On Sunday, Jeff—whose insights and analysis I always find fascinating even when I debate them—posted on Facebook about the training many American police get in Israel. I think what he said was important and I have some comments about it.
A lot of attention has been directed recently at the “training” American police receive from Israel. It’s extensive and pervasive. A lot of the violent and militarized police culture we see has either been generated by Israeli tactics and weaponry – or has been reinforced by it (American police forces being violent well before Israel).
Jeff’s last point there is important. I’ve been a bit reluctant to connect to the campaign about the cross-pollination of Israeli and American police forces, not because it’s not a serious issue, but because the United States hardly needs Israel to teach its police how to be brutal to those who are designated as “other.” As such, I see Israel’s involvement as much more reinforcing American police behavior than generating it.
Israel’s police force is set up militaristically. It was born with the country holding its Arab population under martial law, and its police force has, from the first, been part of the response to Palestinian fighters. As such, it has never had the civil society role that American police ostensibly did, especially before counter-terrorism programming became so prominent a feature of U.S. policing. But fighting brutally against a people from whom we have taken homes and homeland is hardly a skill America needed to learn since 1948, from Israel or anyone else. It is how the United States came to be, “how the West was won,” to coin a phrase.
But in the 21st century, the United States has turned increasingly to a more militarized police force. We saw the result in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014. Israel, naturally enough, was a resource for increasing integration of military techniques with a domestic, ostensibly civilian, police force. But the United States was far from bereft of expertise in this regard; and in fact, these programs were constructed as a knowledge exchange.
Israel, which has been on a permanent war footing since even before the state’s creation (despite not having been involved in a war against another country since 1973), was much more accustomed to this integration. The attacks on New York and Washington, DC on September 11, 2001 provided a clear rationale for the increased militarization of American police forces, and it was shortly after that fateful day that these exchange programs began, facilitated by pro-Israel American groups spanning a spectrum from the radically militaristic Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA) to the purported “civil rights group,” the Anti-Defamation League (ADL).
Nearly a decade earlier, the explosion of rage after the country saw the video of Rodney King being mercilessly beaten by Los Angeles police exposed the fact that police attacks on the Black community, and that community’s response, were not artifacts of a bygone era. By 2001, the U.S. was immersed in the massive economic injustices that would eventually create the conditions for two major economic crises (so far). It follows that, despite declining rates of violent crime, American leadership would seek an increasingly militarized police presence.
We should focus on three main sources of Israeli influence on US (and global) law enforcement. First, Israel trains police to see citizens as terrorists. Counterterrorism is the “mentality,” partly because the Israeli police, highly militarized, subscribe to the notion “shoot first, ask questions after.” Engaging with the “enemy/criminal/protester/terrorist,” as both Israeli & US police culture see us, is unthinkable and dangerous, since it gives the bad guys (all of us) a chance to strike first. (My book “War Against the People” gets into much of this, Chapter 12.)
There has been a great deal of consternation over Donald Trump’s response to the demonstrations in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. His approach reflects precisely what Jeff is talking about here. Trump has used tactics very familiar to Israel’s, in demonizing the press as enemies of the people, painting his political opponents as disloyal to the country, encouraging others to do the same, and using the label of “terrorist” against his own citizens. When the citizenry, or at least part of it, is characterized in this manner, it becomes legitimate to use massive force against them. There is little difference between this tactic and the mythology that has undergirded lynching, where, among other white supremacist ideas, the image of the Black person as a threat and their rights as being a fundamental challenge to the order of American society perpetuated the terrorizing of Black communities and attacks on Black people.
Trump has called upon those legacies in much the same way the Israeli government has so often done to Palestinians, and even against its Jewish citizens should they challenge the discrimination against Palestinian citizens and those under occupation without that status. But the justifiably appalled reactions to Trump were far less widespread six years ago, when a massive show of military force was used in Ferguson after the police killing of Michael Brown.
As one would expect, Black neighborhoods are disproportionately the sites of militarized police deployments. Again, the United States does not need Israel to teach it to use disproportionate police force against marginalized people. This is a case where Israel and the United States share a long term perspective, one developed within each country independently but which produced remarkably similar attitudes among police. And they are far from the only countries int he world to display such an attitude among the police.
What Israel models, however, is the integration of that attitude into the police force of a state which considers itself an open and democratic one. It models how you get the (white, centrist) citizenry to accept this authoritarian form of policing. The current moment is not the first time the contradiction in the U.S. between centrist and, especially, liberal sensibilities and police tactics have been exposed. In Israel, it is more the norm, although the recent killing of Eyad Hallaq has also provoked some response in Israel. This is certainly something that would exist in largely the same form in U.S. policing even if there were no such thing as Israel. But U.S. leaders still look to Israel for how they might make it more acceptable to a broader swath of the public.
Second, Israel produces and exports weapons to police departments that are merely scaled-down versions of military weaponry. For example, an Uzi submachine gun custom-tailored for police. And it exports the technology as well as the weaponry. The Israeli Weapons Industry (IWI) has opened a manufacturing plant in Middletown, PA where it produces Uzis and other weapons, including a tactical rifle called the Zion-15. Israel has at least two police training academies in the US: IWI’s police academy in Pauldon, AZ (open to the public as well as police), and the GILEE Center in Atlanta.
