Blackface as racial solidarity?

Every protest movement needs a great song.
The members of Ma Kashur in blackface in the "Ayalon Darom" video. (Screenshot)

The members of Ma Kashur in blackface in the “Ayalon Darom” video. (Screenshot)

Earlier this month the famed comedy trio Shlishiyat Ma Kashur released a protest video, a clip full of anger ripped from the front pages. A serious departure for the trio, “Ayalon Darom” (the title taken from the Ayalon freeway, which was blocked during rush hour during a protest by Ethiopian Israelis in May) depicts the three actors as Ethiopian Israelis fed up about racism in Israeli society, sick of being seen as nothing more than dishwashers who run fast and shouldn’t be let into the nightclub.
The clip comes a few months after a protest movement was launched by Ethiopian Israelis across the country, in response to racism and police brutality, and sparked by a video of a police officer attacking an IDF soldier of Ethiopian ethnicity.
Showing solidarity with this struggle is all fine and well, except that all three actors in the clip are in blackface, speaking with exaggerated, ridiculous accents, and bouncing and shufflin’ their feet like they were ripped straight from a minstrel show.
Blackface is rather common in Israeli satire shows. One example I remember well was on Eretz Nehederet, where in a recurring role, Mariano Idelman would play Condoleezza Rice with his face given a brown hue. Most embarrassingly, for some reason Idelman’s Rice would spontaneously break out into Aretha Franklin-style riffs and song and dance numbers, because maybe that’s what the writers figured a Stanford professor and former secretary of state acts like, if she’s black. More likely though, it was just a cheap gag, a lack of creativity or wit that manifests itself in a racist trope, at least to American eyes.
That may be the crux of the issue to a certain extent. Blackface simply doesn’t have the same cultural weight in Israel that it does in the US, not even close.
There is not the same history of racial violence between black and white Israelis, during which blackface was a feature in the darkest days of this history. Seeing it through American eyes though, the natural reaction is to cringe, to feel almost a punch in the gut at the obliviousness of the writers and actors who thought this was a good idea.
The use of blackface outside the United States was also written about this week in a column on Vox about a high-brow Dutch newspaper’s review of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s book on race in America Between the World and Me.
The review opens with almost a fullpage picture of a big-lipped caricature of a black man dark as pitch, above the headline “Nigger are you crazy?” in English. The editor of the newspaper, NRC Handelsblad, said in comments to The Washington Post that the drawing was meant to illustrate stereotypes and “white aggression” and not meant to be offensive, and that thinking they were would be stupid.
The Vox article then draws a connection between the tone-deaf (to Americans) article and the Netherlands Christmas tradition of Zwarte Piet – “Black Pete” in Dutch. During Christmas time, many white Dutch people put on blackface to depict “Black Pete,” a helper of St. Nicholas often depicted as a black Moor from Spain, or a former slave from a Dutch colony, or a chimney sweep, to explain his blackness. Besides being a terrifying thing to run into at an Amsterdam department store if you’d never previously heard of the tradition (speaking from personal experience), it is often defended by supporters as a cultural tradition and most importantly with the assertion that “it’s not meant to offend.”
I don’t think “Ayalon Darom” is meant to offend. All three members of Ma Kashur grew up in working-class neighborhoods in Ramle and elsewhere, Mizrahi and Georgian guys who were not part of the racial elite growing up.
Their video and their lyrics speak to a very real struggle now being waged by many Israelis, and I think their hearts are in the right place.
The clip brings to mind another Ma Kashur skit from a few years ago, about an Ethiopian-Israeli pilot who is hypersensitive about race, and constantly, mistakenly taking the air traffic controller’s requests as bigoted. Again, whatever message about racism they may have been trying to get across is obscured by the fact that actor Tzion Baruch is, again, in blackface and speaking with a thick, laughable accent that one wouldn’t expect from a pilot.
That doesn’t mean that a blackface skit is incapable of making intelligent social satire. In a skit a few years ago on the Israeli comedy show Shavua Sof! a group of Hamas terrorists bring their commander a kidnapped Israeli soldier bound with his head in a burlap sack.
Once they lift up the sack to reveal the soldier (an officer with the rank of captain) is black, the commander upbraids the terrorists, and the soldier – played by a white actor in blackface – is told apologetically that he is free to go and that Hamas knows they can’t get anything from Israel for a black soldier.
Watching the clip today, with Ethiopian-Israeli Avera Mengistu in Hamas captivity after climbing the fence into Gaza and with little public debate about returning him, the clip makes a strong (if heavy-handed) statement about race in Israel, even with the blackface.
There’s often a tendency among Americans in Israel to imprint their own social, cultural, and racial constructs from America onto Israeli society, almost expecting an exact fit. There’s a sort of unspoken belief that something that’s offensive there should also be out-of-bounds here, without taking into account the very different histories and cultures of the two countries.
When it comes to race, this can be glaring, and blackface is a classic example of something that simply doesn’t carry the same weight here.
Nonetheless, even without that same history, there are certain things that are universal, and at its very core, blackface – in America – is about laughing at black people, making them out to be objects of ridicule who talk and dance funny.
Israeli comedy is rife with ethnic humor, lampooning Jews from the East and the West, as well as Arabs. Still, something feels different when the ridicule is directed at the lowest rung on the social ladder.
Did Ma Kashur mean well even with the blackface? I think so, but maybe it’s better to let Ethiopian Israelis speak for themselves, and for everybody else to listen.

