you shouldn’t worry about where this could lead, what I am telling people is there are other ways to engage in the fight against antisemitism and hate, and running to a gun store to buy a gun, preparing to engage in public shootouts, is not one of them.

JI: Is there anything else people should know?

FG: I’ll leave it here: in America, hate is not a path forward. And I hope people take the time to calm the rhetoric and to find people who they agree with or who they disagree with, and talk. This is a moment in time where this could get away from us, and we need to step in front of it now.

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