Indeed, Israel Weapons Industries has a thriving American business, and is a beloved sweetheart of the National Rifle Association. Their web site states, “IWI US, Inc. began operations in 2013 and brought the first commercial versions of the Tavor SAR to the US market. The Tavor achieved immediate success, winning the prestigious 2014 “Rifle of the Year” Golden Bullseye award from NRA Publication’s American Rifleman Magazine. Three short years later, NRA’s newest Official Journal, Shooting Illustrated Magazine, with a focus on concealed carry, self-defense and tactical shooting, chose the next-generation Tavor X95 as its 2017 “Rifle of the Year” Golden Bullseye award recipient. IWI US was also honored two years in a row by the National Association of Sporting Goods Wholesalers (NASGW) as winner of the 2014 and 2015 Importer of the Year awards.” The Tavor is pictured to the right.
This is a weapon sold on the commercial market.
IWI proudly boasts, “The intensive and continuous use of IWI’s product by the [Israel Defense Forces] and worldwide militaries such as Chile, Columbia, Georgia, India, Mexico, Nigeria, Peru, Portugal, Thailand, Ukraine, Vietnam and many more, enable the company to continue to innovate new products and optimize existing models.”
As for GILEE, they state that their purpose is:
- To enhance inter-agency cooperation between State of Georgia law enforcement agencies and the police force of the State of Israel
- To offer an educational professional program to senior Israeli law enforcement officials in Georgia, primarily in the area of community policing
- To offer an educational professional program to senior Georgia law enforcement officials in Israel, primarily in the areas of counter-terrorism and drug interdiction
Israeli companies are certainly not the only ones that exploit the uniquely free firearms market in the United States. But the deep cooperation between the two countries, owing to their “special relationship” combines with the arms sales to bring not only the weapons, but Israel’s security sensibility to the U.S.
Israel, however, is a state that defines itself as a state not of its citizens, but of the Jewish people, and it’s embroiled in an ongoing process in which it holds millions of Palestinians under occupation without any civil and few human rights. That is not a model to be emulated, and it should be obviously incompatible with a country that claims to be striving to address its racist inequalities.
It is worth considering how much of our disgust with Trump disappears when the authoritarian Benjamin Netanyahu, and his predecessors, display the same attitudes toward Palestinians that we find so distasteful in the authoritarian currently cowering inside the White House for fear of his own fellow citizens.
Third, and not least, Israel is exporting a whole concept, that of a Security State. A Security State is a state that places security above all else, which considers democracy and human rights “liberal luxuries” in a world awash in terrorism. It’s an easy sell to the Trump Administration (although Israel has had great success with previous American administrations as well). Europe is buying, and so is the rest of the world. The Israeli Security State idea reinforces autocracy in regimes like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the Philippines, India, China and many African and Latin American countries, providing them with the “professional” rationale that they are right and good in prioritizing “security.” In fact, security is just a fancy word for pacification. Corporate states use governments who use police forces to pacify us. The Security State being peddled by Netanyahu is merely a form of a police state whose populace is easily manipulated by an obsession with “security” – as Israel has succeeded in instituting at home. It is a state driven by the logic permanent war, of absolute security that trumps all democratic protections. If the US and other countries can be persuaded to buy into that dystopian notion of security, it offers Israel both a major market for security technologies and a reliable ally that buys into its self-serving paranoia. And produces more George Floyds and Breonna Taylors.
Jeff’s view of this, shaped from Jerusalem, is an important one. As I said, the United States needs no Israeli influence to produce our George Floyds, Breonna Taylors, Botham Jeans, Sandra Blands, Michael Browns, Tamir Rices, Trayvon Martins, Ahmaud Arberys and so many more. But more than anything else, I see Israel as a model for a militarized police force.
This doesn’t mean that Israel’s role as an exporter of security technology and arms should be minimized. Israel ranked tenth in 2019 in arms exports after it increased its arms sales by 77% from 2015 to 2019. Of the top 100 security tech companies ranked here, 78 are in the U.S. and Israel is second with seven., ahead of China, Russia, and any European country. This doesn’t even account for the extensive cooperation between Israeli and American technology industries and government projects.
With that much reach, Israel hardly has to do much selling. Long before Netanyahu, the ability of any Israeli politician to justify draconian policies with the word bitakhon (security) was the envy of governments around the world, authoritarian and otherwise. As neoliberal economic policies accelerated economic hardship, disproportionately but not exclusively impacting communities of color, the utility of the security state became more and more alluring.
This all pre-dates the horror show of Donald Trump, but his unique combination of buffoonery and authoritarianism, combined with a cult-like sea of zealots who are disproportionately represented on police forces across the country have brought it to the fore in a way that most other American leaders would have been prudent enough to avoid.
But if Trump has snapped this process into overdrive, it remains a very American one. We haven’t needed Trump for centuries of racist practice. It wasn’t Trump who took the victories in civil rights legislation and social structures that made overt racism impolite and turned them into a grim undercurrent of white resentment, simmering and waiting for a demagogue to bring it to a boil.
And we didn’t need Trump for an epidemic of police violence concentrated on Black and Brown people. Getting rid of Trump is a necessary precondition for addressing these issues, but in and of itself, it will do little to deal with the root causes of what we face.
The issue of the “Security State,” as Jeff frames it, will outlast Trump, just as it mostly formed before he came on the scene. The changes that are demanded by this situation start with confronting violent racism and the police state, but they don’t end there. The many other forms of ethnic, gender, social, economic, and other discrimination will need to be confronted collectively and individually as well.
Most of that work needs to be done within the United States, but ending the exchange with Israel that reinforces police militarization is just as necessary a precondition as getting Trump our of Washington. The “security state” is the desperate attempt to stop what is manifest right now: a large-scale movement for a fundamentally new way of organizing ourselves. If we keep it up, it can succeed.