Jewish Voice for Peace works to end U.S. law enforcement trainings with Israeli military and security forces because they are harmful – to Palestinians, Israelis, and to communities in the United States. We think they validate and encourage Israel’s policies of Apartheid and occupation, while contributing to further militarization of U.S. borders and policing. In the past year, our Deadly Exchange campaign to end these programs has started scoring some impressive victories – from legislation in Durham to the grassroots coalitions that last week led state and city decision makers in Vermont and Northampton, Massachusetts, to pull their police out of the tour sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League.
The decisions were based on a very simple principle, summed up by the mayor of Northampton, David Narkewicz: “[Police Chief Jody] Kasper and I have both come to the conclusion that it is in the best interests of our city that she not participate in the National Leadership Seminar in Israel.”
Serving the best interests of our communities is what drives the campaign, and what brought diverse coalitions together across the city of Northampton and the state of Vermont. These coalitions were multifaith and multiracial and intergenerational, and were led by American and Israeli Jews and Palestinians. They included organizations focused on a wide spectrum of issues – immigrant rights, fighting Islamophobia and anti-Semitism, the Movement for Black Lives, queer and trans rights.
The ADL tries to keep these trips out of public view, and even adds legal disclaimers in emails to try to conceal basic information like participants’ names, dates of trips, and itineraries. But persistent appeals through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests have revealed the shape of the program. We know that these delegations bring high-ranking U.S. police, ICE, Customs and Border Patrol, and FBI officials to meet with top officials from the IDF, as well as with a range of Israeli security forces – Shin Bet, airport officials, prison officials, Israeli and Palestinian Authority police, and private security and arms corporations.
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We know the curriculum centers around visits to checkpoints, settlements including Hebron, prisons, airport security, right-wing think-tanks, private security firms, and multinational arms corporations like Elbit.
We know that Israeli armed forces, including the military and police, have a well-documented history of violence and grave human rights abuses, particularly in the areas of racial profiling, surveillance, mistreatment of prisoners, suppression of social movements, and divisive “us vs. them” thinking. In the wake of the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States, the Israeli government and private industry rebranded and marketed the tools, tactics, and technologies developed through 70 years of dispossession of the Palestinians and 50 years of military occupation into “field tested” counter-terrorism “best practices.” This is what is on offer for these delegations.
It is common sense that city or state governments concerned with protecting the most vulnerable in our communities would choose to abstain from those lessons.
This is true especially for those officials who are concerned with addressing and ending our own deep crises of police violence and militarization here in the United States – from police murdering black people with impunity to ICE and border control ripping apart migrant families at an unprecedented rate. Rooting out the deep institutional racism within the very foundation of American law enforcement requires digging in very deeply here at home, and lessons from an occupying army are not going to help.
It is precisely because we understand and experience the long roots of state violence in the American context that we oppose the deepening of U.S.-Israel security cooperation. This is what makes Jonathan Tobin’s argument, published Tuesday in Haaretz, particularly egregious. He suggests that the campaign seeks to frame Israel and its American Jewish supporters as being ultimately responsible for state violence against people of color in the United States. We never have and never would suggest that, and agree that such a framing is not only anti-Semitic, but racist and deeply ahistoric. Underlying the whole concept of the campaign is our understanding that policing in the United States operates as one of the primary systems that upholds racism and white supremacy today, with deep roots in slavery and settler colonialism.
It is also true that nation states do not operate in a vacuum and do exchange arms, money, tactics, technologies and expertise. In this political moment when right-wing forces are coalescing, leaders from the United States to Israel, from Brazil to Hungary are not shy about promoting the interplay between their shared and devastating agendas. And it’s clearer than ever that the so-called security policies of those leaders, as well as the way they may learn from each other, put many of us at grave risk.
Seeing the connection and exchange between our unique contexts is not to collapse or conflate them. When ICE teargasses asylum-seeking families at the U.S.-Mexico border, it reminds us of the Great Return March, when the Israeli military responded to Palestinian protests at the Gaza fence by killing well over 150 people, and wounding more than 16,000 – which reminds us of Standing Rock, when US police in riot gear attacked unarmed water protectors – which reminds us of Ferguson, when protesters faced down an army of police in the wake of Michael Brown’s murder. In all these locations, in the face of state violence, people struggling for liberation see a reflection of their own faces and struggles in each other. It’s by making these connections that we can begin to show up to protect and defend and struggle alongside each other.
That’s what we mean when we talk about the best interests of our communities. It’s the work to build safety through solidarity. The decisions not to participate in police exchanges by Durham, Vermont and Northampton are examples of this creativity and determination. Ending police exchanges is one small contribution we can make toward this world, and a vision of safety and freedom that includes all of us.
Stefanie Fox is Deputy Director of Jewish Voice for Peace. She has an MA in Public Health focused on community organizing, and nearly two decades of experience doing grassroots movement building across a wide range of racial, economic, and social justice issues.