As a Jewish organization working in the movement for Palestinian rights, we at Jewish Voice for Peace aren’t strangers to controversy and difficult conversations. But we also know how discomfort can be a catalyst for transformation.
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70 years into the ongoing dispossession and displacement of Palestinians, 50 years into Israel’s military occupation, and 10 years into the siege on Gaza, we think it is time for American Jewish communities to have some really uncomfortable conversations.
This is why we have set out to challenge the complicity of some Jewish institutions in facilitating the exchange of violent and discriminatory policing practices in both the U.S. and Israel through law enforcement exchange programs.
We announced our new #DeadlyExchange campaign with a video that Mira Sucharov responded to with a critical column in Haaretz (Jews Drive U.S. Police Brutality Against People of Color? JVP Crosses Over Into anti-Semitism) which accused it of flirting with anti-Semitic tropes.
We are certainly open to critiques about language and imagery when addressing sensitive topics, and are taking this feedback into account. Fighting anti-Semitism alongside all forms of bigotry is a critical part of our mission statement and all of our ongoing work, including, most recently, workshops and talks developed alongside our new book On Antisemitism.
However, focusing on the subtleties of how we framed the issue does not negate the need to address it.
Thousands of U.S. police, border patrol, ICE officers, and FBI agents have trained with Israeli military and police forces. Both the U.S. and Israeli agencies have records of excessive violence and discrimination against communities of color. And the uncomfortable fact remains that a number of prominent Jewish organizations run programs that facilitate the exchanges of ideas, tactics and technologies between these security officials.
It is to our anger and shame that Jewish organizations such as JINSA, the AJC, and especially a self-identified civil rights organization like the ADL, are among the leading facilitators of these exchanges. While there are other programs such as the Georgia International Law Enforcement Exchange (GILEE), we feel a particular responsibility to address those who run these programs in our names as Jewish communal institutions.
U.S./Israel police exchange programs are specifically promoted as a way to share cutting-edge counter-terrorism "skills" developed in the context of military occupation. JINSA markets their program as a way for U.S. law enforcement to learn from Israeli expertise in surveillance and learn from Israel about the history of "Islamic fundamentalism." According to the director of the ADL’s program, the goal is "to learn lessons from Israel in terms of tactics and strategies and the evolution of terrorism, but also examples of leadership."
Holding up the Israeli security state’s use of military technology, lethal force, mass surveillance and racial profiling as a global gold standard serves to reinforce and deepen those deadly practices.
At the same time, U.S. police, FBI, and border officers are not learning to be discriminatory from Israeli forces in the first place but rather deepening forms of racial profiling, surveillance and excessive force that they have always used.
The "war on terror" is a key umbrella for these exchanges. For instance, Michael Mason, Assistant Director in Charge of Washington Field Office for the FBI wrote about a JINSA delegation: "I will consider this trip among the most valuable I have been afforded in my FBI career. Understanding terrorism from an Israeli perspective gave me a renewed sense of urgency relative to the war we are waging against terrorism here in the United States."
It is the flow of toxic ideology, tactics, technology, and relationships from both directions that we seek to stop.
Policing in both the U.S. and Israel carries deep records of discrimination and violence. As has been well-documented by human rights organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, Israel’s security, military and policing systems utilize extrajudicial killings, mistreatment and torture, including against children and collective punishment. In the U.S., #BlackLivesMatter has brought renewed attention to the ongoing phenomena of police killings of Black people, as a critical part of a long legacy of violence against communities of color, beginning with slavery.
We want to end exchange programs that are designed specifically to build connections between these two violent systems. And we feel obligated to start with the complicit organizations in our own communities.
It is not easy to acknowledge or discuss the complicity, and even enthusiastic embrace by some parts of our community, of tactics that inflict violence on some communities in the name of "security" for others. We’ve also all too often seen members and leaders in our community leap to accusations of anti-Semitism when confronted with hard truths.
Challenging anti-Semitism requires us to distinguish between anti-Jewish ideas or actions and legitimate criticisms of the human rights abuses of the Israeli state and of Jewish institutions which aid in supporting or justifying the domination of another people. As a Haaretz editorial recently noted, "the more Israelis [or U.S. Jews] view the occupation not as a problem to resolve but as the flagship of Jewish nationalism, the more its opponents are perceived as enemies of the people."
Frequently, the defensiveness that Jewish communities have towards conversations about race and anti-Semitism leads to a focus that leaves out the issue at hand - the violent policing of People of Color. Doing so frames the oppression of Jews and of People of Color as separate - even opposed - problems and erases the existence of Jews of Color.
As Rebecca Pierce, a Black and Jewish organizer with the Jews of Color Sephardi Mizrachi Caucus that partners with JVP put it in response to Sucharov’s article: "There is a long tendency in Jewish community to avoid issues of racism by pivoting to anti-Semitism, throwing JOC (Jews of Color) and POC (People of Color) under the bus...If you think Jews calling out Jewish orgs for pushing police exchange is anti-Semitic, that tells me you relate to them more than Jews of Color."
To address the profound harm promoted through police exchanges between Israel and the U.S., we need to be able to talk about the histories and institutions that sustain discriminatory and repressive policing. We need to talk about the centuries of racist violence and the legacy of slavery that still impacts U.S. policing. We need to talk about the violence and racism underlying both occupation and the policing of Palestinian citizens of Israel as well as Ethiopian and Mizrahi Jews.
In her article, Sucharov makes evident an overarching, and in our opinion misplaced, trust in the security state when she posits that Israeli/U.S. police exchanges should "theoretically...mean the embrace of de-escalation tactics."
But is de-escalation evident? Palestinians profiled in Israeli airports, living under occupation in Hebron, interrogated by soldiers at checkpoints or by the Shin Bet (all locations featured in an ADL exchange program) aren’t being made safer. Neither are black, brown or Muslim people in the U.S. facing police violence and mass surveillance.
At the most fundamental level, our goal is to challenge our community and other communities to stop investing in and promoting state violence here in the U.S. and in Israel/Palestine. We are under no illusions that ending these exchange programs will instantaneously bring about justice for Palestinians or fundamentally transform generations of racist policing in the U.S.
But we believe this campaign is critical step in those directions: By holding those conversations that make us most uncomfortable, by interrogating our communal definitions of safety, by challenging the institutions in our communities that defend or promote the violent political reality that U.S. and Israeli government policy has created, and by taking all the action we can to slow the exchange of deadly ideas, tactics, and technologies.
Rebecca Vilkomerson is the executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace. Twitter: @RVilkomerson