After the Pittsburgh massacre

Israeli lessons in resilience are important to cope with new reality.

Flowers and other items have been left as memorials outside the Tree of Life synagogue following last Saturday's shooting in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, November 3, 2018 (photo credit: ALAN FREED/REUTERS)
Flowers and other items have been left as memorials outside the Tree of Life synagogue following last Saturday's shooting in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, November 3, 2018
(photo credit: ALAN FREED/REUTERS)
Israelis are eager to help Americans – and American Jewry – cope with terrorism and mass violence post-Pittsburgh, and one of the most profound lessons they can share is the notion of hosen, Hebrew for societal resilience.
Tragically, 70 years of violence on the home-front– including a spike in civilian casualties in recent years – have forced Israeli society to innovate and integrate resilience strategies that enable entire communities to bounce back quickly in the aftermath of trauma.
The concept was first introduced in a beleaguered Israel in the 1980s when a group of professionals in the besieged northern regions of the country realized that terrorist attacks would continue, despite extensive preventive measures.
Attacks, particularly if they are on-going, have dire effects on the physical safety of civilians, but also on the well-being of communities and their capacity to function. The notion of resilience at that time was primarily about assisting individuals and communities in coping with heightened risk and enhancing capacity by deploying various types of therapy and strategies that promote a sense of togetherness.
These early measures and subsequent studies led to the development of a broader concept of resilience as a systemic strategy to allow societies to cope with disruptions of diverse types, man-made and natural. Community-based programs across Israel now actively utilize social capital to enhance resilience, including initiatives like the Israel Trauma Coalition, which has itself been funded by American Jewry.
Outcomes have been striking.
Communities adjacent to the Gaza Strip, which have been continuously attacked by rockets, mortars and offensive tunnels operated by Hamas, have managed to face down these on-going threats based on their own social assets and the robustness of their own local leadership and volunteers.
Many of these communities, including the long-anguished city of Sderot, have managed to experience surprising growth over the last decade. Many families who left are back and demographic trends are positive.
Admittedly, the region near Gaza is an extreme example. Israelis were also practicing these lessons in 2015 and 2016, during a rash of knifings and car rammings that were occurring across the country. And our communities in the Galilee, facing Hezbollah threats from Lebanon, have also developed more sophisticated frameworks of resilience.
The “secret” lies in the adherence of communities to the concept and practices of resilience, which correspond with the social pillars of awareness, human bonding, inclusive leadership, and preparedness – physical and psychological – to the relevant threat.
Each community develops its resilience enhancement practices in accordance with its particular social characteristics. They exchange information, they learn from each other’s experience and they advance together with greater confidence for when the next crisis appears. It turns out to be a win-win strategy, and the lessons are adaptable beyond Israel.
Long before Pittsburgh, some quarters of American Jewry had already begun to adapt. Post-9/11, hard-hit communities like New York City considered ways to foster resilience and important national coordinating bodies like the Secure Community Network were established.
Given the horror and scale of the Pittsburgh massacre, American Jewry will inevitably consider a pivot toward hardening physical protection. It is understandable and perhaps necessary. Israelis are familiar with this approach all too well.
But it is critical that authorities and community leaders do not go too far and lapse into a bunker mentality that turns synagogues, Jewish organizations, schools and summer camps into fortresses while neglecting broader, well substantiated social strategies of resilience.
Not only would a response based primarily on site security entail massive new spending – diverting resources from traditional services and causes – but a lopsided approach would fail to address the most crucial challenge in countering terrorism, namely, preventing terrorists from achieving their goal of demoralizing targeted communities.
By targeting innocents, violent extremists seek to sow fear and undermine the core values of victims. But the Israeli experience suggests that finely honed strategies of resilience are just as important as more conventional security responses in ensuring that challenged communities bounce back, recover and thrive. This is how terrorism fails.
Americans have long turned to Israel as a source for consultation and cooperation on counterterrorism, and they should do so again in the aftermath of Pittsburgh.
Investing in resilience, learning how the Jewish state has coped – and thrived – and working even more closely with Israelis as your partners in facing this new reality will go a long way toward securing our common future.
Brig. Gen. Meir Elran (ret.), PhD is a Senior Research Fellow and Scott Lasensky, PhD is a Visiting Fellow at Israel’s Institute of National Security Studies (INSS). Gen. Elran is one of Israel’s foremost experts in homeland security, disaster response and societal resilience. He is currently a visiting professor at the University of Chicago and the Chicago Project on Security and Threats.
Dr. Lasensky is a former American diplomat in Israel and also teaches courses on Israel and Jewish affairs at the University of Maryland.