If You Understand Them, They Won't Win: A Q&A with Terrorism Expert Ami Pedahzur

Jewish Terrorism in Israel

In his latest book, “Jewish Terrorism in Israel,” author Ami Pedahzur tells a story which has never been told and in doing so helps alleviate the fear of the unknown. He and co-author Arie Perlinger present a historical overview of political violence in Jewish history, post-1967 terrorist groups, and Jewish terrorism in the 1990’s, including the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin, former prime minister of Israel and Noble Peace Prize winner. They also provide analysis of more recent times and the hilltop youth who have settled the occupied territories.

By examining Jewish terrorism in particular, Pedahzur, an associate professor of Government at The University of Texas at Austin,  reveals the roots of terrorism in general. ShelfLife recently sat down with Pedahzur to discuss his book, the real controversy and why Americans shouldn’t fear terrorists.

Ami Pedhazur

How do you define terrorism?

It’s scary. It’s surprising. It’s hurts the innocent and it’s evil.

I’m not a big words-person. I’m more interested in the empirical part. For me it’s about identifying a phenomenon. How do I know that something is terrorism and not a guerilla act or insurgency or riot? Terrorism involves the use of violence activated by a political motive with the intention to strike fear in civilian or non-combatant victims and communities.

Terrorism is an tactic not an identity. By reducing a group to the title terrorist group, we sometimes miss its other branches and functions in society and hence lose sight of it importance, magnitude, as well as come up with wrong solutions as for how to deal with it. The same go for individual terrorists. Terrorism in most cases is not a profession. Those who use terrorism vary in terms of their role, tenure with the group function, etc. Hence we need to take a closer  look  at such individuals before we try to offer a profile of a terrorist.

We are asking a more general question. Who uses political violence, under which conditions, and why?

Some might call your book controversial because it concerns only Jewish terrorism. What would you say to them?

It’s controversial if we try to reduce terrorism to a tactic employed only by Muslims, which is something that people who don’t follow the history tend to assume.

The book is not an attempt to protect any particular religion. One of the outcomes of this research, and this is something I firmly believe in, is there’s no particular religious affiliation or association for terrorism. It’s a question of history.

Vilifying a specific religion is not going to get us far.  Take Muslims and Jews. The majority of both religions never engage in violence. They are peaceful people and believers.

For me, the book is completely benign in the sense that it’s just documenting a phenomenon and trying to use the rich data that we’ve gathered for answering the bigger question about the process that turns a believer into someone who commits an act of terror.

How can we stop people from committing terrorist acts?

The depressing answer is terrorism has and always will exist. Instead we should ask “is it really that important?” Is terrorism really that scary or significant? Or are we just subjecting ourselves to the fear they are trying to afflict? The solution is working on our psychology rather than trying to eliminate those who use terrorism as a tactic.

So we should just not be afraid?

Being afraid is not necessarily a bad thing so long as we don’t scare ourselves to death. When we emphasize the role of terrorism in contemporary politics we are only exacerbating the problem.

The impact of terrorism in physical terms and devastation of life, property, etc. when compared to what happened in Haiti two weeks ago is very limited. The impact is psychological. In asking what can actually be done about terrorism, the answer is working on our psychology rather than trying to eliminate those who use terrorism as a tactic.

We need to downplay terrorism for a while.

For Pedahzur, the best counter for terrorism is understanding. That’s why he recently founded the T.I.G.E.R. Lab with the goals of becoming the leading center for the study of terrorism in the country and making publicly available the best data in the world. As Pedahzur explains “These data will portray a story, explain processes, and lead to their own conclusions, and with this wealth and depth of knowledge, [policy makers] can change the world. But, we need to get them the data.”

To learn more about Pedahzur’s work, read The University of Texas Web feature story on suicide bombers.