Fear at Home and Abroad

Fear at Home and Abroad March 14, 2016

I probably should not vent about my students’ parents on my blog, but I am feeling a bit frustrated. The stabbing of an American student in Israel is certainly a cause for concern. Like any parent would, I have imagined my own son traveling abroad as a student and being in that situation, being stabbed and bleeding to death as others or perhaps I myself tried desperately to save him. It is what parents do. We worry. We think, “What if it was my child?” We try to keep them safe to the extent that we can, and we often prefer to err on the side of being overprotective.

But we can go too far, worrying more about less likely things, than we do about more serious dangers that are faced on a daily basis. The fact of the matter is that it has been very rare for an American student to be the victim of an attack in Israel. If we are inclined to do so, we can calculate the odds. We can check the statistics, and learn that at the height of the intafada period 2000-2006, one’s odds of being killed in a terrorist attack were lower for that entire period if one lived in Israel, than one’s odds were of being killed in a single year period as a victim of a homicide if one lived in Canada. And the likelihood of either of those two scenarios is much, much lower again than one’s likelihood of dying in a traffic accident in the United States in a given year.

Yes, a terrorist attack with an American fatality has been in the news. I get that. But I have seen in the news several times since I’ve been living in Indiana that an exchange student has died here in this state. And there have been at least two deaths from shootings in Indianapolis in the past two days.

What I don’t understand is how people can think that Israel is too dangerous for their child to go to, but it is safe for them to live and study in Indianapolis. Do they not understand that their perception of Israel is akin to someone judging the city of Indianapolis based on this article?

Falls Road
Murals on the Falls Road in Belfast

Can anyone help me understand my students’ parents, and perhaps find ways to communicate more effectively about this with them? Is it just my own life experience that helps me to understand this topic differently than others do? I grew up in New York City, and was always surprised when people from elsewhere asked “How can you live there? Isn’t it dangerous?” That helped me to understand that people sometimes see only the crimes and incidents on the news, and never realize that these things are the exception and not the rule. I also lived in Belfast, Northern Ireland during the troubles, and there too realized that not only was life largely a matter of going about one’s business with the occasional explosion in the distance, but one could walk down the Falls Road as a group of foreign students, something the local Protestants would never do. Northern Ireland was a lot like Israel and the West Bank: checkpoints, soldiers with machine guns, fear of terrorism, bombings. And it was a lot like Israel and the West Bank: most of the time, very warm and friendly people who went about their lives and made the best of difficult circumstances.

I felt safer in Northern Ireland than I do in Indianapolis. And I feel safer when I am visiting Israel and the West Bank than I do on a daily basis in Indianapolis.

Can anyone help me understand why this is not clear to other people? Do you actually have to live and travel extensively abroad in order to grasp this point? Do you actually have to live in another country where there are few guns in circulation to realize that an American city is one of the most terrifying places to live on Earth, short of an actual war zone – and yet also to realize that, even so, most of us who reside in an American city will live out our days without being shot?

Let me be clear that I am not offering a guarantee of safety to students who travel with me. I am merely pointing out that getting in your car has much less guarantee of safety, and yet you continue to do it daily. The one thing I can guarantee is that your trip to Israel and the West Bank will be much more rewarding than your average car journey has been!

Of related interest, Jaffa is the town where the stabbing I mentioned at the start of the post took place. There is a movie which is set there that will be shown on the Butler Campus.:

Thursday, April 21, 2016 at 6:30 p.m. A New View Film Series presented by the Desmond Tutu Center is showing Dancing in Jaffa in the Eidson-Duckwall Recital Hall. The series is FREE and OPEN to the public.

Here’s the trailer:


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  • Ian

    Friends of mine are vacationing in Iceland this month (from South Carolina), his mother warned them to be careful because of all the terrorism in Europe. Fear can be so irrational. I wish there was an easy way to get people to put things in perspective. Not just for academic tours – it would greatly improve the national political landscape too.

    • arcseconds

      Would it do any good to point out they’re more in danger from volcanoes?

  • Phil Ledgerwood

    I heard that American schools were super dangerous places for students to be.

    • They are!

      • School shootings are less common than they used to be. It depends on the school. I never felt threatened at my high school, for instance.

