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Zelman was impassioned defender of firearms rights

By Diana Kahn and Leon Cohen

January 30th, 2011

Aaron Zelman of the town of Erin devoted his life to a Jewish cause — but one that the majority of the Wisconsin and national Jewish communities did not share with him.

Aaron Zelman

Aaron Zelman

Zelman, who died at age 64 of complications from surgery on Dec. 21, was the founder and executive director of Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership —the only completely Jewish pro-gun rights and anti-gun control organization in the United States.

In that capacity, Zelman was the author and co-author of many books and articles, and producer and co-producer of films, all of which defended an absolutist interpretation of “the right to bear arms” stated in the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment.

In the JPFO’s Statement of Principles that he shared with The Chronicle in 1992 (issue of Sept. 25), Zelman wrote, “the purpose of the Second Amendment is to ensure that ultimate political power always rests with the people. Jews — because of a history of victimization — have the greatest interest of any American minority in ensuring this vital right is speedily restored to its full glory.”

While most observers of U.S. Jewry would probably consider JPFO a fringe group within the U.S. Jewish community, it has some 10,000 members across the country, according to Erik Zelman, one of his two sons. The organization’s Web site (jpfo.org) has received tribute letters to Zelman from Michigan to California to New Mexico.

‘Boundless audacity’

Rabbi Dovid Bendory of Livingston, N.J., is JPFO’s “rabbinic director” and collaborated with Zelman on “The Ten Commandments of Self Defense” and the film “No Guns for Jews.”

In his tribute article on the JPFO’s Web site, Bendory wrote, “Aaron’s approach to our rights as U.S. citizens was uncompromising, and his chutzpah — his non-conformist, gutsy audacity — knew no bounds.”

His audacity sometimes made him controversial within the Jewish world, to the extent that the mainstream Jewish community noticed him and JPFO at all.

JPFO literature often links gun control measures to Nazism and communism, and has denounced gun control advocates as “evil,” “stupid,” and “pro-criminal.” A controversial JPFO poster featured the words “All in favor of gun control raise your right hand” under a picture of Adolf Hitler giving a right-handed Nazi salute.

In 1992, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism said JPFO “uses the rhetoric of gutter bigotry, degrades the democratic process and belittles the need for civilized dialogue about vital and controversial public issues.”

But fans like conservative journalist and blogger Debbie Schlussel (Dec. 29) call him “the epitome of the modern day American patriot” and “one of the many unsung American Jews who fight for American liberty.”

Zelman was born in Massachusetts March 4, 1946. He was raised by his grandmother in Tucson, Ariz., an area he described as “gun country.” He told The Chronicle in 1992 that from childhood on, guns fascinated him — their mechanics, influence on U.S. history, and “usefulness in the hands of good people.”

 As a young man, he served in the U.S. Navy as a medic to the Marine Corps, working at one point as an assistant in psychiatric units serving veterans returning from the Vietnam War.

After working in various sales positions — one of which brought him to Wisconsin — and as a gun dealer, Zelman in 1989 founded and devoted his time to JPFO.

Zelman told The Chronicle that he had two primary reasons for establishing his organization. First, he contended that mainstream Jewish support for gun restrictions helped promote anti-Semitism among the millions of law-abiding U.S. gun owners. He wanted to tell the country that “not all Jews are gun-grabbers.”

Second, Zelman believed that it was really in the Jewish community’s self-defense interest to favor gun ownership rights.

According to his family, Zelman had a strong Jewish identity despite having had a limited Jewish education, and for this reason sent his sons Erik and Jeremy to Hillel Academy Jewish day school. (They are now both students at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.)

He was also a strong Zionist, and as his son, Erik said, “he was very aware of the troubles in the world at large. He felt fortunate to have been born a U.S. citizen, and saw gun ownership as a means to stop gun violence.”

His family also said he loved to read World War II history, to collect guns, and that he had “soft spots” for children, animals, and the ill. He was a member of Beth El Ner Tamid Synagogue.

In addition to his sons, he is survived by his wife Nancy (nee Soderlund).

Funeral services were held Dec. 24 at the synagogue, with Rabbi Tamar Crystal officiating. Burial was in Second Home Cemetery.

The family would appreciate memorial contributions to JPFO, P.O. Box 270143, Hartford, WI, 53027, or to Beth El.