Meek Mill vs Drake – Good for the Jews?

(In light of the terrible, awful events in Israel/Palestine in the past few days, it was decided that a temporary departure for this blog may be in order)

The latest hip hop feud has certainly been good for one Jewish Canadian (Drake), and very, very bad for Meek Mill, (not Jewish, and a native of Philadelphia, which is not in Canada).

Now that I have your attention with that ridiculous headline (I worked at a Jewish/Israeli news site where we would have run a story on this feud using the excuse that Drake is Jewish, same reason we wrote about the late DJ AM – Adam Goldstein – when he was critically injured in a plane crash in 2008), let’s examine a few aspects of this feud.


Who peed on this man?


First off, IF Meek Mill is correct in his diss track “Wanna Know”, someone, at some unknown place and time, pissed on Drake in a movie theater. No further details are given. (If this was in France, it could maybe be reportable as an anti-Semitic attack in some corners of the Jewish press.)

As Twitter user Alex Gale (@ApexDujeous – a senior editor at Billboard, and a redhead for whom retweets are NOT endorsements) said Friday morning “whoever figured out who peed on Drake will win the Rap Pulitzer.” If so, a Pulitzer could be in the works for Us Weekly, who was direct tweeted by user Deaux (@dstfelix “crooklyn little chocolate baby”) with the tip that “idk if yall investigate black people @usweekly but someone peed on drake”.

Did someone pee on Drake? We don’t know, nor may we ever find out – surely Meek Mill can’t be trusted, he has his own axe to grind here, though TMZ later reported that during an altercation in 2010 at a private screening of Takers, a member of T.I.’s entourage urinated on Drake and Drake ran, with another man’s piss on him. No video has emerged, so we won’t rush to judgement.

Meek Mill also tells Drake “you really sweet, I call you buttercup / You fucking dork”, and sampled the Undertaker’s ring intro and now may face a lawsuit from the WWE.

One person who the feud may have been good for is Walter Palmer, the Minnesota dentist/WORLD’S GREATEST WAR CRIMINAL who shot dead a very famous lion last month in Zimbabwe. Cecil the lion, according to his Wikipedia page (every famous lion has to have a Wikipedia page) is not named after former Detroit Tigers power hitter Cecil Fielder, rather, British imperialist and mining magnate Cecil Rhodes, for whom Zimbabwe was named, back when it was named Rhodesia. (Incidentally, Palmer reportedly paid over $50,000 to a professional hunter to enable him to kill the lion, probably much more than it would have cost him to kill Cecil Fielder, who retired with 319 home runs.)

