In early September, a delegation of U.S. law enforcement officers flew to Israel for a week-long series of trainings with Israeli security forces.
These delegations have become routine in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, and they often take place with little scrutiny.
But this time was different. A week before the delegation, members of the Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) chapter in Washington, D.C. obtained a document providing details about the training. Those details had turned up in the Metropolitan Police Department’s response to JVP’s public records request, because a Washington, D.C. cop was joining the delegation.
So JVP members swung into action to call attention to the trip, which they saw as troubling, because U.S. police — already under scrutiny for racial profiling and excessive force — would be training with security forces accused of human rights abuses. They contacted local officials to inform them of the delegation, and they also spoke to news outlets about the document they obtained.
Their efforts made waves. A news report published by The Intercept cast a harsh light on the delegation. And on September 7, David Grosso, a Washington, D.C. Councilman, sent a letter to the city’s police chief, writing that he was “troubled” a police officer would be training with Israeli security forces that have engaged in “human rights violations.”
The elected official’s criticism was a win for JVP’s Deadly Exchange campaign, an initiative launched in April that seeks to halt U.S. law enforcement trips to Israel.
“Even people who are cognizant of all the problems [with the delegations] don’t want to bring it up, because they’re aware of the political sensitivity [of criticizing Israel],” said Benjamin Douglas, the chair of JVP-Washington, D.C.’s legislative committee, in an interview. “The fact that Grosso fired that opening shot is important.”
Denormalizing Human Rights Abuses
JVP is now seeking to build on its success in Washington, D.C. by utilizing a variety of tactics — direct actions, legislative campaigns and teach-ins — to bring attention to, and ultimately try to end, police delegations to Israel. JVP is also hoping to put a stop to Israeli security delegations to the United States, especially at a time when President Donald Trump and Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu are intensifying the U.S.-Israel alliance from the far right.
But the campaign faces a difficult task. Israel has successfully marketed itself as a global leader in counter-terrorism and security, and pro-Israel groups in the United States have capitalized on that reputation by bringing hundreds of police officers on trips to train with Israeli police and military commanders.
The goal of JVP’s Deadly Exchange campaign is to reverse Israel’s reputation as a security leader, stigmatize these delegations and — ultimately — stop them. JVP is also hoping to expose the racially biased U.S. police practices that these exchanges reinforce. For JVP, delegations to Israel reveal U.S. law enforcement’s troubling willingness to receive training from Israeli commanders who preside over a brutal system of occupation and repression, complete with mass surveillance, extrajudicial killings and racial profiling of Palestinians.
“These programs treat Israel’s seventy years of dispossession and 50 years of occupation as best practices for policing in the U.S.,” Stefanie Fox, a deputy director at JVP, told In These Times. “We want to denormalize the valorization of what we think is a horrifying human rights abuse.”
A troubling model for policing
For many pro-Israel activists in the United States, Israel’s experience in dealing with Palestinian militant attacks, and in maintaining its occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza, made the country a model for how U.S. law enforcement could combat terrorism. And after September 11, 2001, organizations like the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA) created programs to bring U.S. police officers to Israel for training. There, Israeli commanders brief U.S. cops, who visit key sites where Israel exercises its control over Palestinians: jails, checkpoints and settlements.
“What happened after 9⁄11 is that America needed someone to validate what they’re about to do with the war on terror. And Israel was there, with the narrative of what it can do,” said Eran Efrati, the executive director of the group Researching the American-Israeli Alliance, which is providing research help for JVP’s campaign. “The U.S. is buying into a model of control that Israel is selling … In this model, we’re talking about an occupying army using violent, non-democratic means of control over millions of humans under the idea of counter-terrorism. But when [law enforcement] is coming back home, they’re using those methods of control [on civilians].”
