The 5 Secrets of Israeli Resilience Against Terror

Prefer to listen? This letter was featured on the Jewish Geography Podcast:

It was also featured in the Jewish news network for Australia and New Zealand, J-Wire, here.

Dear Josep,

I’d been debating with myself about whether to post here about current events in Israel. I generally prefer to keep our political discussions to our private correspondence, and I’ve updated you on the situation, but the blog is about life in Israel too, and this, unfortunately, is part of life here.

So let me explain for our blog readers who haven’t been following the news from Israel: “this” is a fresh wave of violence and terror. The claim is that the Palestinians are upset because of a rumor that the Israeli government plans to change the status quo on the Temple Mount–as in, allow Jews to pray there. Yes, you understood that right: Palestinians are stabbing Jews all over Israel over the [false!] allegation that the Israeli government will grant religious freedom to Jews. At the holiest site to Judaism.

You can’t make this stuff up.

But we all know it’s not really about that. It’s about the same things as always.

Now, because our security forces have thwarting large terror attacks down to an art, thankfully, we are not seeing the kinds of horrible suicide bombings that characterized the Second Intifada. They have mostly been stabbings, usually single terrorists, sometimes trying to seize weapons from soldiers or civilians. The scary thing, though, is that it’s been happening multiple times a day all over the country–from Tel Aviv to Afula to Kiryat Gat to Petah Tikva to Raanana, not only the Old City in Jerusalem or the West Bank. And of course, along the roads in Judea and Samaria, there has been a marked increase of rock attacks and Molotov cocktails thrown at Israeli cars.

So… what is it like to have all this going on around us?

A friend of mine from high school, the phenomenally talented artist and animator Reut Bortz, drew this cartoon, which expresses so well what it feels like:

cartoon reut

It’s like navigating a game of Snakes and Ladders. You try to live your life normally, praying you will land on a “safe space.” You try to make the choices that will keep you and your family safe, but ultimately you feel helpless to protect yourself and your family. This is how terror works. While statistically we are much more likely to be killed in a car accident, the high profile of these incidents keeps us afraid. Eventually, the terrorists believe, it will wear us down and weaken us, to a point where we will just give up and leave.

…Apparently they don’t know who they’re dealing with here.

They call us the Eternal Nation for a reason. We don’t get weak when we are threatened; we get stronger. Palestinian terror is just one unpleasant–and fairly unimpressive–blip in the centuries-long timeline of horrors we have survived.

When I gave you a “security briefing” during another rough time last year, you said, “I wonder how you live like that!” I responded, “A lot of dark humor.” While that is an important (and my personal favorite) coping mechanism Israelis tend to employ, there are others, and I want to tell you about them today. But let’s start with that one:

1) Dark Humor

I'm heading to the store; need anything?
Based on a Hebrew meme I saw on Facebook last week.

Yup. I’ve written about this typically Jewish coping mechanism before, but I really think it’s a fascinating sociological phenomenon. Israelis make a point of laughing about tough situations. I told you about how during the war last year, Hamas tried its hand at using social media to intimidate Israelis, and how that backfired, big time. Their efforts were met with an onslaught of mockery–from the popular parodies of their propaganda music video to the hilarious responses to their hacking of a Domino’s Pizza page. This period is no different. No matter what you do to us, we will never stop laughing.

Humor helps us in a few ways:

  1. It helps create some distance between us and the threat, which makes it feel less scary and threatening. It’s hard to be afraid of something ridiculous.
  2. It brings us together, increasing solidarity (see item #3).
  3. Laughter is an excellent medicine. It oxygenates the blood, increases endorphin and dopamine levels, decreases stress hormones, and burns calories to boot!

Here are a few of the jokes getting tossed around on social media:

–“I hate this kind of weather, where you don’t know whether to wear long sleeves or a bulletproof vest” (Yotam Zimri, Israeli comedian)

–“Apparently terrorist groups are paying Palestinian kids $30 to throw rocks at soldiers. They don’t realize we’re so underpaid that we’d throw rocks at ourselves for half the price.” (Anonymous Israeli soldier)

–(Background: one of the attacks yesterday was carried out by an Arab employee of Bezeq, a large telecommunications company)
“Me: Your employee just stabbed me.
Bezeq: Have you tried taking out the knife and reinserting it?” (Michael Butir)

As per item #2, which we will get to in a moment, there were a bunch of videos going around demonstrating knife defense techniques, some more helpful than others. Well, this one is a little different.

2) Fighting Spirit

On the night two Israelis were stabbed to death in Jerusalem a week and a half ago, Bon Jovi performed in Tel Aviv. He dedicated a new song of his, “We Don’t Run,” to Israel, saying that it should be Tel Aviv’s fight song. Eitan and I have been listening to it on repeat ever since.

We don’t run
I’m standing my ground
We don’t run
And we don’t back down
There’s fire in the sky
There’s thunder on the mountain
Bless each tear
And this dirt I was born in
We don’t run

Nailed it, Jon.