  • The U.S. State Department continues to maintain a “travel warning” for Israel, saying that the security environment there “remains complex” and can change from day to day. There is currently a reference in this warning to the stabbing incidents in Israel over the past five months. The advisory tells tourists to “familiarize themselves with the location of the nearest bomb shelter or other hardened sites.” The advisory contains six paragraphs of warning about visiting Jerusalem: not just largely Palestinian East Jerusalem, but also the Old City and unspecified neighborhoods in West Jerusalem. The warnings concerning Jerusalem contain the (for me) inexplicable statement that “The number of violent incidents resulting in the death of bystanders remains high.” The advisory prohibits U.S. government employees from personal travel to the West Bank (with the exception of Jericho and Bethlehem), meaning that strictly speaking these people are forbidden to visit places like Qumran. U.S. government employees are also forbidden to use the Israeli public bus system (either within a city or intra-city), or to enter an Israeli bus station. Tourists are told to “consider” the rules applicable to government employees when planning their own travel.

    If you want to argue against hysterical fear over visiting Israel, you might start with the fears spread by our own State Department.

    But the hysteria does not end with our own government. When we were last in Israel, we spent a day touring the West Bank area around Jericho. When you enter Jericho, you pass a sign in three languages posted by the Israeli government: entry into this area for Israeli citizens is “dangerous for your lives.”

    Yes. All of this is laughable. I was in China last year, right before SBL in Atlanta. I walked the streets of strange Chinese cities without fear, but I felt distinctly uncomfortable walking the streets around my Atlanta hotel after dark. Israel is probably not as safe as China, but I think it’s safer than Atlanta. Nevertheless, we seem to have an investment in making Israel seem dangerous.

    • Yes, the security environment in Israel isn’t the greatest, but it’s nowhere near as bad as the State Dept.’s prohibitions make them out to be. My guess is this is to improve Israeli public relations.

  • Yes, James, we know inner-city Indianapolis, Detroit, Cleveland, St. Louis, Flint, D.C., Philadelphia, Baltimore, Memphis, etc. are very dangerous. You didn’t need to convince us of that. Percentage Black is the strongest predictor of gun homicides in major U.S. urban areas. At least you’re not a hypocrite when you support BLM.

    “Can anyone help me understand why this is not clear to other people?”

    -My guess is this is because communication is more difficult between nations than within them, and people trust surroundings they’re familiar with more.

  • John MacDonald

    You can start a “class website.” It’s an easy way of communicating to, and hearing from, parents and students.

  • arcseconds

    I’m not sure this will help communicate to your students’ parents’, or in fact whether it will help at all, but it might give you some perspective.

    You are expecting them to be rational, and therefore to be swayed by statistics and evidence.

    But people aren’t rational. That’s true in a general sort of a way of everyone (no-one has deductive closure on their beliefs, no-one has examined all their beliefs and can only give a rational account of a small percentage of them). Some of us make a halfway decent effort to be rational to some extent, but lots of people don’t, even those who pride themselves on it (this often seems to be more of an assumption that they must be rational because they believe in Science, than anything else).

    And people don’t understand statistics.

    What people do respond to more is emotional association.

    So what I think is going on here is that they’ve seen some stuff in the news about an American student getting stabbed in Israel

    So now this is all they know about Israel: American students get stabbed there.

    This is not a proposition they cognitively assent to, but an emotional response: Israel feels American-student-stabby to them, because an emotionally stirring story has been presented to them.

    (Unlike life in an American city, which they already have a lot of feelings about, so one shooting can’t become basically all they feel about it.)

    And now you are saying to them “don’t feel all American-student-stabby about Israel! See, some numbers and some pointy-headed gibberish that has no emotional resonance with you whatsoever!”

    While they wouldn’t be able to articulate it, this makes about as much sense as saying they shouldn’t love their dog because of some numbers. They’re not loving their dog on the basis of some rational assessment of dog-related numbers, so some dog-related numbers is not going to stop them loving their dog.

    What you really want to do is for them to change from being the sorts of people that are moved largely by emotional association to people who rationally assess risk on the basis of probabilities and statistics (along with being moved by emotional association, because that’s inevitable, and probably to some extent desirable) but you can’t do that just by presenting some statistics to them.

    Failing that, I think the best you can do is try to set up some different emotional resonances. Maybe you could get an Israeli to talk to them about daily life in Israel, and how not-dangerous it is (and maybe how they don’t feel safe in American cities)? Failing that, maybe some students who went on the trip in the past.

    There’s a certain risk in the sense that talking about how not-dangerous it all is might just make some of them think you’re protesting too much, or get them to think about it in terms of danger when they hadn’t before, of course.

    • That is a great point. I sent around a lot of trailers and other such things, but I probably need to include more videos with ordinary people going about their day on ordinary streets, in a way that might be more reassuring than the scenic highlights. Thanks for this – it is very helpful!