Frontline Reporting: My Coverage of the Eurovision 2016 Finals

One of Israel’s most famous haircuts – and also a singer – did not emerge victorious at the 2016 Eurovision contest in Sweden on Saturday night, but it wasn’t due to a lack of effort.

Ivan the naked wolf whisperer (left) realizes that his antics won't be enough to make the finals (Ben Hartman)

Ivan the naked wolf whisperer (left) realizes that his antics won’t be enough to make the finals (Ben Hartman)

Sparkling like he’d been attacked by a 12-year-old with a spray can of foam on Independence Day three nights earlier, he took to the stage with “Made of Stars,” a ballad that was either dark or uplifting, and packed with nonsense lines like “You ride a black horse in the rain” and, “Silver fragments falling, we are made of stars.” Hovi was joined on stage by two acrobats trapped in a giant spinning metal hoop, though they could not rotate him to victory in Stockholm, and he finished 14th out of a field of 26.

A departure of sorts from the disco Euro pop techno show tunes that make up most of the fare at the singing contest, “Made of Stars” was written by Doron Medalie, who also penned “Golden Boy,” (“I’m a Golden Boy, come here to enjoy”), which Nadav Guedj and his golden winged sneakers rode to a ninth-place finish last year.

This year’s Eurovision was notable in part because it was the first time in the contest’s 60-year history that the final was broadcast in the United States (and in China). The spectacle – which is almost a hyper-concentrated version of nativist American stereotypes about weird, campy Europeans – seems tailor-made to win votes for Donald Trump, though the finale was shown on the gay-friendly Logo network, probably not a popular station with his base.

Future historians though will teach our children that the real highlight was at the semifinal on Thursday night, in the form of a naked Belarusian named Ivan, singing on stage to a wolf. In reality, it was a projected image of Ivan and the wolf, though the Belarus singer had actually performed naked with real wolves before, including, according to a Daily Mail article from April 2015, during a concert in Moscow in which “the wolf, named Shakira, didn’t miss an opportunity to take nibbles out of the naked performer.”

The article quotes Ivan – who apparently performed in Tel Aviv in April (#BDSfail?) – as saying of his lupine sidekick that “the most important thing is to feed her sausages on time.”

Alas, Ivan did not make it to the final, proving that it takes more than performing naked with wild dogs. For an event known for its over-the-top performances, this feels like a betrayal.

In general the semifinals were more enjoyable – partly because they were shorter – but also because of a number of acts like the naked wolf whisperer.

One act that did make it through to the final 26 was Georgia’s indie rock band “Nika Kocharov and the Young Georgian Lolitaz,” with “Midnight Gold.” The title sounds like it’s a song about drugs, but the lyrics – including, “When I came to, your smell on me,” and, “Stains of mud on your skin,” sound either like they were written after a barnyard tryst with a pig, or by a man who had just murdered a woman he met on the Tinder dating app (available in Georgia). Luckily for Nika and the Lolitaz, Sweden’s process of extraditing suspects to non-EU countries is rather complicated, and requires approval of the government and Supreme Court.

The acts brought to mind an article on Slate earlier this week prepping Americans set to watch the extravaganza for the first time, which said, “This is the pop that cool forgot, born from countries that never had the black American traditions of blues and spirituals to draw on.” It’s a bit strange that even though hip-hop is one of the most global genres of music (and fashion), especially in European countries such as France and Belgium, on Thursday and Saturday nights in Stockholm it looked and sounded like pop music moved to Sweden in the ’70s, bypassing the South Bronx completely.

For the sake of full disclosure, this is not my first Eurovision viewing. A few months after moving to Israel, I watched Lior Narkis perform “Words for Love” (in the chorus he sings “I love you” in six languages – if you’re a female tourist on the beach in Israel, you’re likely to meet guys who can do this) at the May 2003 contest in Latvia.

In my defense, I was at my then-girlfriend’s family home in Beersheba, and thought this is what everyone does in Israel, much like I thought Nafis and Shipudei Sof HaDerekh were the country’s finest restaurants, and the Forum the hottest nightclub in the Middle East. (Seven years later I would meet Narkis and his entourage in Uman, Ukraine, where on the banks of a lake we performed tashlich and he said a prayer for my recently deceased grandmother – in one language.)

In the end, with all of the theatrics and corny Euro pop, it was a deeply serious and political song that won this year’s contest. Ukraine’s “1944” by Jamala is about the deportation of Crimean Tatars by Stalin’s USSR in the 1940s. Jamala’s great-grandmother and her five children were among those deported to Central Asia, and her experiences were reportedly reflected in the lyrics in Crimean Tatar that Jamala sings in the song. The fact that it went down to the wire, and Ukraine was head to head with Russia, winning with a song about Crimea, brought a bit of poetic justice to a competition that had by then stretched hours into the night.

For Israelis though, there would be no such triumph. Still, perhaps they could take solace in the performance of Amir Haddad, a French-Israeli singer, dentist and IDF veteran who grew up in Herzliya, and finished in sixth place with “J’ai Cherché.”

In the meantime, like generations before us have said, “Next year in Ukraine.”

Not your average Tel Aviv rally

In my experience, when people announce a protest against the IDF and the security establishment, it’s a small group of far leftists in Tel Aviv. They usually number in the dozens, maybe a bit more, and when the protest actually happens, it’s mostly the same faces from the time before.

This week presented a much rarer spectacle though – a mass rally against the IDF, not organized by the far-left bloggers and activists of Tel Aviv, rather by uber-patriots, former MKs, and nationalist rappers with a bone to pick.

Elor Azaryas parents Oshra and Charlie in front of the stage. (Ben Hartman)

Elor Azaryas parents Oshra and Charlie in front of the stage. (Ben Hartman)

The rally in support of Sgt. Elor Azaria – the 20-year-old Kfir Brigade soldier indicted by IDF military prosecutors this week for shooting and killing a subdued Palestinian attacker in Hebron last month – was of course not billed as a protest against the IDF but as a show of solidarity for an embattled young man and the other soldiers barely out of high school and their families who wait for them to return home on Shabbat.

There is also a desire to embrace his family, a sense that the story of the Azarias could very well be their own if their son was in the wrong place at the wrong time during his military service.

Still, something much more troubling appears to be at hand in this rally and all the other solidarity efforts held in the month since Azaria cocked his assault rifle and fired a single bullet into the head of a Palestinian man who lay motionless on the pavement.

There appears to be an “us against them” sentiment to all this. The “them” here includes B’Tselem (whose volunteer filmed the shooting), Breaking the Silence, the Supreme Court, the Arab parties, and the Israeli media as a whole – not just Haaretz.

Whatever the reason – be it the result of incitement or ideology – a sentiment has risen among the wider Israeli public that groups like B’Tselem and their leftwing enablers in the Israeli media are not only wrong, they constitute a real threat to the country despite the virtually unquestioned control the right wing exerts on the Israeli political system.

The enemy amongst us, no matter how small or marginal they are in reality, are leading the country astray, and leaving young soldiers like Sgt. Azaria as collateral damage.

The sentiment betrays a troubling lack of perspective, if not outright paranoia.