When word got out that Palmer most likely killed Cecil (the lion), the internet launched total war against this 21st century Mengele, with a fury that has only ebbed slightly in recent days, coincidentally (or not?) with the virtual tsunami of ridicule that has met Meek Mill’s release of “Wanna Know” on Thursday. Meek Mill’s track came a week after he accused Drake of using ghostwriters (rap equivalent of doping?), prompting him to reply with the track “Charged Up”, followed by “Back to Back”.

I thought of Palmer in a non-sexual way over the past week, wondering what it must be like to be the target of such rage, no matter how justified (if out of proportion) it may be. Though he’s not the target of rage per se, for the past 48 hours ever since Meek Mill dropped “Wanna Know” he’s been maybe the biggest joke in hip hop in years. I’m at a loss to think of a greater embarrassment any time recently – when Rick Ross was exposed as a former corrections officer? Maybe the release of Insane Clown Posse’s “Miracles” in 2009, with the classic line “fucking magnets, how do they work?”, but they started off as a joke, so the fall to earth was non-existent.

By Friday the ridicule was snowballing, and everybody was getting a piece of Meek Mill, including probably a lot of people who hadn’t even heard “Wanna Know” (aka, “the lucky ones”). Brands started to get in on it, with their social media departments competing with one another to tie their product to the beef.

Whataburger probably won that fight, with the Texas national treasure tweeting “Meek Mill take it from us- if you gonna serve beef serve it high quality”. This has been tweeted over 105,000 times and counting, and they followed it up with “chicken fingers turn to Twitter fingers” (a take on “trigger fingers turn to Twitter fingers” from “Back to Back”), but they stayed in the game too long, tweeting “Drake pass the mic: Last name Burger, First name Greatest!”, which is the type of thing you’d almost expect a Jewish guy from Canada to tweet.

By Saturday night, the ridicule was still cresting, and I got to thinking how this would have played out in my younger days. If this was 15 years ago, or just 10, far fewer people would have heard Meek Mill’s track, and very few of them would have had a public platform to comment on it, much less ridicule the rapper in a way that can be seen by legions of people online. His track still would have bombed, but today, in an age when hip hop beefs play out on social media; his song becomes something akin to a cultural milestone, potentially with the ability to sully his career permanently.

It’s yet another reminder that anybody my age (36) is lucky they were born way back when, and grew up knowing that their mistakes, acts of poor judgement and just flat out failures and fuck ups took on normal proportions.

So, Meek Mill vs. Drake, good for the Jews? I guess it can’t hurt, but they really shouldn’t have peed on Aubrey Drake Graham, he seems like such a nice young man.

Avera Mengistu – a flawed focus on racism

For the past 10 months the family of Avera Mengistu has lived with trauma and uncertainty.  Their son has been missing in Gaza, his whereabouts and health unknown, with no sign of life. The fact that he crossed into the Strip willingly, and has a history of mental distress is probably of no consolation.

Avera  Mengistu. (Facebook)

Avera Mengistu. (Facebook)

They have also, it turns out, not been treated with the level of urgency and sympathy one would expect for the family of an Israeli citizen held in captivity by Hamas, and have not met in person with Prime  Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who didn’t respond to their letters asking about their son for 10 months.

On Thursday, hours after the story was cleared for publication, a recording was released of Colonel (res.) Lior Lotan, the prime minister’s representative dealing with hostage issues, scolding and threatening Mengistu’s family, telling them that if they go public and point fingers at the Israeli government they will be personally responsible for keeping him in Gaza for a year longer.

It was a disturbing display of insensitivity on his part, and his tone and conduct was perfect ammunition for those who see in the story of Mengistu’s captivity a microcosm of Israeli racism towards Ethiopian-Israelis. The Mengistu family was spoken to almost like children with a dismissive tone that suggested they were little more than a nuisance.

