When Self-Defense Fails

In January, Dafna Meir was murdered outside her home in Otniel, with three of her children inside. Her death was another painful stab to the hearts of many Israelis grappling with the mounting losses of a seemingly never-ending conflict with the Palestinians. Dafna was described as “joyful” and “witty”, and according to the Times of Israel, initial autopsy reports said that during the attack, she fought back.

As an empowerment self-defense advocate, this story sparks inspiration, as it did for many journalists writing on the event. In my line of work, it is not uncommon that I have to rephrase what empowerment self-defense is. Being conscious of the various ways this may offend people, these are the stereotypes I often get when talking about self-defense: a butch-looking woman kicking a man in the groin to show him who’s boss, chayalot (female soldiers) learning krav maga, or a woman in a skirt and heels whipping out her pepper spray in a dark alley.

In recent conversations I’ve had, questions surrounding “when self-defense fails”  arise, and those discussions become heated and personal rather quickly. When I think of Dafna, I ask, is her story a self-defense failure?

“Body Guard”, Amman, Jordan (2011) L. Landau


To call her self-defense a failure would be a tremendous betrayal to not only her luminous life, but the inspiration her story has left us. Although Dafna Meir was not able to prevent physical harm onto herself, her decision to fight back has inspired women all over Israel that they too can stand up to a terrorist and, in Dafna’s case, save their families. Perhaps we will look beyond the threat of terrorism, and pay attention to overwhelming rates of assault that take place in our very homes by the hands of the people we know and trust.

“Self-defense is not just something that happens when somebody attacks you. It is a process that begins long before an assault, and it starts when you make a decision that you are a person worth defending,” says Jill Baker Shames, co-founder and Director of Training at the Jerusalem based non-profit El HaLev, and long-time Shorenru Karate and Self-Defense instructor. Without the conscious effort to recognize your self-worth, you will not be able to fight with the focus and ferocity it takes to defend your life. When Shames begins her self-defense classes, she makes sure to teach her students that they are not in control of everything and that each and every participant is a precious soul worth fighting for. She believes that a successful example of self-defense is how an individual feels after the assault. For instance, it is common for victims to blame themselves for an attack, even when they were “successful” in defending themselves. This is inflamed with the warped perceptions of many in our culture to “victim blame”: she was dressed suggestively, she shouldn’t have provoked him by engaging, she shouldn’t have put herself in such a situation, etc, etc, it’s too painful for me to list all of the excuses.

In empowerment self-defense training, the knowledge that being assaulted is never your fault, is an essential first lesson that is reiterated throughout training.

To empower people through self-defense, is not just giving them the tools to use physical techniques. It is a state of mind. Shames teaches her students to pay attention to what they have, and not what is lacking. By paying attention to the options that arrive moment by moment, and the skills that one is capable of, she explains how self-defense instructors can redefine different types of success. Situational awareness is key in empowerment self-defense, an idea espoused from Gavin de Becker, author of The Gift of Fear and specialist in security issues.

Melissa Soalt, a Massachusetts based empowerment self-defense instructor (“Dr. Ruthless”), founder of Model Mugging Boston and former psychotherapist, also teaches her students that nothing works all the time. “Just because it doesn’t work all the time, doesn’t mean it’s not valuable”, she explains. She compared self-defense to a college degree. The degree will give you a valuable education for life, it will open opportunities for you, inspire you, and equip you with tools to pursue your career, but a college degree does not ensure your employment, finances, and happiness. “There’s a lot of bad self-defense instruction out there”, Soalt reiterates throughout our discussion. Many classes promote the idea that their techniques will be bullet proof protection for their participants. It’s an advertising method that attracts those honestly looking for more personal safety, a basic human need and human right. “If a situation has to get physical, than you should expect to get hurt.” However, Soalt also explains how women empowered with self-defense put a dent in “rape culture”, which runs on the perception of women being vulnerable and weak. Self-defense is not the answer, but it is one important and vital tool in combating violence against women.

Jill Shames and Melissa Soalt both know that self-defense is about having options, even if resistance fails. It’s not about ensuring your protection, rather ensuring your ability to use all options available to you to protect yourself. It’s about a psychological and emotional shift from being someone who needs protection to someone who is guarded and armed with strategies to handle violence; before, during and after. And the most moving argument for this form of training is that it works.  Not just theoretically, but literally, and supported with substantive research and results. Dafna Meir did not fail in her self-defense because she knew what options were available to her and, by her own will, with her own inner-strength, she made the choice to resist, which is the message her legacy left with women throughout the country.

To learn more about opportunities to learn empowerment self-defense in Israel, visit the website,, or contact

About the Author
Leviah Landau is an aspiring optimist, new parent, and "olah" from the Pacific Northwest. She is the founder Lashal Memoirs and works as a personal and family historian creating "life portraits" in prose for clients. Her first privately commissioned book is soon to be printed.
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