It creates a situation wherein real debate about the actual circumstances of this situation becomes terribly complicated as they fracture along party lines. Though organizers and supporters of the rally have said it’s not a Right vs Left issue, anyone planning to discuss the case at their Passover Seder knows that your opinion regarding Sgt. Azaria says so much about where you stand across the board in Israel.

That’s a shame, because at the most basic level this is a legal story about rules of engagement and the conduct expected of IDF soldiers. Even the most sympathetic supporter of Azaria should be able to look at the film and say that even if you don’t think he is a murderer, he is certainly not a hero. He did not risk his life to further an operational goal or protect his fellow soldiers; he did not show initiative or creativity that strengthened the army. Rather, he made a cold, conscious decision that cannot be justified operationally, something his own commanders and the entire IDF leadership have said since day one.

It should be said, though, that there is another reason that many Israelis would attend a solidarity rally for Azaria, and it has to do with a sentiment borne in blood and resentment.

The resentment is towards what many see as an exaggerated emphasis – by the local and foreign press – on a single act of violence by an IDF soldier. This, after dozens of Israelis have been murdered in stabbings and shooting attacks across the country the past several months, not to mention Monday’s bus bombing, the first of its kind in nearly three years, and one which brings up memories of the Second Intifada. The sentiment is that the victim was a Palestinian who had just tried to murder these soldiers, and even if the soldier violated the rules of engagement, this man was on a suicide mission, unlike the Jewish civilians cut down while waiting at a bus stop, or standing in the entryway of their home, like Dafna Meir.

The resentment is borne by the awareness that it is Azaria who will most likely become the face of the stabbing intifada, and not the Henkin family or Richard Lakin or any of the other Israelis brutally murdered in some of the most vicious violence unleashed on Israeli civilians in years.

This is understandable, and it makes sense that people who feel this way would want to stand up and be counted.

Nonetheless, in these solidarity rallies we can see how divisive the discourse in Israel has become and how difficult it is to carry out a cold analysis of even quite simple events like the shooting in Hebron amid an atmosphere of such roiled emotions.

The outpouring of sympathy for the soldier also shows a lack of faith or outright dismissal of the legal system, a suspicion towards the security establishment and the media, and a serious difficulty looking ourselves in the mirror.

That, in its own way, could be as troubling as the gunshot fired by Sgt. Azaria.

What’s heroism in the face of terror?

The quiet that Israel had experienced for over a week was shattered by an attack on Sunday that was more pathetic than terrifying.

Video of the attack in Rosh Ayin shows a 23-year-old Arab woman from Kafr Qassem awkwardly flailing around with a knife in hand, trying to find a victim before she is overcome by a group of bystanders.

She did manage to lightly wound a woman from Kfar Saba who she stabbed in the shoulder, but her victim was taken to hospital fully conscious and released later the same day.

In the video one bystander throws a rock at her and scurries away, another tries to fight her off with a chair, and a motorist in a slow-moving car tries to block her path, to no avail. Finally, a security guard from a nearby building arrived with his handgun drawn and pointing it at her head he and a group of civilians managed to put her on the ground and disarm her, holding her until the police arrived.

Hours later, a Palestinian man approached a group of Israelis at the Tapuah Junction in the West Bank while carrying a knife and was disarmed by Border Police officers and taken for questioning.

In both cases the result was about as good as it gets for such instances during the “Stabbing Intifada”, which has seen more than 30 Israelis murdered in stabbings and shootings across the country the past six months.

There would be no shots fired, no blood on the pavement, no “snuff” video rocketing around social media.

Considering the timing, it’s hard not to link Sunday’s attacks to one carried out in Hebron last week during which a soldier was lightly wounded. Of course it’s what happened several minutes later that is most relevant – an IDF soldier arrived on the scene, cocked his rifle and fired a single bullet into the head of a subdued attacker who seemed to pose no threat, killing him instantly.

Though disturbing, the discourse in the days that followed was not surprising. The soldier was met with a wellspring of supporter from the majority of Israelis, and his actions were condemned mainly by the security services and a number of very senior politicians. Meanwhile, among everyday Israelis, a Channel 2 poll found that 42% believe that the soldier acted responsibly in shooting the subdued man, 24% said his actions were natural considering the pressure of the situation, 19% said he violated regulations, and only 5% said the shooting constituted murder. The soldier – who by any analysis violated IDF regulations – has been widely described as a hero, nothing less, even though he did not risk his own life in order to further an IDF objective.

Rarely do you see such a clear dissonance between the political and security class and the public. In Haaretz last week, columnist Ari Shavit contrasted the public response to the Hebron shooting to the “Bus 300 affair”, the 1984 execution by the Shin Bet of two Palestinians arrested after hijacking a bus. As he notes, the incident sparked uproar and a media circus that shook the government to its core. This response is radically different to that which we have seen after the Hebron shooting, in which it is the public, not the security establishment that seems to be justifying – if not outright celebrating – the wrongful use of deadly force.

The public – as many have noted – are to some extent following the lead of a number of politicians who have since the Stabbing Intifada said in no unspoken terms that attackers who come after Israelis with knives deserve to die, with no hints of nuance to be found.

Judging by these statements and the Channel 2 poll, it appears that the security guard and the bystanders in Rosh Ayin on Sunday failed. They left the attacker alive, basically unharmed, and in the hands of the security establishment. In the court of public opinion, it was a dereliction of duty for the security guard to have kept his finger on the trigger without shooting the attacker dead.

In a widely-shared post on Monday, a Facebook user uploaded a photo of the January 3rd, issue of Yediot Aharonot, which showed IDF officer AviBuskila on top of a tackled terrorist with the headline “the officer who stopped a massacre”.

The terrorist in question was one Noam Friedman, a 21-year-old IDF soldier in civilian clothes who had just fired his M-16 into a crowded market in Hebron, wounding seven Palestinians. In court after the shooting, he said he had no remorse, and that his attack was meant to scuttle security talks between Israelis and Palestinian over IDF deployments in the city.

As the user writes – sarcastically – “the question is – should Buskila have shot Friedman in the head right after overpowering him, or hand him over to police?”

There is nothing bold or shocking about noting that there is often a double standard in Israel applied to Arabs, but if we were to put that double standard aside for a moment, by today’s standards, Buskila failed in the moment of truth, just like the security guard in Rosh Ayin on Sunday.

Entire doctorates could be written about the political and social changes Israel has undergone in recent years, as it has taken a strong rightward tilt. There is also the effect of social networks and smart phones on the discourse, which has become shallow, kneejerk, and often angry and cruel.

Regardless of the reasons, what we see today is a public debate that is radically different than that which followed the Bus 300 affair, in which racism is openly expressed, the unlawful use of force is shamelessly defended, and those who disagree are tarred as leftists and traitors.

Israel is a strong enough country to prosecute a soldier for wrongdoing and allow a sound legal process to uphold the legal standards of its military. And while these stabbing attacks are very dynamic and don’t follow a set script, those who have shown restraint under the most extreme moments of stress and fear, are worthy of commendation.

Black lives matter? The closure of an infamous police brutality case

The words of a bereaved mother can often pierce the heart, and this time was no different. Sitting in a Knesset committee hearing last week, Farnus Salamsa shouted “I’m burning!”, and told a senior police commander to shut her mouth and hear the pain of her loss and that of her children, who she said no longer sleep at night.

