Skip to content

Israel's Lessons in Public Resilience

SECURITY PROFESSIONALS the world over have long looked to Israel for best practices in everything from airport prescreening procedures to hand-to-hand combat. Now, U.S. homeland security leaders seek to emulate Israel’s successes at maintaining public vigilance and fostering individual preparedness—keys to resilience.

Israel’s public resilience is, of course, a matter of necessity. At the country’s inception in 1948, leader David Ben-Gurion stated that “the entire people is the army, the entire land is the front.” That remains largely the case. By contrast, the average person living in the United States is more likely to encounter natural disasters and traditional crime than an act of terrorism, making it difficult for officials to get the public to prepare for the worst.

Seeking ideas for public resilience—specifically to terrorism—the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) commissioned the Homeland Security Institute (HSI) to study public resiliency efforts in Israel and draw lessons for the United States. HSI’s primary recommendations: the government has to be candid with the public about risk and must educate citizens about the real intended effects of terrorism—not death and destruction, but fear and chaos. That knowledge, the authors argue, will foster psychological resilience, action, and recovery.

“Emergency authorities, in particular, need to change their perceptions of the public from seeing them as victims to considering them as partners and force multipliers,” the researchers wrote.

In Israel, HSI found that government agencies—including the Israel Defense Forces and Home Front Command—deliver unified, consistent messages about preparedness and threats. As a result, the public trusts the government’s risk communication. HSI also found consensus between the government and the citizens that individual preparedness is not just something the government recommends—it is a public responsibility.

HSI also looked at the situation in the United States. Its findings about U.S. public preparedness hold few surprises: First, the public generally views preparedness solely as a government responsibility. Second, the American public has lost confidence in the federal government’s ability to respond effectively to a major terrorist attack since 9-11 and Hurricane Katrina. Third, the federal government’s communication of threats has been inconsistent.

Both in the report and in an interview with Security Management, lead author Sibel McGee acknowledged the well-known political pitfall of terrorism risk-communication in the United States: the allegation of “fear-mongering.”

The solution, according to HSI, is “a systematic and comprehensive terrorism awareness and education program” that focuses on terrorism’s ultimate goals, placing the risk in proportion to others faced by society.

HSI’s research placed special focus on the still-evolving issue of suspicious activity reports (SARs). Unlike criminal complaints or emergency calls, SARs entail a person’s reporting of unusual activity—behavioral, financial, or otherwise—that might indicate terrorist behavior.

Israeli authorities solicit SARs from the public through a single, nationwide phone number and through a prominent public education campaign that helps the public by defining suspicious activity—whether involving people, vehicles, or objects—in brief, straightforward terms.

In the United States since 9-11, individual states and cities have launched SAR campaigns, such as the “If You See Something, Say Something” campaign launched by the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority in 2003. The United States’ first national SAR effort, overseen by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI), is currently in its pilot phase with major law enforcement agencies. ODNI continues to refine the definition of suspicious activities to clearly exclude issues of race, religion, and political views to avoid violation of constitutional rights.

For SARs to be most effective in the United States, state and local authorities should continue to field reports, but, as in Israel, the effort should be marketed to the public through a single coordinated, national public education program, HSI recommends. And McGee does not see why that can’t include information on civil liberties.

“It’s about issues of clear-cut instructions and helping people understand that observing the suspicious nature of a person does not involve profiling,” McGee says.