Some Thoughts on Violence in Israel and the U.S.

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Category: Media & Journalism, Public

I was part of the group of students and faculty that recently visited Israel. It was truly an amazing trip, and it reshaped my perception of everything from the Syrian civil war, to Biblical history, to the contemporary political dynamics that complicate efforts to secure peace between Israelis and Palestinians, to life in the United States. I do not purport to be an expert on anything pertaining to Israel, and my thoughts on the trip are still a bit scattered, but I thought I would share at least one major impression: Israel felt more secure than I thought it would. Having read about the country’s various security problems for years, I started the trip with some anxiety about traveling in what was for me unprecedented proximity to Hamas, Hezbollah, and Syria. To borrow the title of an 1980s sitcom, I thought that anti-Western groups would be a little too close for comfort.

But I felt completely secure, and I think everyone else did, too. It appeared that Israel’s citizens manage to live normal lives in basic safety notwithstanding the various security challenges they face. Markets, tours, businesses, restaurants, and schools all operate without any apparent sense of danger. The external threats are serious, but none of them appeared to be terribly consequential on a day-to-day basis for the individuals who live there. 

A comparison might help to illustrate how this is possible. Consider the rate of firearm homicides in America and the rate of civilian casualties in Israel as a result of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Here are the numbers for the United States from 2007 to 2011:

Year Firearm Homicides in the U.S. Per 100,000
2011 11,101 3.58
2010 11,078 3.58
2009 11,493 3.74
2008 12,179 4.00
2007 12,632 4.19


And here are the numbers for Israel:

Year Israeli Civilian Casualties for the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Per 100,000
2011 11 .14
2010 8 .11
2009 9 .12
2008 35 .49
2007 13 .18


In short, Americans have been far more likely to die from gunfire than Israelis to die from terrorist attacks. The rate of firearm homicides in America in 2011, for example, was over 25 times higher per capita than the rate of civilian casualties from terrorism in Israel during the same period. If Americans can manage to feel safe, it should come as no surprise that Israelis can, too. This is not to say that Israel’s security environment is stable or satisfactory, but simply that by one important metric it is no worse, and in fact much better, than our own. To the extent that we perceive otherwise, I think it is probably a product of the media’s tendency to focus on terrorist attacks and conflict, rather than the mundane aspects of daily life. Tragedies are better than peace at garnering attention.

*Figures for firearm homicides in the U.S. are from CDC and UN reports. The Israeli death tolls are as reported by B’Tselem and the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Population data for Israel and the United States are from the World Bank and the U.S. Census Bureau, respectively.

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6 Responses to “Some Thoughts on Violence in Israel and the U.S.”

  1. sean samis Says:


    Certainly it is possible to make Americans more secure, but I’d hesitate drawing too many parallels with Israel. Our two situations are very different, as are the causes of crime and violence in our two countries.

    Also, as interesting as your two charts are, they are apples-and-oranges. Firearms homicides in America are principally due to ordinary crime, deaths due to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are more like deaths of Americans in Afghanistan. I’d like to see all fire-arms deaths in both regions compared, and including Palestinian deaths also. They are part of the equation too.

    sean s.

  2. They are apples and oranges in a lot of ways, but I’m not arguing that they’re identical, and I don’t see a meaningful difference if the basic question is security. On that dimension, why is gun violence less problematic than terrorism? Both cost lives, both generate fear and a sense of insecurity.

  3. sean samis Says:


    Unless I am badly mistaken, the principal reason this is interesting is that it might inform our efforts to reduce crime in America. Gun violence (of the merely criminal kind) is as problematic as terrorism, but if the goal is to solve the problem, correctly identifying the actual causes seems crucial. And it is in that matter that criminal gun violence in America is very different from terrorism anywhere; the motivations and causes are not the same, so the solutions are not likely to be the same either. This is one of the most meaningful differences there could be. And this is why we should not draw too many parallels with the situation in Israel. Apples and oranges.

    The Israeli experience should give us hope that a solution is possible. But in a different situation a different solution is likely necessary. Please notice I am not wholly excluding learning from the Israelis, I only counsel caution.

    sean s.

  4. Fair points, but I think you are in fact mistaken about my point. I’m not arguing that the comparison to terrorism in Israel can inform efforts to reduce crime in America, although I suppose that would be an interesting issue to consider. My point is just that we probably have an exaggerated sense of the violence and instability in Israel–on one metric, Americans actually deal with much greater violence than do Israelis, and yet no one thinks of America as particularly unsafe.

  5. Ah, well then you are right, I did not know that was your point.

    Perceptions of crime or instability are notoriously unreliable; by most measures, most Americans perceive crime in America to be worse than it actually is. You may be correct that their perceptions about crime and instability in Israel are even farther out of whack.

    I think it’s not accurate to say that “no one thinks of America as particularly unsafe.” Right, or wrong, there are probably few think of it as less safe than Israel; but as compared to the EU, Canada, or Japan, America is often regarded as particularly unsafe.

    sean s.

  6. Kenny Levine Says:

    I found your article when I was seeking statistics on this very issue. I think it is a meaningful comparison, because most Americans would never think of themselves as living in a state of terror that is anything close to what Israelis live in. But in fact, we do. And while we excuse and and all excessive measures taken to combat terror in Israel, we refuse to implement even the most basic, commonsensical safety precautions here. We are indeed comparing apples to oranges, but in this case what’s important is that they’re both fruit.

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