Salamsa’s son Yosef committed suicide in July 2014, months after he was abused by the Israel Police during an arrest in Zichron Yaakov. You may not have heard his name but he’s famous, at least in a certain Israel.

Last Sunday the Justice Ministry announced that they had decided to close the criminal case against the police officers who arrested Salamsa, though they pointed out that police falsified aspects of their report and committed disciplinary violations that should be addressed, including failing to warn Salamsa before using a Taser on him multiple times.

On Monday, the day after the Justice Ministry’s announcement, the Knesset’s State Control Committee met to discuss police treatment of Ethiopian-Israelis and Salamsa’s family embraced the opportunity to confront the police directly.

Already in the hours after the decision social media was abuzz about the ministry’s failure to prosecute police, and a flagship case of police abuse began to take on new proportions, at least under the surface.

Activists began promoting a protest rally outside the Justice Ministry on March 1st, to mark two years since Salamsa’s arrest, and to demand the ministry reopen the case and other abuse cases that were closed “due to a lack of public interest”.

On Facebook, young Ethiopian-Israelis expressed their outrage at the decision, with the images and statements taking on characteristics familiar to any who have followed the “Black Lives Matter” movement in the United States.

One Ethiopian-Israeli, Avi Yalou, wrote on Facebook “the protests last year in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and the ones that will be held this year are meant to send a clear, sharp message – no more institutionalized racism, legally or socially against the Ethiopian community.”

His message was clear – the protests weren’t just about Damas Pakadeh, the IDF soldier who was assaulted by police in Holon or Abera Mengistu, the Ethiopian-Israeli from Ashkelon who has been missing in the Gaza Strip ever since he climbed the fence into the coastal territory on September 7, 2014, and who many in the Ethiopian-Israeli community think has been all but forgotten because of his skin color. Rather, it’s much bigger than that, it’s a deeper structural problem of racism at all different levels of society.

In what is hopefully a step in the right direction, the Justice Ministry on Tuesday held the first meeting of a multi-ministry task force founded to deal with racism against the Ethiopian-Israeli community. The task force is split into three smaller teams who will deal with mapping the problem, examining the tools currently at the state’s disposal to deal with the problem, and a team that will focus on public awareness. The teams include a number of prominent activists, leaders of Ethiopian-Israeli NGOs, and officials from government offices dealing with housing, immigrant absorption, and the legal system.

That follows the founding of a special police task force last year to examine issues dealing with the Ethiopian-Israeli community, which later issued the recommendations that police reexamine a number of controversial cases and appoint more Amharic-speaking staff and recruit more from within the community.

Whatever the good intentions may be of police, from the protests last year it was obvious that the problems go far beyond police brutality, and deal with deep-seated problems of racism and discrimination in Israeli society. It deals with discrimination in housing, higher unemployment and lower rates of education, a shortage of prominent Ethiopian leaders in Israeli government and society and so on. These are not problems that police can solve on their own – nor are they trying to go it alone –they represent the bedrock of serious discontent that can easily be sparked by a single act of police misconduct, such as last year with Damas Pakadeh.

The rioting that took place at Rabin Square last May after the protest march against racism shocked many in Israel, and led to the founding of the police task force. The images from that night forced the issue to the forefront for a short, fleeing moment last spring, before the momentum died down and the wider public moved on.

Though sequels rarely live up to the hype, an incident like the closing of the Salamsa case can force it all up to the surface again, with the potential for the protests to become more violent, more painful the next time around..

During the Knesset hearing last week, the head of the Police Personnel Branch, Deputy Commissioner Gila Gaziel said she “believes that an injustice is being done to police here”, sparking the outburst by Farnus Salamsa. Gaziel was lamenting what she said are sweeping generalizations about police, as opposed to focus on “bad apples”. This is understandable, but if police are being wronged, are being denigrated wholesale, the blame lies with they and society’s failure to safeguard and provide for the weakest among them, and not with those who have been wronged and whose children cannot sleep at night.

A familiar tragedy


hadarcohen1The landscape of Israel is so thick with memorials to fallen sons and daughters that you almost feel that if you stacked them all, you could build a staircase of marble, concrete, and metal far beyond the clouds.

On Wednesday a new name was added to that list, when 19-year-old Border Police officer Hadar Cohen was killed in a terror attack at the Damascus Gate, just two months after she’d enlisted in the service. Another Israeli in uniform cut down while still a teenager, another family left in shambles.

There’s an extra aspect to Cohen’s story that has heaped controversy onto the tragedy. Cohen and another female officer were patrolling the worst hot spot of the “Stabbing Intifada” before they had finished their basic training, and commanders confirmed after the attack that they were deployed after only the bare minimum of training. The two were sent to the Damascus Gate as part of a three-officer patrol led by a more experienced male commander, though he was only a couple years their senior.

Cohen and her fellow recruit were quite literally thrown directly into the fire, into perhaps the most dangerous spot in Israel in recent months, and faced one of the most difficult attacks of the current terror wave – a combined assault by three attackers armed with guns, knives, and pipe bombs.

Since the terror wave began in earnest late last year, there have been around 2,000 Border Police officers deployed to Jerusalem to patrol the city, as well as reinforcements of police from across the country. The question – or accusation – that has been posed to police is why with all of that seasoned manpower, were these two teenage girls thrown to the wolves at Damascus Gate? Why couldn’t they have relieved more seasoned officers serving at sleepy corners in West Jerusalem?

These are relevant questions, and should be answered, but they seem perhaps short-sighted.

While Damascus Gate has been arguably the most dangerous spot (though parts of Gush Etzion or Hebron may have it beat), there is ultimately nowhere on the Homefront that is not the frontline when security personnel are facing an Intifada of “lone wolf” attackers who strike randomly in civilian areas across the country. Also, as dangerous as Damascus Gate has become, it’s worth remembering that it’s remained popular with tourists and civilians all through this terror wave, and is only a short walk from areas where Jewish Israeli families walk with a far greater feeling of personal security.

Furthermore, when are they supposed to get this baptism by fire? If it was a month from now, three months from now, would Hadar have lived? Would she have fought off the attackers without being mortally wounded, or would she have accrued the know-how to approach the terrorists in a way that would have subdued them before they launched their attack?

The Border Police often prides itself on being HaShachpatz shel HaMedina – the bulletproof vest of the country. Anyone who enlists in the Border Police knows they will be sent to highly dangerous, unglamorous assignments where they are a buffer between civilians and those who seek to harm them, all while serving in an oft-maligned force where the hazards don’t pay off in prestige. Other than the officers from their mistarvim undercover unit, Border Police don’t operate in the shadows – they are out in the open, specifically in locations of serious friction between the Palestinian civilian population and Israeli authorities, places like Damascus Gate.

Hadar and her comrade wounded in the attack are ultimately much like countless other Israeli youths sent into terribly dangerous situations only months after they stopped being civilians, and before they stopped being teenagers. Take for instance the 13 soldiers of the Golani Brigade’s 13th Division who were killed in Gaza City’s Shujaya neighborhood on the night of July 20th during Operation Protective Edge. Of these, at least 6 were inside a lightly-armored, Vietnam era M-113 armored personnel carrier that was hit by an anti-tank missile fired by a Hamas fighter. They had no chance, and were most likely killed instantly.

