Does terrorism demoralize? Evidence from Israel says no

February 29, 2012

Jerusalem — Israelis recall the Second Intifada, which began in September 2000 and lasted half a decade, as a bleak period of terrorism and suicide bombings. Yet new research from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem finds that surprisingly, the terrorism had almost no impact on Israelis’ self-reported life satisfaction levels in surveys conducted at the time.
The research was conducted by Dr. Asaf Zussman from The Hebrew University’s Department of Economics, in association with researchers from Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) and the Bank of Israel. The report, Does Terrorism Demoralize? Evidence from Israel, was published in the January 2012 edition of the journal Economica.

Dr. Zussman analyzed surveys conducted by the Central Bureau of Statistics from the years 2002 to 2004 among approximately 22,000 Israelis. Each year the surveys asked a different group of approximately 7,000 people dozens of questions, including “Overall, are you satisfied with your life?”

The surveys showed that Israeli Jews’ self-reported satisfaction levels remained stable despite changing levels of terrorism. In 2002, considered the most violent year of the Second Intifada, 82.9% of Israelis stated that they were “very satisfied” or “fairly satisfied” with their lives; in 2003, which was calmer, 81.7% of Israelis expressed satisfaction; and in the following, even calmer year, the percentage was 82.4%.

"The research shows that the level of life satisfaction among Israelis is less affected by terror than we are accustomed to think", states Dr. Zussman. "Even in 2002, at the peak of the Intifada, Israeli citizens were content enough with their lives to be placed at a good middle spot in comparison with other western countries."

On the other hand, Israeli Arabs’ life satisfaction displayed a robust negative reaction to terrorism. The researchers suggested this may be related to increasing concerns about discrimination in response to terror attacks.

The study found that while terrorism did not significantly alter happiness levels, the weather did. People attested to being less happy during periods of unusually bad weather than on pleasant sunny days.

According to Dr. Zussman, one possible explanation for terrorism’s minimal effect is the public's trust in the government’s strategy to defeat terrorism: "During the Intifada, and especially since the spring of 2002, Israel's counterterrorism strategy proved successful in curbing Palestinian terrorism. This may help to explain why the Israeli public did not become demoralized. Also, over the years the Israeli public has developed a resiliency and managed to adjust to terrorism, with optimism that terrorism is a temporary situation and things will look better soon."

The study raises doubts about the effectiveness of terrorism in achieving one of its main objectives — demoralizing the enemy population. "Terrorism is a political instrument meant firstly to create psychological demoralization among the enemy, but it would seem that it's not as useful as one would think," says Dr. Zussman.