U.S. Jews must promote preparedness in face of terror

BY ELLEN CANNON

A growing number of Jewish communities have started to address the issue of preparedness at synagogues, Jewish day schools, Jewish camps, federations and all Jewish defense organizations because a terrorist threat to both America and the Jewish community is real. Our response as American Jews must be to promote greater security and resilience for both our community and country.

Transnational terrorist groups continue to grow and recruit new members. Eliminating their leadership has not unhinged them but forced them into reconfiguration, with legions of new suicide bombers joining their ranks. Recent nonpartisan surveys conclude that while the numbers of terrorist attacks have decreased since 9/11, the intensity of the attacks in terms of both civilian causalities and property damage has increased.

Terrorists are becoming more skilled and more selective. With the lack of security for fissionable materials, as well as chemical and biological agents, the threat of nuclear, chemical and biological attack is clear. As the 9/11 commission suggested in its recent update, it is not a matter of if or where but when such an evil will occur.

Life in America has clearly changed. Our understanding of what constitutes normal American life must adjust and adapt to the permanence of a terrorist threat. No longer is preparedness a necessity only for Israel, Argentina or the United Kingdom, it is a requirement for life in America.

Like our brethren in Israel, American Jewry can learn to create a culture of preparedness that is proactive, positive and based on common sense. A culture of preparedness can accomplish what the terrorists fear most — civilian empowerment, self sufficiency and reduced fear.

Creating that culture is easier said than done, however.

Like the majority of Americans who acknowledge the reality of the threat of terrorism but take no adaptive steps to prepare, we can expect the same disconnect among American Jews.

To prepare requires us to wrap our brain around a permanent vulnerability. This is frightening and unsettling. Thus, efforts at community preparedness must set a tone that avoids language based on past Jewish victimization or fear.

The goals of all preparedness programs are simple — reduce vulnerability and risk as well as promote resilience and hope.

The emerging preparedness narrative must be psychologically calming, technically simple, easily accessible and convince us that we can make a difference through proactive behaviors.

Jewish communal preparedness programs need to address four proactive elements: individuals and families; Jewish communal institutions; American well-being; and preparedness lending to leadership development.

At the individual and family level, we must communicate that preparedness is not overly expensive nor does it require unusual expertise. The most important thing our programs can do is provide clear information on what to do, and where to turn for help and basic survival knowledge.

Stockpiling of reasonable amounts of food and water, medicines, blankets, flashlights, portable radios that do not use batteries are the main components of assembling a home emergency kit.

Individuals and families must be encouraged to develop personal communication plans regarding contacting each other and where to meet should that be necessary. Community leaders such as rabbis, educators and physicians — preparedness is a potential medical issue — should become involved in assisting individuals and families.

Preparedness for Jewish institutions is essential. Terrorist linkage of rabid anti-American threats with intense anti-Semitic and anti-Israel sentiments must be taken seriously. Thus, specific plans, education and drills must be in place for synagogues, day schools, federations and all other Jewish organizations.

At the same time, Jewish preparedness must not be limited solely to Jewish infrastructures; it must address the infrastructure of daily American life. The majority of our time is lived in non-Jewish venues: workplace, public schools, malls, trains and subways, sports stadiums, etc.

Recent surveys continue to find all of these venues unprepared for terrorist attack. Shocking as it may be, 76 percent of American workers do not believe evacuation plans exist at their workplace, and if plans do exist the vast majority of workers have no knowledge of them.

A recent report by U.S. Rep. Bob Etheridge of the House Homeland Security Committee found that 95 percent of school police report continued vulnerability at American schools and little connection between existing programs and the security of the children.

The above challenges lead to the final component of Jewish preparedness efforts — the development of Jewish leadership on this issue. Few politicians are talking about grassroots preparedness.

They speak of educating first responders, new equipment, and securing bridges, tunnels and ports. The least developed portion of government programming remains citizen education, awareness and mobilization.

The American Jewish community must take this issue to local policymakers.

It will help to secure both our community and country.

Dr. Ellen Cannon, a professor of political science and public policy at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago, is a policy analyst and lecturer for a number of Jewish organizations. This op-ed originally appeared in The New York Jewish Week.

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