This past week something unprecedented occurred in two locations in the Northeast. Both the Vermont State police and the Northampton, MA police department pulled out of an Anti-Defamation League-sponsored “counter-terrorism seminar” to be held in Israel from December 2 through December 12. After initially agreeing to participate, both police departments were lobbied by local social justice activists, with the Western Massachusetts chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace taking the lead in Northampton, and in response decided to withdraw from the 15-member New England delegation. This is the first case of withdrawal from the program in its 20-year history.
(For more on what happened see Ha’aretz, the JVP blog, and the first 22 minutes of this radio show, a talk show in Northampton. The latter features the lead JVP local organizer on this, Rachel Weber, and also the renowned scholar and activist Vijay Prashad.)
For the last couple of years, Jewish Voice for Peace has been running a national campaign they call “End the Deadly Exchange”. For the past 20 years or so, law enforcement agencies from the US – municipal and state police forces, as well as federal law enforcement agencies, including ICE – have been traveling to Israel to learn from Israeli security agencies how they deal with the threat of terrorism. Of course since so much of what Israel considers “counter-terrorism” consists of the mechanics of oppression and repression – tactics also employed in our inner cities by local police departments – no good can come of such “exchanges”.
What is especially insidious about this partnership between Israeli security agencies and American law enforcement agencies is that much of it is financed by private mainstream Jewish organizations that take lobbying on behalf of Israel as essential to their mission. In particular, this New England junket has been organized by the ADL and they are paying all the officers’ expenses. This is quite an inducement for cash-strapped municipalities – free training.
It’s interesting to see how this political moment unfolded. I know more about what happened in Northampton than Vermont as I am a member of JVP Western Mass (though I personally had little to do with the organizing on this). We had been talking in our meetings for some time about how we might be involved in the Deadly Exchange program and decided we needed to find out whether or not there was local involvement. Blessed with two attorneys in the group, we filed public records requests with some 25 or 30 agencies. You see, most of these trips are kept secret, and you have to dig to find out about them.
Early on in our endeavor we discovered that the Hampden County Sheriff’s Department (the county Springfield, MA is in) was invited by the ADL to join an upcoming trip in December and had declined. This was the first news that the national JVP had that there even was a New England-centered trip being planned. Even the University of Massachusetts Amherst Police Department was invited (I am a faculty member there), but they declined. The only local agency we discovered that agreed to go was the Northampton Police Department. Their chief, Jody Kasper, was given leave by the mayor, David Narkewicz, to go.
As soon as this was discovered, an action plan was formulated, contacts were made with other social justice groups in the area and with sympathetic city councilors, and a meeting with the mayor and police chief was quickly arranged. After the initial meeting with the mayor and police chief, which went quite well, thirty or so individuals from the area, many quite prominent, wrote personal emails to the mayor urging him to withdraw.
The plan was to follow up with public pressure if they didn’t agree to withdraw, putting an ad in the local paper and organizing a large protest outside their offices. However,in response to this well-orchestrated community outcry against the trip the mayor and police chief quite graciously agreed not to go. This was democratic (with a small “d”, for sure) politics working exactly as it should. Note that the ADL worked hard behind the scenes to undermine us, and continues to misrepresent the purpose of the trip and to demonize those of us who insist on democratic control over our policing agencies. Our victory represents another chink in “the Lobby’s” armor.
Of course if I weren’t a pro-Palestinian activist, relations between US agencies and Israel wouldn’t be that salient to me and I might not be so outraged by the program. Knowing as I do that racial profiling, suppression of dissent, and abuses such as torture, collective punishment, and unlimited administrative detention are standard tools of the Israeli occupation, it is especially appalling to think of our own police forces – which already have too much of a repressive character in many places – learning from such trainers.
Furthermore, while the ostensible target of this training for US police forces are so-called “lone wolf” terrorists, which are almost all connected to white supremacist groups, it’s especially ironic that they should be receiving training from Israel, which by and large can only see threats from the left, especially if they support Palestinians in any way. Notice that when Trump went to Pittsburgh after the Tree of Life massacre, the only official to meet him was the Israeli ambassador.
Israeli government spokespeople went to great lengths to exonerate Trump from any responsibility for the rise in anti-Semitic incidents, including the horrific shooting in Pittsburgh, and just blamed pro-Palestinian activists. (Of course British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was maligned again. Neo-Nazis shoot Jews and so who else to blame but left-wing social justice activists?). Are these the people that should be training our police forces in how to respond to domestic white supremacist violence?
But even if one abstracts from the concern about Israeli practices of repression, I find it odd, to say the least, that more people aren’t concerned just about the idea that private, well-funded interest groups in the US should have any role in training public law enforcement agencies. Of course part of what made this seem so benign to many was the involvement of the ADL, since it is an organization set up to promote human rights and fight bigotry of all kinds, but especially anti-Semitism. So why not have a human rights organization provide training to our police – isn’t this what we want more of?
But the ADL isn’t Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch. While they do still speak out against and fight genuine hate and bigotry, a good part of their mission is to promote the interests of Israel and fight organizations that are critical of Israeli policy. For instance, they prominently highlight their fight against BDS (the boycott, divestment and sanctions campaign) on their web page. BDS advocates target the State of Israel, not Jews, and so to treat BDS advocates as just another hate group is a deeply political act (not to mention completely unfounded and disgusting). How can one allow one side of a political debate, one that demonizes the other side, to then influence law enforcement agencies that could very well be called upon to back up this demonization with force?
No private organization with a political mission should be allowed to play a role in training those agencies that are authorized to use force to enforce the law. As has been understood since the dawn of modern political theory, the power of the state, which consists in its maintaining a monopoly on force, though necessary to ensure domestic tranquility (of course anarchists disagree), must be tightly constrained by democratic control. Allowing police forces to go off and train at the expense of a private organization that acts outside democratic control is antithetical to that idea and a very dangerous precedent.