In June, as protests against aggressive and abusive policing in the United States took hold, so did a false accusation about a group of programmes that sends American police chiefs to learn from their counterparts in Israel.
“The tactics used by the police in America, kneeling on George Floyd’s neck, that was learned from seminars with Israeli secret services,” actress Maxine Peake now infamously told the Independent. Rebecca Long-Bailey was sacked by Sir Keir Starmer for retweeting the interview carrying that claim.
Over the past couple of months, the accusation has popped up elsewhere. It’s the latest version of a claim that has circulated in anti-Zionist circles for years – that US police delegations to Israel serve to import brutal and militarised policing to the US.
The organisations running the trips say that beyond being false – the trips do not teach physical, on-the-ground tactics such as chokeholds – the claim that Israel encourages American police brutality is an antisemitic canard.
“These types of instances existed long before any of these professional leadership exchanges happened, and are part and parcel of the history of the US,” said George Selim, senior vice president of programmes at the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), which runs police delegations to Israel, regarding American police brutality.
“Seeking to link Israel as a state to US police misconduct is a bizarre excuse for the centuries-long history of racism and injustice that has been part of American history, really since our founding.”
The main organisation opposing the delegations has been Jewish Voice for Peace, or JVP, an anti-Zionist group that published a 2018 report calling the trips a “Deadly Eexchange”. The report says they normalise “the violent repression of communities and movements the government defines as threatening”.
Based on the report, JVP has campaigned for an end to police delegations to Israel, and has succeeded in banning them and other international police exchanges in Durham, North Carolina. It also has successfully pressured two New England police officials to withdraw from delegations.
Now JVP is seeking to temper the anti-Israel criticism tied to recent protests of police brutality. In a June update to its “Deadly Exchange” campaign, JVP said “suggesting that Israel is the start or source of American police violence or racism shifts the blame from the United States to Israel” and “furthers an antisemitic ideology”.
But JVP is still campaigning against the trips – not, they say, as the driver of police abuse in the US – but because the group says such exchanges allow police forces from two countries with histories of racial discrimination and allegations of oppressive policing to swap strategies.
“On these trips, it’s about sharing and swapping ideas and tactics, but that’s not to say that the mission from the US officials wasn’t there to begin with,” said Stefanie Fox, JVP’s executive director. “It’s like, oh great, then let’s adapt this and adopt this to the practice we’re already trying to do of surveillance and of suppression of protest and of racial profiling.”
Trip organisers and participants, however, say that’s a fundamental mischaracterisation of the trips. They say the trips, which are far from unique among international police exchanges, expose participants to a variety of policing practices in Israel, from surveillance systems to models for community policing in minority communities. The itineraries, they add, mostly consist of lectures, meetings and tours.
“What we do is focus on management and policy issues, not training, not specific tactical training,” said Steven Pomerantz, director of the Homeland Security Program at the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, or JINSA, a conservative think tank that runs some of the delegations.
“There’s no shooting, there’s no wrestling, there’s no chokeholds. That’s just not what this is about. It’s about the constituent parts of successful law enforcement [and] counterterrorism responsibilities in local policing.”
The delegations to Israel began in the 1990s and ramped up after the 11 September attacks in 2001. The sponsoring organisations and their Israeli partners frame the trips as an opportunity for American police to learn from a country and police force with many decades of experience protecting civilian populations from attack.
“There was a lot of interest, and still is, in understanding the Israeli approach to terrorism and counterterrorism,” said Robbie Friedmann, who runs the Georgia International Law Enforcement Exchange, a programme at Georgia State University that takes senior police officers on delegations to Israel and elsewhere.
“Delegations learn about the need to provide balance between fighting terror and providing services, so that if someone gets their apartment burgled, they know that’s something the Israel police will take care of.”
More than 1,000 participants, mostly senior law enforcement officials, have gone on the trips, which are primarily provided by Friedmann’s programme, the ADL and the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs.
Each organisation has taken several hundred police officials to Israel, a small fraction of the leaders of the approximately 18,000 police departments in the US. The trips are generally privately funded and are free for participants, although none of the organisations would share the sources of the funding or the costs of the trip.
Israel is far from the only country to host a delegation of police officials from abroad. Foreign police officers come to the US to see how police forces operate, and countries across the world also host delegations. Friedmann’s group has run tours in countries throughout Europe and South America, as well as in China, Australia and elsewhere.
And the trips are just one example of a whole industry of delegations to Israel. Jewish organisations regularly offer Israel trips to politicians, community activists, celebrities, students, business executives and others. As with those trips, part of the goal of the police delegations is to acquaint the participants with Israel and give them a favourable view of the country.
The main goal of the trips, across the groups that organise them, is to share Israeli expertise in counterterrorism. Organisers say the trips are about observation, policy and systems, not about doing active-duty training or teaching American officers physical manoeuvres.
“In Israel in general, confronted with the kind of threats they are, they’re still very resilient,” said Lou Dekmar, the chief of police of LaGrange, Georgia, and the past president of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, who has been on several delegations to Israel. “How important it is, when there is a crime or an attack, to quickly address it, process it and reintroduce a state of normalcy.”
Palestinian activists and their allies point back to accusations of Israeli police misconduct as the core reason they say the trips shouldn’t be happening.
Yousef Munayyer, a Palestinian-American scholar, says he is routinely profiled when he returns to Israel, where he was born and where his extended family still lives. “Yes, our police need to get better in the United States,” said Munayyer, a non-resident fellow at the Arab Center in Washington, D.C. “But do they really need to be training in a place and with forces where racial profiling is a value, where racial profiling is central to the ethos of the security system?”
The delegations do broach uncomfortable topics, organisers say. When it comes to racial profiling, for example, Friedmann said: “We receive briefings based on the policies,” and that participants learn about the process for filing complaints. “What’s important is not to suggest that Israel is a perfect society,” he said. “But it is a society based on the rule of law, and if an officer is behaving egregiously, it will be handled.”
- News Features
- Anti-Defamation League (ADL)
- George Floyd
- Jewish Voice for Peace
- Stefanie Fox
- Homeland Security Program
- Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs
- Robbie Friedmann
- Georgia International Law Enforcement Exchange
- Georgia State University
- Lou Dekmar
- International Association of Chiefs of Police
- Yousef Munayyer