The feeling that an Ashkenazi family or a “veteran Israeli” family would not be treated this way is understandable and is derived from the discrimination that Ethiopian-Israelis feel. Still, the conclusion that Mengistu’s fate would be different if he was a white Israeli fails to take into account the unique specifics of this case, how it differs from that of previous prisoners like Gilad Shalit, and the changes that have taken place in Israeli society since Shalit was returned in 2011.

Gilad Shalit was part of a 4-man tank crew of active-duty soldiers stationed in a Merkava III tank within Israel near the Kerem Shalom crossing when the tank was attacked by gunmen who had infiltrated by way of a tunnel from the Gaza Strip in the pre-dawn hours of June, 25th, 2006. The assault on the tank was part of a coordinated attack, as other gunmen shelled and opened fire on IDF positions elsewhere on the border with the Strip as a diversionary tactic. Two other members of the tank crew, Lieutenant Hanan Barak and Staff Sergeant Pavel Slutzker, were shot dead at the scene as they escaped the tank, a third crew member was wounded, and Shalit was taken by the attackers back through a hole in the security fence to the Gaza Strip, where he would be held captive for more than five years, until he was released in October 2011 in exchange for 1,027 Palestinian security prisoners.

According to Israeli security officials, Mengistu left his family home on September 7, 2014 and made his way to the security fence with the northern Gaza Strip, crossing over the barrier near the seashore. Soldiers at the scene reportedly called on him to halt, but he ignored their calls and continued into Gaza. Mengistu, who has reportedly suffered from mental health issues and may have been drinking on the day of his disappearance, has not been heard from since.

By any measure the two cases are radically different. Nonetheless, since the story went public, social media has been rife with people comparing Mengistu’s case with that of Shalit arguing that if the young Ethiopian-Israeli man was an Ashkenazi boy, the story wouldn’t have been kept under a gag order and the state would have done far more to bring him home.

This comparison ignores the fact that there was no way to keep the Shalit abduction under a gag order because he did not simply vanish into thin air after leaving his family home in Mitzpe Hila one day – he was taken in a highly-sophisticated cross border raid during which two other soldiers were killed. There could be no gag order on his abduction. Second, the comparison seems to also ignore just how hard it was to get Shalit back home, how long it took, how many protests there were across Israel, the vigil camp set up outside the Prime Minister’s house, the very public, very concerted effort his father Noam led, not resting until his son was released. This was not a matter of the country realizing they lost a nice Ashkenazi kid and overnight deciding they had to get him back at any cost because his family roots were in Europe. It was a painful, drawn-out affair that was deeply traumatic to Israeli society, and probably the biggest news story of the entire five years he was in captivity.

Furthermore, if Shalit – as an Ashkenazi from the right type of family – was so valuable because of his ethnicity, then surely those commanders responsible for losing him to Hamas captivity in Gaza despite Shin Bet warnings of a pending attack must have paid a price right? Let’s see – then commander of the Gaza division, Aviv Kochavi, was later promoted to head Military Intelligence, and then GOC Southern Command Maj. Gen. Yoav Galant was later nominated as IDF Chief of Staff (though it was later withdrawn) and eventually became minister of housing. Neither of the two paid any price for the loss of a sacred white boy.

Another comparison that’s been made by some was to the story of Elhanan Tenenbaum, the (Ashkenazi) Israeli businessman and colonel in the IDF reserves who was kidnapped by Hezbollah in Dubai in 2000 after he traveled there for a drug deal. While it’s true he also traveled on his own volition like Mengistu, Tenenbaum was still in captivity for more than three years before he was returned in a painful prisoner exchange (along with the bodies of three IDF soldiers killed in a Hezbollah ambush at Har Dov in 2000), even though he was a colonel in the Northern Command and privy to secrets of great value to Hezbollah. It may also be obvious that when it was revealed he traveled to Dubai for a drug deal the Israeli public was furious and he has remained something of a pariah ever since.

Mengistu and the unnamed Beduin who crossed the fence months ago aren’t the only two Israelis in Gaza whose whereabouts are unknown. Hamas still holds the remains of soldiers Staff Sergeant Oron Shaul and 2nd Lt. Hadar Goldin, and as far as the public knows, no progress has been achieved returning them home.