One of the most remarkable things about the attacks in the past week or so is that the terrorists have been neutralized within minutes, not only by the police or security, but by ordinary passersby–with ingenuity that does me proud as a self-defense instructor. Yesterday a terrorist stabbed a guy in Ra’anana, only to be pounced upon by several bystanders and beaten to a pulp. Another guy fought off a terrorist with his umbrella; one used a selfie stick; one martial artist happened to be carrying his nunchaku in his bag and jumped on a bus where a terrorist was being subdued, using his weapon to help neutralize him.

…As per item #1, you can imagine we had a ball with this. Benji Lovitt, Anglo Israeli comedian, wrote: “I can’t believe we wasted billions of dollars on the Iron Dome. Do you know how many umbrellas, nunchucks, and selfie sticks we could have bought?” Eretz Nehederet, an Israeli satire show, put out a cartoon of an army insignia for the “Neutralizing Brigade,” featuring those three “weapons.”

We don’t run. We go out and buy pepper spray, take self-defense classes, and arm ourselves. And when a terrorist goes on a rampage, we don’t run and hide and wait for someone to save us. We tackle that b#$*#@^ and give him what he deserves.

David Ben-Gurion, the first Israeli Prime Minister, is quoted as saying, “The entire nation is the army, the entire country is the front.” Still true 70 years later.

3) Solidarity and Unity

I wrote about this during the war, too. Nothing brings us together like an external threat. From sending gifts to the families of victims or food to the soldiers to wishing strangers “b’sorot tovot” (“good news”), there is a strong sense that we are in this together and we are here for each other.

Solidarity from outside Israel helps a lot too. Jewish communities praying for our welfare, and friends checking in on us, make us feel that we are not alone, and give us a lot of strength. If you are reading about the situation in Israel and feeling angry and helpless, there is one simple and highly effective thing you can do: just write a quick note saying you are thinking of us, or asking how we are. It helps more than you can imagine.

4) “Doing Davka” (Stubborn Defiance)

Footage from one of the recent attacks showed an Israeli soldier pointing her gun at a knife-wielding terrorist while still holding an ice cream bar she had been eating. (This of course triggered a parody video of a guy doing all kinds of things while holding on to an ice cream bar…) “I’m not throwing away perfectly good ice cream just ’cause I need to neutralize a terrorist!” If that doesn’t illustrate quintessential Israeli defiance in the face of terror, I don’t know what does.

One of the responses to the violence in the Old City of Jerusalem was a group of young men gathering at the Damascus Gate to study Torah. This is also a quintessential Jewish response. “You want to scare away the Jews? We’re coming, and we’re bringing our Torah with us.” They have been studying there regularly since the violence escalated.

Like I said, the goal of terror is to weaken us, to disrupt our daily lives. We therefore go out of our way to show the terrorists that they have not succeeded, by davka celebrating life and going about our regular activities with stubborn defiance.

God called us a “stiff-necked people” in the book of Exodus. It was not a compliment at the time, but that same trait has served us pretty well in this context!

5) Faith (Seeing the Big Picture)

It was during the Second Intifada that I became intimately acquainted with the book of Psalms. Every time there was a serious terror attack, our teachers would hand out booklets of Psalms for us to read. And there were, unfortunately, many opportunities to do so. Prayer, and specifically the book of Psalms, has been our go-to response to bad situations for centuries. To me, that book is the symbol of Jewish spiritual resistance.

Armed and dangerous.
Armed and dangerous.

Faith in God doesn’t mean I think that if I just believe and pray enough, nothing bad will ever happen to me. Faith in God means that no matter what happens, I trust that He is on my side, and that even if something bad happens, it’s for the ultimate good. It means trusting Him to be with me and give me the strength to handle whatever comes. Reading the book of Psalms helps me because it reminds me that I am not alone in my fear, anger, and yearning for a better world–that Jews have been feeling these things for centuries, and we have overcome.

Faith as a coping mechanism also means seeing the Big Picture. The Big Picture is that this wave of violence is truly nothing compared to the bloodshed we have survived in the past–and it could be so, so much worse. Faith means seeing that each day is full of honest-to-goodness miracles. The fact that more Israelis have not been killed, despite the best efforts of the hateful hordes, is a revealed miracle–what we religious people call it when God’s hand is very clear. It can be hard to think this way when you’re in the depths of pain and despair, especially when someone has been injured or killed. That’s fine too. Sometimes we are meant to focus in on our little part of the picture and do what we can to improve it. But when we can pan out and take the long view, we can take heart. Because to the person of faith flipping through the many pages of Jewish history, it is undeniable that Someone is running the show–Someone who is on our side.

That’s the Jewish people for you. Afraid, but courageous; broken, but defiant; constantly arguing, but united; questioning, but keeping faith; crying, laughing, praying, mourning death and most of all–stubbornly, audaciously celebrating life. And it is just that that carries us through. During the war in 2014, Hamas MP Fathi Hammad said, “We desire death like you desire life.” You betcha, Hammad. And may God grant us both what we desire.

Hoping for better times very, very soon.



2 thoughts on “The 5 Secrets of Israeli Resilience Against Terror

  1. I think your blog site doesn’t like me! I tried to subscribe again and it says it sent me an email to confirm but I didn’t get the email so I can’t confirm 🙁

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.