Most of the 13 were 21-years-old or younger, including 2 who were as young as Hadar and her colleague. All of them were young men sent into a neighborhood Hamas had turned into a fortress of attack tunnels and heavily fortified homes full of fighters. Some had been in basic training only months earlier, and were sent into a lethal environment with insufficient tools at their disposal. Like Hadar’s family, their loved ones deserve answers too.

Many people feel an extra measure of pain and loss when the young person cut down in the line of fire is female. There is often more outrage about the loss, more questions directed at commanders. This is perhaps understandable, but ignores the fact that in the Border Police women are constantly deployed to these front-line positions where they face the same threats as their male colleagues.

After her death the condolences came in from the entire senior police leadership, as well as from Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan and Prime Minster Benyamin Netanyahu. Hadar was praised as a hero who helped fight off the terrorists and saved the life of her comrade, a 19-year-old new female recruit like herself.

There’s no reason to doubt the official account, but after tragedies like this, the tales of heroism feel at times like a salve hastily thrown on a devastating wound in an attempt to ease the pain. There may be comfort taken in knowing that a loved one died a hero, but it can’t change the fact that they’re gone, or that like Hadar, that their lives were taken before they had truly begun.

About that Israeli suburban marijuana nightmare

It reads like a real life suburban horror story, and the reaction has been in kind. Over the past week American immigrant Jay Engelmayer’s post on The Times of Israel about a police drug raid on his family’s Modi’in home has been shared more than 7,700 times. Along the way, it has been discussed by countless Anglos in Israel, who see it as an indictment of the brutality and lack of professionalism of the Israel Police, or, like Engelmayer, as almost a reason to question living here at all.

A marijuana grow room busted by police in Kiryat Malachi in mid-February. (Credit: Police)

A marijuana grow room busted by police in Kiryat Malachi in mid-February. (Credit: Police)

He describes an early morning raid earlier this month by detectives who he said verbally and physically abused him and his four children ages 13 to 19, keeping them in custody for hours after executing a search warrant due to information that there was marijuana in the house. He said he was strip-searched, kept shackled and cuffed; and that under interrogation police smacked him around and insulted his family, calling his daughter a “whore.”

The story is indeed disturbing, though by no means is it a rare, strange or extreme example of Israeli police conduct.

Engelmayer, a native of New York, said that every Israeli he’s told his story to says this type of thing happens all the time and relates a story of a friend or relative who went through a similar ordeal. For Anglo olim though, the reaction has been shock and bewilderment.

“The Israelis just say this s**t happens, but Americans are outraged by this,” he said this week, admitting that he was shocked by the whole incident, and that he thought this sort of stuff happened to truly bad people – violent criminals, terrorists; people like that.

Engelmayer said Israelis told him he should be thankful he wasn’t Arab or Ethiopian or things would have been worse.

He said that while he’s aware of that, he can only vouch for his own personal experience, which was bad enough.

He said the raid was part of a misunderstanding, perhaps relating to a text message one of his daughters sent a year-anda- half ago joking to a friend that her father grew marijuana.

Ch.-Insp. Leah Zohar, spokeswoman for the Shfela subdistrict police, said the contention that the raid was based solely on a text message is “completely false,” but would not give further details as the investigation is ongoing. In an official statement she said that as part of a juvenile drug investigation police executed a court-issued search warrant “during which the suspect was present and confirmed that no damage was done to his person or property.”

Engelmayer contends that he signed the forms after police threatened to keep his family in custody.

In a statement earlier this month, Zohar said that for two months the juvenile crime branch of the Modi’in station has carried out an undercover investigation into suspected drug dealing and use among local teenagers and that police working the case raided a house a week earlier and questioned two teens on suspicion of selling drugs. They said the investigation also dealt with a 16-year-old who allegedly stole medical marijuana from one of his parents, which he then sold to other youth. Engelmayer denies any connection to these allegations.

Criminal defense attorney Coby Margolov said after reading the blog post that the one thing that sticks out as a violation is the fact that an underage daughter of Engelmayer’s was questioned by police without a guardian present, but said that unlike in the United States, in Israel Engelmayer himself has no right to have a lawyer present while undergoing police questioning.

He said that he hopes the judge who signed off on the search warrant was shown more evidence than a text message.

Margolov said that while it’s clear the police should have been more understanding and sympathetic, for the most part he didn’t see anything out of the ordinary for Israeli police executing a court-approved drug search warrant. He said allegations of police violence could justify filing a complaint with the Justice Ministry’s Police Investigation Department, though it would be Engelmayer’s word against that of the officers regardless. He did say, however, that he could see reason to file a conduct complaint with the police complaints commissioner regarding the officers’ behavior.

Immigrants from the US are constantly comparing the workings of the state to what they were used to back home. The police are one of the institutions most often held up for comparison, and for good reason – on a daily basis they are one of the arms of the state that many citizens are most likely to encounter, and for normal everyday citizens, on the rare occasions we interact with them directly it’s often as part of a traumatic, jarring or just expensive and annoying experience. The NYPD is often held up as a shining example of a police department that “serves and protects” and should be emulated by the amateurs in Israel.

There’s something to all this, but at times it can also be a case of the grass seeming greener on the other side (or just that nobody asked an African American to weigh in). One only has to mention Tamir Rice, Eric Harris, Walter Scott, Jonathan Ferrell, Sandra Bland, Samuel DuBose or Freddie Gray, and the list goes on.

While the Israel Police lack much of the professionalism, prestige, formalities and pageantry of their American counterparts, they also have – especially in recent years – a much less bloody track record.

Having said that, the simple fact that police brutality is in many ways worse in America should be of no comfort to someone who is mistreated by the police in Israel.

In comments on Engelmayer’s blog and on Facebook, a number of people looking to defend the Israel Police (or Zionism or the country as a whole) said that not only is his case an extreme and rare example (it isn’t) but also that one must remember that police put their lives on the line every day for Israelis as the first line of defense against terrorists and one of their top targets.

This is definitely true, and something that Engelmayer himself said on the phone this week. But these two things are not mutually exclusive. The same cop who will rush to your aid against a knife-wielding terrorist even if he’s without his sidearm could also, while executing a search warrant, act like a bully and a thug and humiliate you in front of your kids. The inverse is true as well.

It’s no accident that terrorism and the security situation tend to enter this debate.

The police are in the unique position of having to fight terrorists and external enemies within the country and to also enforce the law against their fellow citizens, for crimes that have nothing to do with the conflict. This has been especially true in recent months, as police from across the country have cycled through reinforcements helping stop stabbing attacks in Jerusalem and elsewhere. There is no switch they turn off when they leave that deployment to return to petty drug arrests and answering noise complaints. The lines at times may become blurred.

The impression often given by police – in Israel, but not only – is that they don’t seem to fully grasp how disruptive and traumatic it can be for your everyday citizen to enter the criminal justice system.