If we’re still looking at the issue of ethnicity, Goldin’s fate does not seem to have been helped by him being Ashkenazi, or even by the fact that he’s a direct relative of Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon.

Perhaps most importantly though, any comparison to Shalit is problematic no matter the circumstances, because after the Shalit deal and the extreme price Israel paid to bring him home, the public and especially the political leadership have adopted a significantly more hardline stance on such exchanges. That’s not to say that another painful exchange is unthinkable, but any that follow the Shalit deal, no matter if they involve Ashkenazi soldiers or not, will be far more difficult for this country to stomach, especially if the Israeli they are negotiating for went willingly into the arms of his captors.

The gag order is a symptom of this reluctance for another painful prisoner exchange. With Mengistu’s status kept under  wraps, there is no public or media pressure to force a deal, and Hamas loses a great deal of their bargaining power in any potential exchange. With the gag order lifted, that equation changes.

One can easily understand the anger Ethiopian-Israelis feel about this story and the widespread assumption that if Mengistu was white, things would have played out differently. I don’t think you can blame them for feeling that way. Also, I think it’s quite likely that Lotan would have adopted a different tone with a “veteran Israeli” family, especially one with a serious security background. Nonetheless, by taking a step back and looking at the specifics of this story, one can tell that while racism, like in every story, plays some role, it is not the major defining factor in the fate of Avera Mengistu.

Not our boys

It’s a common refrain any time there’s a mass shooting in the US, which are almost always carried out by white men. The killer – if it’s a white man – must be mentally deranged, possibly even under the influence of harmful medication, something, anything that could explain cold-blooded cruelty on that level.

Yosef Ben David, chief suspect  in the murder of Muhammed Abu Khdeir.

Yosef Ben David, chief suspect in the murder of Muhammed Abu Khdeir.

This refrain has been repeated this week, ever since Dylann Roof walked into an African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina and shot dead 9 congregants last Wednesday night. He was initially described by pundits and politicians as possibly mentally disturbed, with Republican Presidential candidate Rick Perry surmising that he may have been under the effect of dangerous prescription medication.

The narrative lasted even though a witness who Roof let live “to tell the world what happened here” said he told her he was carrying out the massacre because black people “are taking over the US”. The narrative was only retired after more photos emerged showing him holding a pistol and a confederate flag, as well as racist and anti-Semitic writings online which he reportedly authored.

Like after previous mass murders, people on Twitter and elsewhere drew comparisons, asking why is it that white killers are called “mentally disturbed” and Muslim killers are called “terrorists”.

Closer to home, the debate made me think of a brutal crime in this parts a year ago. Though it wasn’t a mass killing, the lynching of 16-year-old Muhammed Abu Khdeir last summer, kidnapped and burned alive in a Jerusalem forest, showed a rare level of human depravity.

In late-July 2014, the three main suspects in the killing were brought for an arraignment, with the main suspect Yoseph Ben David saying “I am the messiah” as he entered the courtroom. It was an opening shot in his ploy to plead insanity, which was not accepted pre-trial.

I thought of Ben David again this week after Charleston. Like with Dylann Roof, there were also voices in Israel saying that the cause must be mental illness. Initially after the kidnapping and murder, there was disbelief that a Jew could be capable of such a crime, and the claim that Abu Khdeir was murdered by his family in some sort of “honor killing” began to circulate. Finally, after the gag order was lifted and the arrests announced, the argument that Ben David was mentally disturbed first began to surface.

This is despite the fact that the crime was, according to the indictment, well planned out ahead of time. This is also despite the fact that Ben David testified to investigators that with every blow with the tire iron, he called out the name of a terror victim, very clearly saying on record that his motivation was revenge, and the crime nationalist.

The tendency to claim mental illness in these cases is problematic not only because of the double standard or because it in some way smears or detracts from those who are legitimately mentally ill. It also serves as a distraction, to keep us from talking about the wider societal flaws that influence these actions.

