Poster for the movies "Guns and Moses"
Culture, Peoplehood

Guns & Moses and The Myth of Redemptive Violence

It all started with a moment of serendipity.

My friend Mike, who I walk with most mornings, texted me.

“Wanna go and see Guns & Moses tonight?”

“Sure!” I said. My wife was out of town and a boys night out sounded great. Not ten minutes later, I got a text from my friend Tarek.

“I reserved 2 seats for a screening at the Jewish Film Festival tonight for Guns and Moses. I won’t be going, but thought I’d offer them to you if you have any interest…”

And so, on a perfect LA Juneteenth evening, Mike and I made our way to the Saban theater for the opening night of the Los Angeles Jewish Film Festival. On the walk there, I confessed to Mike that attending such an event was a little fraught for me. This is the kind of festival that had always rejected my own, politically-charged films, but I was nevertheless looking forward to a fun night of cheesy action.

When we arrived, there was a throng of people making their way in and a handful of men in full body armor and sunglasses, with holstered sidearms. On their fatigues I spotted a badge that read “Magen Am.” These men, who looked like Jewish Oath Keepers, were clearly running security for the event.

Mike is a macher and he was seeing a lot of folks he knew. There were so many people there that even I was bumping into friends and acquaintances. By the time we sat down in the movie theater, there were probably 1,000 in attendance, which is a great turnout for a small film. The crowd was eager to see the movie, but we would have to sit through 45 minutes of speeches before we got what we had come for. And the speeches. Abraham, Issac, and Jacob, the speeches! The festival organizer set the tone by talking about what a dangerous moment it was for the Jewish people and how important it was to defend ourselves against antisemitism. She then attempted to co-opt the holiday of Juneteenth by saying that the film we were about to watch was really about freedom. Spoiler alert, dear reader, it was not. She then introduced Noah Farkas of the LA Jewish Federation. Farkas started his remarks by complaining that he had been introduced as Mr. instead of Rabbi, before boasting about how much money the Federation had raised for Israel since October 7th and how many cease fire bills they had defeated. He ended on an appeal to support the Federation in which he informed the audience that the state of California had not yet adopted the IHRA definition of antisemitism. For those not in the nerdy Jewish know, the International Holocaust Remebrance Alliance definition of antisemitism is a deeply controversial effort that attempts to smuggle anti-Zionism into its definition of antisemitism.

“Many states have adopted it, but guess which state hasn’t?”

At this point, Mike turned to me and said:

“I bet no one in this room even knows what the IHRA is, let alone their definition of antisemitism.”

I looked around. The crowd was restless. Chants of “Show the film! Show the film!” were coming from behind us, but we would have to endure another 20 minutes of pandering before the opening credits rolled. Vice Mayor of Beverly Hills Sharona Nazarian got on stage next and talked about all that Beverly Hills had done for Israel over the past 9 months.

“In Beverly Hills, we know that anti-Zionism is antisemitism and we are committed to making sure that the horrific events of October 11th are never repeated. Never again!”

I looked at Mike. Did she really just get the date wrong? Someone in front of us yelled:

“October 7th!”

When Nazarian wrapped up, the festival organizer introduced the director of Guns & Moses, Sal Litvak.

Sal is an energetic, charismatic, independent media producer. He and his wife Nina are a team. Their work usually features Jewish themes and their 2005 film, When Do We Eat? has become a bit of a cult classic. Sal is probably best known as “The Accidental Talmudist.”Under this name, he and Nina have cultivated a massive online following. Litvak was acutely aware of how impatient his audience was, so his opening remarks were brief. After a few thank you’s, he took the opportunity to plug Magen Am, the Jewish militia group who were handling security for the event. Litvak talked about how instrumental they were in getting the gun training parts of the film to feel authentic.

“We are proud members of the Magen Am community, and it is our feeling that now more than ever, their work is essential. Sign up!”

Guns & Moses is an action thriller set in the High Desert that follows Rabbi Mo(Mark Feurstein), a Chabad rabbi, who through a series of violent events is forced to learn how to handle a gun to protect his family and his community. Guns and Moses also features performances by Dermot Mulroney, Neal McDonough, and Christopher Lloyd in a memorable turn as a Holocaust survivor. Overall, I must admit that my expectations were exceeded. The plot makes sense, the narrative moves along at a nice clip, and for the most part, the Jewish content is handled well. I say for the most part, because there’s a central plot point that involves Rabbi Mo singing the famous Jewish song “Kol Ha’Olam Kulo” and I’m sorry to report that Feurstein just didn’t know the song. There were also parts of the film that got unintentional laughs from the audience, but this happened less often than I would have guessed going in.

The problem with Guns & Moses is not the film itself. The problem with Guns & Moses is the discrepancy between the content of the film and the way in which the film is being marketed. As we learned in the Q&A, the movie was originally inspired by the attack on the Chabad of Poway in 2019 when an antisemitic gunman killed a woman and injured the rabbi. But as Litvak shared with Kylie Ora Lobell of the Jewish Journal: “We never imagined that there would be an Oct. 7, which happened during postproduction on our movie. The world in which we conceived and shot the movie is a different world in which it will be distributed.” Mike summarized the discrepancy problem perfectly as we walked home and processed the evening.

“They were selling the film as a call to fight antisemitism, but in the movie, the antisemites weren’t the real threat!”

As I unlocked my apartment door, my head was still spinning from the surreal experience that I had just participated in. Guns & Moses was an interesting film about a rabbi who sees past the very real threat of antisemitism to the dangerous forces that animate American capitalism. But “Guns & Moses” was a vehicle to promote a phantasm, a false reality in which Jews are no longer safe anywhere, where the only way we can be safe is guns. In a way, this vision of the world is deeply American. And contrary to what many would have you believe, our values are not actually Christian, or Jewish, or as the Islamophobes would have it “Judeo-Christian.” No, the real values that undergird our global culture are best described in the words of the theologian Walter Wink:

“The Myth of Redemptive Violence…enshrines the belief that violence saves, that war brings peace, that might makes right…The belief that violence ‘saves’ is successful because it doesn’t seem to be mythic in the least. Violence simply appears to be the nature of things. It’s what works. It seems inevitable, the last and often, the first resort in conflicts.”

In Guns & Moses, Rabbi Mo had to be persuaded to pick up his gun. Violence did not come naturally to him. Indeed, Wink talks about how domination cultures have to make violence pleasurable in order to persist. Sal Litvak, Magen Am, and many other voices want you to believe that we are living in a different world in the wake of October 7th. They’re wrong. October 7th and the mass killing that followed it are the natural outcomes of the logic of redemptive violence. Because the only thing that violence actually guarantees in this world is more violence.

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