It comes across in the drive under former commissioner Yohanan Danino to push for more arrests until the end of legal proceedings and more indictments. It comes across in the language, the press releases almost daily that show pictures of marijuana growing operations – some very impressive but many laughably small and pathetic – along with descriptions about the “drug dealers arrested for trafficking dangerous drugs.” Each one of these people could be your neighbor, friend or even a relative who may now have to pay a very serious price.

That’s before we even take a look at those who get caught up in the system due to mistaken police work, false testimony or just being at the wrong place at the wrong time.

People often like to talk about being tough on crime but perhaps don’t fully grasp that it isn’t a matter of us versus them or a black-and-white issue. Any one of us can potentially get caught up, and even if the case is closed, the scars can take a very long time to heal.

Crime in the Arab sector: A sudden national priority that requires a nationwide effort

The news that December morning broke with a bang, and for good reason. An Israeli gunned down in a vehicle strafed with automatic rifle fire near the seam line with the West Bank in southern Israel, with all signs pointing to another shooting attack in the “Lone Wolf Intifada”.

Within minutes though, everyone could breathe a sigh of relief – it was a criminal shooting, part of a blood feud in the nearby Beduin village of Hura. Just Arabs killing Arabs, feel free to change the channel.

The next day, police located the car used in the drive-by shooting, abandoned next to a cemetery in Hura. As detectives began to cordon off the scene, they were attacked by a mob of rock-throwing locals, and one local man even tried to use the volley of rocks as cover to sneak up and torch the vehicle in a failed bid to destroy evidence, according to police.

Ever since Israeli Arab Nashat Milhem killed three in a shooting spree in Tel Aviv on New Year’s Day, the issue of firearms in the Arab sector has suddenly, mercifully become a national priority issue, after years in which it was mainly discussed only by local Arab leaders, the police, and security officials. Until Milhem began spraying Dizengoff with automatic fire, the guns were mainly confined to the Arab sector, part of homicidal clan violence, organized crime feuds, and the drug trade. But with an Israeli Arab shooting up the heart of Tel Aviv – now we have a problem.

The two incidents in Hura speak volumes about crime and the Arab sector and how difficult it will be for the government and the security services to carry out the sort of large-scale anti firearms operations in the Arab sector that politicians have been pushing for the past week.

The drive-by shooting came less than 24 hours after a Hura man was killed in the village during a brawl between two rival clans. The drive-by the next day was seen as a reprisal killing for that murder, and though the same patch of southern Israel saw two murders in less than 24 hours, there was little coverage because murders and gunplay in Beduin villages are about as dog-bites-man as you can get.

The attack on police at the cemetery the next day was a microcosm of the difficulties law enforcement faces in these communities. Officers working to solve a murder – in a community where locals and their political leaders routinely accuse police of not caring about solving murders – are attacked by locals who risk arrest and injury in order to obstruct justice and thwart police efforts to catch a killer.

Without interest from the wider Israeli public and the media, there will be little political impetus for the government to make fighting crime in the Arab sector a national priority. And even if it does remain a priority, as long as police do not receive sufficient cooperation from those very same communities, their efforts to fight crime and rid their streets of firearms will be dramatically more difficult.

The rock-throwing mob is perhaps an extreme example, but it is still part of a wider atmosphere of animosity. In communities across the Arab sector, enlistment in the police is almost non-existent, working for the police brands you a “collaborator”, and there is a strong culture of silence preventing people from cooperating with authorities. Add to this also the very real and understandable fear of violent retribution from criminals, and one can see why cultivating police informants in the Arab sector is such a difficult task.

This is consistent with the issues inherent to minority policing in countries around the world. In minority communities, police from the majority population are very often the most visible arm of the state, and the source of fear, suspicion, and often, abuse. Thus there is often an almost impossible situation where the very community that has the most volatile and loaded relationship with police is the one that also needs them the most, and from whom police need the strongest working relationship.

Israeli Arabs are disproportionately the victims and perpetrators of violent crime, with over 1,100 fatalities from gun violence in the Arab sector since 2000. According to figures presented at a Knesset hearing in 2012, Israeli Arabs – who make up around 20% of the population – were involved in 67% of homicides and 70% of attempted homicides, and made up about 40% of homicide victims.

This is a problem that mainly ravages their communities and not ours, but must remain a national priority nonetheless.

Another recent story showed the difficulties of dealing with the scourge of crime in the Arab sector.

In the first days of the manhunt for Milhem, when investigators suspected he may be hiding in North Tel Aviv, officers fanned out across Ramat Aviv, home to Tel Aviv University and a large number of Israeli Arab students who study at the institution. In a series of Facebook posts that went viral in Israel, Israeli Arab students from the university described how police and Shin Bet agents came and searched their apartments without warrants, rifling through their belongings and interrogating them as part of their search for Milhem.

The students said some officers were nice, some were rude and intimidating, and all of them left them with the feeling that they are being treated as criminals simply because of their race, even as they are college students without criminal records or any connection to Milhem.

Even with the support of politicians and increased police manpower and resources, fighting this problem will remain impossible if law enforcement doesn’t receive greater cooperation from the Israeli Arab community.

Treating them as second class citizens and criminals until proven otherwise, is not going to help this campaign.

Scenes from the Tel Aviv terror attack (this time)

Confusion seemed the order of the day in the minutes after a gunman had opened fire on a pub and a café on Dizengoff Friday afternoon, killing 2 and wounding 8 before vanishing without a trace.

Cop hitches a ride on a bike north on Dizengoff, in a mad dash to find the attacker. (Ben Hartman)

Cop hitches a ride on a bike north on Dizengoff, in a mad dash to find the attacker. (Ben Hartman)

A rumor caught wind – from a reporter, maybe, or a random cop – that a suspect had been spotted a few blocks north on Nordau, and plainclothes cops with assault rifles started to give chase. It was then that something I’d never seen before happened – a female cop with an M-16 hopped on the back of a civilian’s electric bicycle, as did a detective and then a third plainclothes officer, their assault rifles held high as they set off on a moderately fast, low-carbon footprint pursuit of a possible attacker further up  Dizengoff.

(It seems a bit formal to say they “commandeered” the bicycles. I think in America cops commandeer a vehicle, flashing a badge as they chase a bus that must stay above 50mph or it explodes. In Israel though? I’m pretty sure the cyclist sees the cop running to stop an attack and says nu, yalla and they head up the sidewalk.)

As a cameraman and I gave chase on foot, another strange thing happened. An empty #5 bus that had been abandoned further down the street past the police tape where its passengers got off and fled during the attack began driving up the street. It opened its front door and three reporters and two detectives jumped in, their colleagues pulling them in like they were hobos jumping onto a freight train. The bus keeps driving on the way to Nordau but stops after a block and everyone gets off, the detectives included.

Cops on Dizengoff using a faster means of transportation. (Ben Hartman)

Cops on Dizengoff using a faster means of transportation. (Ben Hartman)

The two officers – who said they are stationed in the West Bank District and just happened to be in Tel Aviv on Friday – don’t actually know where Nordau is, or what report they’re following. They ask this reporter what the story is and start running towards Nordau, only to double back.

They seem confused, but they’re trying.

Speaking of confusion, Friday wasn’t the greatest display in the history of the Tel Aviv District spokespersons either.