If Dylann Roof is simply a mentally-deranged man it means Americans don’t have to look at the centuries of racism in their country and the legacy of racist domestic terrorism meant to disenfranchise and tyrannize blacks. It means maybe there’s no need to examine the uptick in racist rhetoric in the years since the US elected a black president, the cult of neo-confederate and white supremacist ideology to which an untold number of angry and violent white men (and women) belong, and the lack of any sensible gun control policies in America.

The same goes for Israel. When people describe Ben-David and his ilk (like those who torch churches and mosques) as mentally deranged, then a societal problem becomes a personal one. It allows us to avoid closely examining the rising nationalist currents in Israeli society in recent years and see the murder as a one-off event, a strange and unexplainable act of homicidal violence by a Jew, an exception that proves the rule that such acts of violence are the provenance of Arabs, not of our boys.

It allows us to avoid talking about whether or not national policies have played a role, even if indirectly. It means there’s no reason to ask whether or legislation like the “Jewish State Bill” afford a sort of inferior status to non-Jews, because Ben-David is insane, and there’s nothing to be done.

The way these tropes persist shows a sort of cognitive dissonance and a desire to not see our society for its ills. They also seem to discount the very real hatred and violence that have defined so much of our histories. Even after more than four centuries of racial strife and terrorism against black people in America, it still took convincing and the unearthing of manifestos written online by Roof to reach a consensus of sorts on Roof’s motivations. In the case of Ben-David, even after more than a century of Jewish-Arab violence, there were still those willing to believe that Ben-David acted due to mental illness and not because he is a player in one of the world’s bloodiest and most intractable conflicts.

It should be noted that the vast majority of terrorism between the River and the Sea is committed by Palestinians, not by Jews, and the role this disparity plays in forming the belief that the Jewish suspect may be mentally disturbed.

Nonetheless, when Israeli Jews cry mental illness and ignore the political and racial motivators, they avoid looking the cause in the eye and acknowledging the very real and volatile hatred and violence that is part of their society. When they say it can’t be one of our boys, they only increase the likelihood that another one of their boys will do the unthinkable.

Not ‘Israel’s Baltimore’, but real cause for concern

Suddenly, a whole lot of people in Israel are talking about Baltimore.

Police detain an Ethiopian-Israeli man inside City Hall during the riot on May 3rd in Tel Aviv. (Ben Hartman)

Police detain an Ethiopian-Israeli man inside City Hall during the riot on May 3rd in Tel Aviv. (Ben Hartman)

The city has become a buzzword in Israel for riots and protests against police brutality and racism. Coinciding with the publication of a video of an Ethiopian-Israeli soldier being beaten by police, the images of riot cops clashing with protesters and row houses in flames became a symbol to many of what could happen in Israel if the situation spun out of control, if years of frustration in the Ethiopian community were somehow sparked.

At the moment, that seems a far way off. As jarring as the riot in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square was Sunday night, it was a far cry from the riots in Baltimore and a series of other US cities in the past couple of years.

For one, the violence of the protesters was focused squarely on police, with most of the vandalism targeting police as well. We may yet see the day when a violent incident sparks a riot in which Ethiopian Israelis set fire to buildings in their own neighborhoods and fistfight in the streets with white Israelis, but that’s not the case here – and as bad as it was, Sunday night wasn’t Baltimore 2.0.

Still, there’s reason for concern, and one only needs to walk around with their eyes open on a day like Sunday.

An Ethiopian-Israeli mother who wouldn’t give her name stood at Rabin Square before the riot started Sunday night, holding a picture of her son, a young man she said was beaten by police. Hours earlier on the Ayalon Freeway, a group of protesters wore shirts and carried a sign in memory of Yosef Salamsa , an Ethiopian Israeli who is believed to have killed himself earlier this year after alleged abuse by police.

They’re just two out of an unknown number of Ethiopian-Israeli men who have allegedly been abused by Israeli police, a phenomenon that was largely unknown to the wider Israeli public before this past week.

