Resilience at the Front Line: Lessons from Israel for France

In light of what has happened in Paris, and the inevitability of ongoing terrorist attacks from Islamic Extremists hell-bent on terrorising civilian populations as their primary means of confronting the West, I have adapted this article which I originally posted on LinkedIn to this new/old reality.

Some commentaries on the Paris attacks have made a connection with how Israel has survived and thrived through its 60 years of living terrorism and war.

During a recent Study Mission to Israel that I led, I spent time in Jerusalem and its environs during the worst of the random terror attacks that plagued this beautiful city. What struck me was that I saw Israelis going about their daily activities with a sense of déjà vu.

It occurred to me that this little, 67 year old country had lived through 6 wars, endless terror, daily threats from it’s northern and southern borders, and a host of international pressures and attacks throughout the world. And yet Israel has an immensely vibrant and dynamic social and economic life. In fact, Israel is rated highly on most indices of quality of life, OECD incomes, liveability and so on.

How come?

Most of us would crumble under the enormous pressures and threats to our very lives. The French have had a series of deeply disturbing challenges to their ability to overcome terror. So what is Israel’s secret of resilience?

I went in search of answers, receiving a number of briefings and conversations from Israelis (Jewish and Arab citizens alike), Palestinians, and, as part of the Study Mission, briefings from the military, Government, journalists, and Unions.

ADAPT TO NEW REALITIES. There are a number of observable actions and activities that serve to create and reinforce a sense of personal safety as you go about your daily routine. These things are extraordinary when first observed and then they become background circumstances and ‘just the way things operate’. For example, there are security barriers and guards at entrances to every restaurant, shopping mall and centre with at least hand held scanners if not airport-like metal detectors. We even went to the cinema late one night and guards with scanners scrutinised every person going in. While this caused a human traffic jam, no-one complained or got hot under the collar. Security guards are pervasive and after a while you feel uncertain going into a building, restaurant or centre without being screened! Bomb shelters are available, clearly marked, and in or near every apartment block. The further you go south, ie to the Gaza border, which is only 1.5 hours drive south of Tel Aviv, these shelters are more predominant. In Sderot, a town 1.75 Kms from the Gaza border, there is a Government-funded shelter/strong room attached to every single apartment. Amazingly, there is building going on in this town, which has suffered almost daily missile attacks from Gaza, with a warning system that provides the people of Sderot 15 seconds to find shelter.

DON’T DO STUPID STUFF THAT MAKES IT WORSE. You adapt your daily routine to avoid ‘silly’ things. I heard this a lot. There had been instances of cars ramming bus stops and running over the pedestrians waiting for the bus. Many bus stops now have concrete bollards surrounding them, so you take the bus from such stops, not open ones. Don’t go to dangerous areas either, know your routes and so on. These are the common sense little things that make you safer.

ATTITUDE IS KEY. Israelis have an inviolate sense that they are not going to let terror win by changing their lives in drastic ways. I saw people standing at the ‘wrong’ bus stops, hitching on open roads, not altering nor stopping their daily routine in any way. And to a person that attitude was described to me as ‘we have no choice. This is where we live’. Be strong and stand your ground. And at the same time be real, strong and hopeful but be cautious.

SHARED NORMS ARE VITAL. Humans are fundamentally habit-forming creatures.  The vast majority of us need some form of routine and consistency in our day-to-day existence in order to survive and thrive, let alone be happy.  People need consistency and some level of continuity.  In a terror-infected environment, the Government plays a vital role in creating a series of norms, standards and procedures that provide stability in an ever-threatened environment. There are clearly shared norms at the level of civil society too – shared ways ‘of doing things around here’, like waiting for security people to do their thing without comment, and restating a tough attitude in the face of threats. These, often unstated, norms are vitally important because they allow large groups to run harmoniously. They are the unwritten rules for getting along peacefully, and they are most often shattered by large scale terror attacks.

SHARED PURPOSE UNITES AND BINDS. There is a sense of shared purpose, destiny, fate and meaning that bonds and unites a society under pressure. This sense of purpose, coming in an Israeli society so young, yet with so much historical trauma, meshes and strengthens the feeling of social solidarity. You hear it in the language, ‘we will not succumb or let the terrorists win’. You hear this often. For France, it means staying true to its radical secular values and not succumbing to the voices of appeasement.

UNITY IS CRUCIAL. Actions that demonstrate supportive and resilient behaviours to everyone are vital. At the height of the random stabbing attacks in Jerusalem, soldiers and border police were posted around the city including at the busy intersection opposite our hotel. Our group had just visited a start-up accelerator (that is another story!) and while walking past this intersection I noticed a number of food parcels on the steps near where the soldiers were standing. I asked them what this was about and they explained that citizens were dropping these parcels to the extra soldiers standing guard around Jerusalem. Many of these parcels had notes of support attached, and the soldier read one out which said “thank you for guarding us”. The package was prepared and the note written by a third grade class of a local school (see photo). Supporting one another – in Israel or France or wherever terror strikes – is vital to social resilience and personal strength in overcoming terror. Do more than just drop flowers to sites where tragedy has unfolded.

DON’T BE AFRAID TO CHALLENGE WHERE APPROPRIATE. The Israelis would have to be the most argumentative lot around and challenge everything. Politic discussions about ‘the situation’ are endless, angry and hot. Yet the common support for the soldier is boundless and endless. Thank god the Israelis and French live in a society that values a free press, even if the fourth estate tends to blame (and sometimes obscenely) the innocent Israeli or French or Western civilian as the root cause of why terrorist terrorise.

DO NOT COMPROMISE YOUR VALUES. One of the most profound moments on the Mission was meeting the Workers Committee of the Sderot Water Authority (the town next to Gaza). One of the men explained how he went to fix a broken water pipe, channelling water to Gaza, during the middle of the war between Israel and Gaza in July 2015. One of our group asked why he would take such a risk and especially to help “the enemy you are at war with”. The worker did not miss a beat and answered “but they are people on the other side and need water to live”. It was a no-brainer to this man, his team, and the local authorities that you ensure your humane values are maintained even under the most trying of circumstances. Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite if they are true French values, and I believe they are, will prevail.

Resilience is defined as bouncing back from adversity. For most of us, real adversity is a 1 time event that may even leave a dark mark on our psyche, and which requires great effort from which to recover.

Living in a semi-war terror zone challenges the very best of us and our community, and the experiences of the Israelis are a great lesson for us in order to know what we can undertake individually and as a group to build real and lasting Resilience within ourselves and our society. And in so doing defeat the terrorists that seek to destroy the very values, society and freedoms we cherish and that they hate.IMG-20151015-WA0028

About the Author
Co-convenor of the Australia-Israel Labor Dialogue. Director of Blended Learning Group (Emotional Intelligence and Leadership training) Director of Bowerbase (IT start-up) Director of Soldales Pacific (Water technology start-up linking Israel and Australia).