Their first message about shots fired went out on WhatsApp to crime reporters at 2:53pm, and then they went silent until 3:12, only to report that there were people shot outside a bar/restaurant/café and some were hurt. They added that paramedics were working the scene, and it’s unclear if it’s a terror attack or criminal.

The first comprehensive report (or something approaching such) went out finally at 5:52 pm, almost three hours later. Sure, it’s important in such hectic stories to be careful and know what you’re reporting, but they seemed lost, unable or willing to answer questions in real time.

That’s certainly not always the case, and in the last attack in Tel Aviv – the stabbing attack at the Panorama building that left two dead – the spokesperson’s branch did a great job and all but one reporter praised them in the WhatsApp group. The reporter (not their first time) dissented and was roundly shut down by the rest of the reporters.

I don’t know if to chalk up today’s failure to the mass confusion and the fact that the attacker hadn’t been caught (unlike in the Panorama attack), but there was something disconcerting about the whole display.

The attacker wasn’t the first one to get away in this recent wave of terror attacks, but that fact also bears noting. With all the talk about the increased police patrols and the spike in the number of civilians getting firearms permits, there was no armed person on the street at the scene when the shooting started, or apparently nearby. The attack was only a few blocks south of the police station on Dizengoff between Jabotinsky and Nordau, but still, the man was able to flee through the streets of the country’s busiest city on a Friday afternoon and vanish.

The city was already a bit slower than usual for a Friday afternoon, it bears saying. It was the morning after New Year’s eve and all day the weather had been cold and rainy, and there was even a bit of hail earlier in the day.

Still, even in the minutes after the shooting, there were restaurants and bars further up Dizengoff that were pretty full. One could say this affirms a Tel Aviv cliché about how “life goes on” and people “won’t give in to terror”, and they’d probably be right. I figure though you can get a pass on that when the shooter is still at large, especially if you already got the check.

This is probably the point where a writer would mention how close they were to the attack in the minutes or days before. Well, turns out I was actually right next door to the pub two days ago, joining a friend while he got his hair cut at this new hipster sort of lumberjack rockabilly barber shop. Going further back in time, it was a couple doors down from the place where my wife used to get her hair done and the café was years earlier the Café Joe, where my wife wrote her MA thesis on many busy nights back in 2007. A few doors down from there is Dizengoff 148, the building where we lived on the top floor, above the Ilka, and where we had all those rooftop parties years before everybody started having kids.

Why’s that matter? It doesn’t really, and truth be told, in a city as small and packed as Tel Aviv, it’s rare that an attack won’t be near some place that has some meaning to you if you lived here.

It’s part of what’s normal here – seeing your surroundings as being touched by political violence in the not too distant past or somewhere around the corner.

The feeling of a Friday night in the city with an attacker at loose and people saying they’ll stay at home also feels familiar from years earlier, but that will pass too.

It always does.

My father in the Marines

A bugler played Taps for my father a few minutes before he was lowered into the ground on a Friday afternoon last August.

PFC Lee E. Hartman Jr, 1963.

PFC Lee E. Hartman Jr, 1963.

I hadn’t seen the bugler, standing at attention near the overpass on Hancock Lane, just beyond the tree line that separates the Jews from the Gentiles at the Austin Memorial Cemetery. It startled me when he began to play – maybe the most searing, beautiful tune I know – and all I could do was smile.

That moment – shortly before Shabbat came in, a few hours before we drank late into the night at my childhood home – was a fitting tribute to my father, and in particular, to the man he was for a brief and fateful time in his young life.

My father enlisted in the United States Marine Corps in the summer of 1963, when he was a 20-year-old sophomore at the University of Texas. He’d joined a Jewish fraternity (Tau Delta Phi) a year earlier and was busy partying his way to repeated stints of academic probation. The son of a doctor who lived in River Oaks, Houston (by way of Beaumont, Vidor, and Newton, Tx but still), he’d already been on scholastic probation twice when he decided to do something drastic.

The way he told it, he needed to straighten up and get right. He’d push himself through the fire and return to UT a changed man – a Marine. After his death, my aunt Marie told me how driven he was to prove something to himself and others, and since he figured the Marines were the most hardcore, the most unforgiving, the Marines it would be.

It wasn’t easy.

He was in basic training in the dead of summer from July to October 1963 in Parris Island, South Carolina, which he’d always described to me as a sweltering cesspool of swamps and pain far beyond the grace of G-d. In one of his letters home, he wrote about how it reminded him of Wynne Farm, the prison farm outside Huntsville, Tx where my grandfather was the resident psychiatrist and a physician for 3 years. For my father, it was no exaggeration to compare Parris Island to a penitentiary.

Like a prisoner, soon after he arrived my father began plotting his escape. In one letter home early in basic training he talks about how the “Great Escape” will play out. Others have tried and failed in the past, but Lee Hartman Jr, he knows the way out. You see, most people who try to escape make the mistake of heading over the hill and down into the swamps, where they get caught. According to Lee Jr, “I’m one of the few who has figured out the only way to get away and it has proven sure-fire in the past.”

The letter gives no further details though of the way out. As for what he planned to do after he got off the island and was pursued by MPs, he doesn’t say.

The escape plan is part of one of the early phases in his time at boot camp, which is depicted in 21 letters he wrote home to my grandparents, about half of them sealed in USMC envelopes stamped with the raising of the flag on Iwo Jima. The rest are tucked into envelopes and written on stationary from the Jewish War Board, which he would fill out at weekly Sunday prayer service at a chapel on base.

The timeline shown in the letters should be familiar to countless men who have volunteered to serve in the Armed Forces. Initial optimism and excitement are followed by crippling shock and awe as he crashes to earth and realizes he has made the single worst mistake of his life by far. Then there’s the denial phase, where he seems to think of ways he could get out of it, how he could escape and the Marine Corps would never find him. Next begins a sort of begrudged acceptance, where he realizes that though he’s made a colossal error in judgment, he has no choice but to stick it out, even if it kills him. Next, there are the letters where he realizes he can make it, he can actually push through and finish. Finally, there is the sweet, triumphant letter where he says out loud that this is the finest day of his young life – he’s done it, he’s going to be a Marine, and no one can ever take that away from him, not even the Marine Corps.

His trials in basic training began almost instantly, when he failed to meet the basic physical training requirements and was sent to the corrective battalion – aka “the fat farm” – where he and the rest of the misfits tried to work their way back to their platoons.

He almost didn’t make it out of fat camp and was continuously sent back. In one letter he expressed real heartache at being separated from the guys in his platoon.

Maybe my favorite installment is the “breakthrough letter” from October 13th, 1963, where he finally realizes he’s going to make it – he’ll be a Marine. The redemption comes on the rifle range, in the form of his beloved M-14 rifle. A Marine is first and foremost a rifleman, and marksmanship can be the ultimate equalizer (this was the moral of the story, as my father told it, one that can be applied elsewhere in life).