As the dust settled on Rabin Square on Monday, police were preparing for a meeting by a task force formed last week to examine issues involving police and the Ethiopian community. They had vowed to reexamine cases involving allegations of police brutality or Ethiopians accused of assaulting police, but following last night’s events, it’s safe to assume there will be a different tone to the task force’s meetings – which will now be tinged with more mutual suspicion and anger on both sides about Sunday night’s events.

Moving forward, police will have to examine ways to repair ties with a community whose younger generation sees them largely as an adversary that is not looking to protect and serve them. It might not be that much easier with a lot of the older generation, many of whom have heard stories from their children of abuse at the hands of police.

One suggestion will almost certainly be an increased recruitment of Ethiopian police officers. Anyone who has been at a protest in Israel before knows there is already no shortage of Ethiopian Israelis in the Border Patrol or YASSAM units of the Israel Police, but having them in higher numbers on patrol and narcotics and detective units could be a positive step.

Either way, I would not envy the police officers tasked with increasing recruitment among Ethiopian youth, as they’re now the ones rioting against them and the institution in solidarity with Damas Pakedeh, the young IDF soldier shown on tape being beaten by police officers in Holon.

On a certain level, the issue goes beyond racism. It deals partly with the way that, in Israel and many other places, those who are vulnerable or lack connections are more likely to be abused.

If you are on the margins of society or not part of the elite, you are likely to not have the same level of protection from abuse by the authorities; if you live in a poor, neglected neighborhood, it can be easier for law enforcement and other authorities of the state to be dismissive of you. As bad as police brutality towards minorities is, it’s usually just a symptom of a wider series of social failings.

One thing’s for sure, if you are a young Ethiopian Israeli in a neighborhood like Jesse Cohen in Holon, you’d better hope there are cameras nearby if you’re in an altercation with police. A non-Ethiopian Israeli will also find it’s nothing but their word against that of the cops if the incident isn’t on tape, but if you ask most Ethiopian Israelis, they’ll say it’s a whole different ballgame for members of their community.

Moving forward, after the smoke clears from the “Battle of Rabin Square,” there’s a good chance that Yosef and the son of the woman in the square will take a backseat as the debate goes forward, focusing largely on the violence of protesters Sunday night.
That would be a shame, because as violent as protesters were towards police – who largely showed restraint for most of the day – the grievances are very real, and almost every Ethiopian Israeli will tell you they know someone who was abused by police, if they weren’t themselves victims.

And here’s another thing that should be said: Time and again, when people talk about police brutality suffered by Ethiopian Israelis, they mention how the victim was a soldier – how he served his country in Gaza, how he was a paratrooper, a Golanchik, a fighter and a patriot who put his life on the line and deserves better. They’re right, but they’re missing the point.

Freddie Gray wasn’t a combat veteran, and he was no angel in the years before the Baltimore police killed him. He had a rap sheet, but it shouldn’t matter – not in Maryland, and not in Israel. Even if you’re a petty criminal, a knucklehead who dropped out of high school and smokes weed every day, a kid who can’t hold his liquor and runs his mouth too much, or a screw-up the army threw in jail and kicked out of the service, you still deserve respect.

You don’t deserve to lose your dignity or your life. That’s what justice means.

A ‘field of dreams’ that wont heal police troubles 

A rare cause for celebration gripped the Israel Police last Monday, as they dedicated a massive, 2.9 billion shekel training facility outside Beit Shemesh. Coming in the midst of an era of scandal, the dedication of the gleaming, sprawling facility was marked as nothing less than a triumph for the battered organization.

According to police figures, the academy sprawls over some 64,000 square meters on a more than 230 dunam plot, and will incorporate the activities of some 19 police training facilities nationwide. The facility has mock ups of a nightclub, a courthouse and a mall, for anti-terror units and other cops to train for hostage situations,  terror attacks, or to shoot their own action movie or reality show if the desire strikes. The academy will also have room to house well over a thousand overnight guests and feed more than 3,000 people, who can also kick back at the 2,000 seat amphitheater after emptying a few clips at one of the 9 shooting ranges.