For some U.S. participants in these trips, the Israeli model for combating threats is exactly what the United States needs to adopt. “Let’s be honest … This whole idea of best practices is just a euphemism for: We’re here to steal some of your great ideas. And a lot of great ideas and technology, indeed, you do have here in Israel,” the Los Angeles Police Department’s commander of information technology said at a 2016 conference in Israel that LAPD officers attended. “We are much more alike than dis-alike. As civilized nations, we are all confronted with, in many cases, the same enemy: The ever-growing threat of terrorism and other major criminal elements.”
The “deadly exchange” goes both ways. In 2013, Israel’s police commander flew to New York to learn about how the New York Police Department polices “quality of life” violations — a term that refers to how the NYPD cracks down on petty offenses like public drinking. Its “broken windows” policing philosophy — that going after petty crimes can prevent more serious ones — has been harshly criticized for disproportionately targeting people of color.
This exchange of tactics, though, has also presented something of an opportunity for JVP: a chance to deepen the organization’s already-existing relationship with communities of color who are organizing against racist police violence in the United States.
The Chicago Religious Leadership Network on Latin America (CRLN) does not focus on issues related to Palestine. But the organization has endorsed the Deadly Exchange campaign.
“CRLN endorses this campaign, because it is aligned with our efforts to expand the definition of sanctuary to mean protection for all people targeted by state violence and racist policing,” Cinthya Rodriguez, an immigration organizer with the network, told In These Times. “As we continue to call for the accountability of the U.S. detention and deportations machine, for example, by urging Congress to cut immigration enforcement funding, we also reject the sharing of discriminatory and repressive policing strategies.”
In Washington, D.C., the JVP chapter is working alongside groups like Pan-African Community Action to highlight the need for local accountability and control over civilian police forces. And in Atlanta, JVP’s chapter has partnered with other groups, including Black Lives Matter-Atlanta, to press officials like city Mayor Kasim Reed to commit to halt police participation in the Georgia International Law Enforcement Exchange program, which sends officers to Israel. (Reed has rejected that demand.) Connie Sosnoff, a member of JVP Atlanta, told In These Times the group’s next step is to get candidates running in the upcoming mayoral election to take a position on the exchange program with Israel.
“It’s absolutely essential to us to run this campaign from an intersectional lens, and to center those people who are most impacted by these terrible tactics and technologies,” JVP’s Fox told In These Times. “Joint struggle and mutual solidarity between communities of color in the U.S. and in Palestine is happening in a million different ways, but this campaign is targeting the violent exchanges.”
“Policing that goes against all civil rights norms”
But in addition to the various local campaigns that have taken hold across the United States, JVP has also chosen a national target: the Anti-Defamation League.
Known nationally for its civil rights work and fight against hate crimes, the ADL is also a fierce defender of Israel. And in 2003, the organization launched the National Counter-Terrorism Seminar program, which has brought over 200 police officers to Israel to learn from Israeli security officials. On one such trip in 2016, the ADL brought U.S. cops to the occupied West Bank city of Hebron, a city where the army and police protect 800 right-wing settlers living in a Palestinian area, to meet with an Israeli police commander. On the same trip, the U.S. officers also visited an Israeli prison where Palestinians are held, and met with a police patrol unit known as “Yasam.”
JVP is currently collecting signatures on a petition to the ADL calling on the group to end the police exchange programs. The ADL has fired back at JVP, saying that JVP asserts “that joint training and exchange programs are responsible for rising levels of police brutality and racism against minorities in the US.”
Stefanie Fox, the JVP deputy director, rejected that criticism, telling In These Times that the Deadly Exchange campaign highlights how police exchange programs amplify already-existing law enforcement tactics that are problematic — and that the group does not believe Israel is teaching American law enforcement how to be racist. (The ADL did not respond to requests for comment.)
“It’s absurd that the ADL’s concern for civil rights is practiced selectively,” said Fox. “And as an organization that claims to fight hate and stand up for civil rights, they’re putting their resources, energy and time in an approach to policing that goes against all civil rights norms, and puts communities at risk of excessive force, racial profiling and brutality.”