In his letter home, the only one addressed solely to his father, he shared his unbridled joy:

“I qualified as an EXPERT RIFLEMAN with the M-14. Without a doubt it was the most thrilling and gratifying and certainly the proudest day of my life. It was a tight race for high shooter and unfortunately, I threw a couple of shots in rapid fire and finished in a tie for 4th place – but I was in the thick of it and am now recognized as one of “the high shooters of the platoon” – a very proud distinction. I was presented with my badge by the battalion commander (a Lt. Col. yet!)…When I came off the “big line” Friday, knowing I was an Expert I experienced feelings I’ll never be able to completely convey to anyone. First, I smiled and grabbed my rifle like it was my “one love” and kissed her and almost cried. That beauty means more to me than you can imagine. I’m really devoted to “Baby Doll” and grateful as hell for what she’s done for me. I’m only sorry that I’ll never be able to fire her again. The next two weeks until graduation are going to be more hell than all the others put together but now – I don’t care what they do to me because I know I’ve accomplished one thing truly worthwhile since I’ve been on the island….Show the letter and all the good news to mom and the gals – be sure to remind them that “little Jr.” is now a deadly, steely-eyed killer (hah!). PS. I saw a paper this morning outside the chow hall. From a glance I noticed that UT beat the piss out of OU, 28-7. That really makes this a memorable weekend!. Bye now, love – JR.”

His troubles were far from over though, and in subsequent letters he continues to dwell on his difficulties in the Corps,  and his great and ever-present fear that he will continue to fail the obstacle course and be dishonorably discharged, all due to a single obstacle he calls “the rib crusher”. At some point, reading through these I wanted to reach through the page and the faded ink, grab him by the shoulders and shake him, and tell him “calm down Hartman, just finish it”. I wasn’t there though and never have been, not at age 20, and not in the Marine Corps of the early 60s, a rough place indeed.

He also talks often to his parents about his friends back at the fraternity, asking them to drop a line to his buddies and send them his regards, saying that the 5 minutes he has to write letters is not enough for him to keep in touch with them.

He describes becoming closer to his Judaism, not only because of the tendency of the Marine Corps to put the fear of G-d in you, but also, as he puts it, it made him feel at home when he met other Jewish Marines, “even if aside from religion, we have little else in common.”

In a letter in August he talks about attending a breakfast held by the Beaufort, South Carolina congregation for the Jewish recruits, which was nice, but made him feel homesick. He also spoke of a lovely day attending Yom Kippur services with the rest of the Jewish recruits at the Mikveh Israel congregation in Savannah, Georgia, built in 1733 and one of the oldest in US. My brother Avi and I heard my dad tell this story a number of times. He’d mainly emphasized the bone-headed calculation the other recruits made when given the option to choose the reform shul or the conservative one. He said not knowing any better they figured the reform shul would be more liberal and have more young Jewish college girls in attendance, only to find a sparsely attended service of mainly elderly Jews.

There was a lesson there too, but maybe not a universal one.

Regardless, he found himself turning closer to religion, saying:

“On the island I have begun thinking a great deal more of these matters which in the past, I have neglected – that is, religious matters…Maybe it’s a genuine feeling or maybe it’s just that Parris Island puts the fear of god in you. I sincerely hope my renewed interest in my religion will outlive my time in the Marine Corps and will prove to be more than a mere crutch supporting me in times when I have nothing else to turn to or think of.”

Speaking of the fraternity, he talks about his dream of attending synagogue in Austin in uniform with his fraternity buddies, and then makes a rather humorous observation.

“I have learned a lot here about the real meaning of strength. Strength, I have found, is not brute, physical force alone. For instance, of all the boys I know back home, I think David Horwitz would be most likely to breeze through boot camp because he has agility, which is essential here.”

Horwitz, who I have known since I was a child, never struck me as the most agile guy, but I didn’t know him in his younger days. No other fraternity brother gets such a positive appraisal as a potential recruit, certainly not his old friend, country singer and folk hero Richard “Kinky” Friedman, who would probably still be in a military prison if he’d been at Parris Island  with my pop, or maybe still buried by a drill instructor somewhere in a swamp outside the base.

But amidst all his middle-class college Jewboy kvetching, there are moments where a real passion for the Marine Corps comes through, or at the very least a young man’s desire to put himself to the real test someday if duty called.

In a letter written on Jewish War Board stationary on August 1st 1963, he writes:

“Some of the guys got a glimpse of a headline about Korea and a headline about 2 US soldiers being ambushed. Rumors of course, spread, and you know how war talk is – well, we got to discussing the situation. Here is the shocker – almost half the boys I’ve talked to almost want a brushfire war like in 1950 – myself included. Whether it’s because we’d leave here in just 5 weeks and get 30 days leave or because we’re just nuts – I don’t know. At any rate, it’s an interesting phenomenon.”

Along with the love-hate relationship my father had with the Corps, there was also a sort of hagiography he had for the Marines. Like many “war babies” born in WWII with fathers in the service, he admired the military (especially his all-time idol Audie Murphy, one of the greatest heroes ever to come from Texas) and was an ROTC cadet and battalion leader at Lamar High School in Houston.

Still, a self-taught historian with hundreds of volumes of military history crowding our childhood home, it was the history of the Corps that seemed to interest him the most (I’d wager that of the Israel Defense Forces being in second place). He could recount a constellation of facts, anecdotes, and lessons learned by legends like Smedley Butler and Lewis “Chesty” Puller, and tales of valor won and lives lost from the “Frozen Chosin” to Khe Sanh to Veracruz. He also always relished any occasion to speak to a young Marine and swap stories, especially my cousin Rafael Geisler, a Lance Corporal who served his country with distinction in Iraq and Afghanistan, and of whom my father was very proud. (Rafi wore his USMC combat utility uniform at my father’s funeral, and saluted his uncle’s casket as the bugler played taps)

This appreciation was forged in part by the experience at Parris Island, and in a letter from mid-August he writes:

“Reading the accounts of Guadalcanal I more than ever realize the immensity of the reputation of the corps and the responsibility for upholding that reputation that has been fostered upon my shoulders. I’m just one man but 190,000 others like me have the task of living up to the heritage of the WWII and Korea Marines. Sounds a little gung ho on my part huh? Well to be perfectly frank, I don’t care for the Marine Corps but if the occasion ever rises in which I may be forced to submit to the ultimate sacrifice I want to do so as a member of the Marine Corps.”

He also relates how sometimes in physical training in the sweltering heat of boot camp, he’ll find himself humming the Marine Corps hymn, and thinking of battles like Iwo Jima and Tarawa and that “you would be surprised at the strength it gives me.”

Along with the moments of pride and newfound strength and spirituality, there is the humbling realization that there are many men who are simply better than he is at this and will always be. It’s a realization made clear to him by young men without his smarts or his education, who are excellent Marines and leaving him in the dust.

“Brains and education haven’t done me a damn bit of good, there are boys in the platoon with 8th grade educations who are outstanding marines. This is the first time I’ve ever been in an environment where intelligence counts for naught, zero, nothing.”

Lee Jr. may have been a bit hard on himself, but passages like this are part of a recurring theme of self-doubt and admonishment, as he tries to force himself through a desperately trying experience that he chose for himself.

There is also a theme of guilt and regret about his hard-partying ways and his failure to do right. In one of the letters home he penned a poem that he wrote during a low moment of boot camp, which Rabbi Neil Blumofe read graveside at his funeral.

             If all my yesterdays were yet to come, how glorious would my future be

            Vanished would be the trials and tears

            Which plagued my clouded past

            And no more would I weep upon the altar of my mistakes

            The gnawing pain of neglected opportunity

            The memory of a hasty rebuke

            The disgrace of a thoughtless act

            Gone forever the pains of the past

            If all my yesterdays were yet to come.

My father went to Parris Island only a few years younger than I was when I moved to Israel. Like him, I chose a strange and extremely challenging redirection that zero of my friends back home chose and most probably could not relate to. For both of us, this was a defining and life-altering experience, and the setting for so many of the stories we would tell in the years to come.

For my father these stories often dealt with hard ass wisdom imparted by drill instructors, such as the DI who told the recruits before a week of leave “don’t go home thinking you’re tough now, if Johnny could kick your ass before the Marine Corps, Johnny can kick your ass now” (sure enough, one guy came back with his arm in a sling after trying to fight his ex-girlfriend’s new love), or the one DI who looked over my dad as he stood inside a pit smashing rocks at fat camp, and asked him “this sure beats college doesn’t it Hartman?” Of course, there was also the story he told of the time when he was doing his reserves duty out on the west Coast in 1967 and news of the Six Day War came in. As he told it, standing inside a barracks full of Marine reservists, a sergeant called out from across the room “well Hartman, guess we won’t be going over to Israel after all, those Jews are kicking some ass!!”

While he eventually left Parris Island and infantry school at Camp Lejeune, I never left the island. Though the two experiences are radically different, I see something of myself at that age in his letters, something of the same struggle.

So often when we’d speak long distance from opposite sides of the globe, I’d relate what I was up to and the interesting and strange things I’d witnessed, especially after becoming a journalist. He’d often find it fascinating and would say “you’re so brave Ben; I could have never done this at your age.”

Truth be told, I could not have done what he did at age 20. I don’t believe I could have finished boot camp on Parris Island in 1963, leaving behind everything to push myself through such a severe and brutal challenge.

He never gave himself much credit for it, but it took courage and great willpower, especially after all the setbacks.

My father was fond of saying of his time in the Marine Corps that “I served in peacetime; I was never within a hundred miles of a shot fired in anger.”

That’s true, but when the Austin branch of the Jewish War Veterans of Texas heard that my father had been in the Marines they hastily organized an honor guard to be graveside the next afternoon at his funeral, complete with bugler and a US flag draped across the coffin. It was a very real and touching honor that would have moved my father very much. He would have been humbled and said he was undeserving, but I think inside he would have known that wasn’t true.

He only served in peacetime, but my father was proud to say he was a marine.

It was something no one could take away from him.

For all citizens, facing off against police is an uphill battle

If you’ve seen the video of the assault, you may have found the penalty for the officer left something to be desired. Underage Jewish settlers who are resisting arrest but posing no threat are beaten repeatedly by a well-armed border policeman who seems to have no regard for the young age of the victims or the fact that it’s all being caught on video.

The officer in this case, Mordechai Mehager, was sentenced in July to six months’ community service at the Armored Corps’ Memorial and Museum in Latrun, and even that was considered an especially stiff sentence by the presiding judge, who said “the defendant didn’t stop with a single blow, but instead struck with his baton again and again and also kicked [the complainants].

The defendant did not hurt only one person; rather he hurt three minors and caused severe injury.”

That incident took place almost a decade ago during the February 2006 eviction of the illegal outpost of Amona in the West Bank, but it came to mind last week, when a Border Police officer was sentenced to six weeks’ community service for beating 15-year-old Palestinian- American Tariq Abu Khdeir on July 3, 2014.

The case garnered international headlines last year not only because Abu Khdeir was an American citizen and a cousin of Muhammad Abu Khdeir – the Palestinian teen kidnapped and burned to death by Israeli extremists last summer – but also because of the images taken of Tariq after the beating, an awkward teenager with eyes and lips swollen and blue from the beating.

Last week, in the hours and days to follow, the sentencing was seized upon as clear evidence of a glaring double standard in the Israeli justice system, proof positive that in a Jewish state there is no reason for Muslim citizens to expect equal protection under the law, or for police to fear the consequences if they harm them.

That conclusion is understandable, but it misses a bigger picture that is potentially more troubling.

According to figures published in a report by the Justice Ministry in March, the ministry’s Police Investigative Department (PID) – tasked with investigating complaints of wrongdoing by police – reached indictments against only 116 police officers out of more than 4,500 claims filed by civilians. The ministry said that a third of the cases were closed without even launching an investigation after the complaints were found to be “incoherent” or without any indication of wrongdoing or “public interest.”

Another third were investigated but closed after they were found not to have a basis for a criminal case. In around a third of the cases they opened an extensive investigation, and in 732 of those, they questioned one or more officers under caution.

In other words, only around 16 percent of the complaints filed to the PID in 2014 resulted in an officer being questioned under caution. Of these, in 116 cases an indictment was filed. Once an indictment is filed, the conviction rate is very high, with 92 out of 116 cases resulting in conviction.

In their defense, the PID investigators tasked with following up these complaints must take into account what are often very complicated situations carried out in the very often dynamic and difficult world of police work. They have to piece together what happened where often the evidence at hand is little more than the testimony of a citizen versus that of a police officer.

Nonetheless, for the average citizen unlucky enough to be a victim of abuse at the hands of Israeli law enforcement, the statistics are not encouraging. Furthermore, the weak penalties even in cases where the incidents are caught on video and the abuse is plain as day, give the impression that even for those who are victorious, justice can be rather toothless.

There are some signs of encouragement though. A series of highly publicized sex scandals in the Israel Police this past year and the resulting public outcry have made the PID by some accounts much more vigilant in its investigations.

While in those cases the vigilance is in regard to complaints of sexual misconduct by female officers, nonetheless, it’s a potentially encouraging sign.

Earlier, this year, protests by Ethiopian- Israelis against racism and police brutality broke out after a video was published of an Ethiopian-Israeli IDF soldier named Damas Pakada being attacked by a police officer in Holon. The subsequent protests and rioting briefly captured the attention of the media and public, shining a light on abuse that an entire sector of Israelis had for years said was rampant. While the protests have long fallen off the front pages and among Ethiopian-Israelis there is widespread dissatisfaction with the results of the demonstrations, they nonetheless managed to bring the issue of police brutality to center stage.

Finally, as early as January, police say patrol and traffic officers are to begin wearing body cameras while on the job.

The measure is meant to safeguard both sides – police from complaints of abuse or from videos shot by civilians that don’t show the entirety of incidents – and civilians from police who now know that every interaction they have on the job will be caught on camera.

In the cases of the teens from Amona and that of Tariq Abu Khdeir and Damas Pakada justice of any sort would have probably been impossible without video evidence, though even with proof of wrongdoing, without proper punishment meted out by the courts little if any deterrence can be established.

While Arabs in Israel face a wide range of disadvantages and discrimination, to see the punishment for the officer who beat Tariq Abu Khdeir as simply a case of yet another double standard for Arabs in the Jewish state is to miss the wider picture.

Any civilian facing off against the police, the army or any other security agency – even with video evidence – is facing an uphill battle.