Typing or reading that paragraph one can’t help but feel this is a grandiose, possibly even excessive undertaking.

The project will eventually cost NIS 2.9 billion, which is being funded through a public-private partnership between the state and the company that won the tender – Policity group. In a first for Israel, a private corporation will manage a state facility of this sort and be responsible for bringing in private contractors to train police.

In the week before the official opening ceremony, the Israel Police sent out a statement to the press saying that the “vision of the school is for it to create a culture of excellence and professionalism for the Israel Police”, in that the superior facilities and higher standard of training will help produce a more professional police force.

It seems a sort of “Field of Dreams” style logic – “if you build it, excellence and professionalism will come”.

The Israel Police have long been also-rans, far down the prestige ladder from the Army, Mossad, and Shin Bet, perched somewhere above the Prison Service and more or less on par with the Border Patrol. They aren’t pampered, they aren’t adored, and they typically don’t get the perks and the blank checks the elite security services and the army often do. It makes sense that they would want such a flagship institution and that they would relish being the recipients of such a budgetary windfall. Still, one wonders whether or not this is the way to repair what ails the police.

The facility, no matter how state of the art, will not change public perception that the police are an organization rife with scandal, as one senior commander after another resigned or was fired in a series of sex scandals over the past couple of years. It’s also unclear how the facility could build bridges with the Arab community, after the police use of deadly force this past year in communities such as Kfar Kana and Rahat has sparked riots that could have easily spun far out of control. Top notch facilities probably also won’t erase the still lingering public criticism of police that came following the “100 dispatch” scandal last year, when police dispatch operators failed to heed a call placed by one of the three kidnapped Israeli teens.

Seeing as these problems aren’t ones caused by deficient technology or poor training facilities, one is left with the feeling that the NIS 2.9 billion could have potentially been better spent on police salary increases or on increasing manpower in crime-ridden communities.

The police are very concerned about their public perception, a fact that is obvious in what top commanders say behind closed doors to the press. They realize that changing perceptions will take years, in particular repairing damage caused by the recent spate of sex scandals and tension with the Arab community which has remained since the deadly events of October 2000.

It’s hard to see how the new academy will solve these problems.

On Saturday, National Police Chief Yochanan Danino spoke about a series of issues facing police, including the sprawling 242 corruption case (better known as the “Yisrael Beitenu case”) as well as what he described as police success restoring quiet to Jerusalem. In the first case you have one of the largest public corruption cases ever in Israel, which police launched despite any possible political pressure. That case went public just a couple months before the investigation against the Musli family broke, one of the largest police organized crime cases in some time, which could possibly deal a serious blow to Israel’s richest crime family. In the second case, a major police deployment in the capitol helped quell violence that spread fear throughout the city and beyond, as so-called “lone wolf attacks” were happening with terrifying frequency. Danino and others in the police were vocal in their criticism of politicians they said were enflaming the situation, despite the criticism they withstood for doing so.

These cases are good examples of how police can restore public faith – through serious, long-term and important investigations and through deployment in the line of fire to protect civilians from deadly violence. In neither case is it clears how if at all a gleaming, hi-tech facility like the new academy could have helped the situation.

With the new police academy now open, the police will have less luck complaining about a lack of resources or that they’ve been neglected by the state. Their only option now is to continue to focus on the long road ahead.

Casting nets and catching little fish

Forget about the Iranian threat, the rising cost of living or the new attack tunnels being built by Hamas on the Gaza border. The Israel Police are tackling head-on a real menace to our peace and security – high-school kids smoking weed.


At least that was the impression I got late last month, when police announced yet another undercover drug operation that netted dozens of arrests and who knows how many criminal cases.

The story was set in Tel Aviv, where police on February 25 announced that they had arrested and detained for questioning dozens of teenagers suspected of being part of a “sophisticated drug-dealing network.”

All but one of the teenagers were aged 16 and 17, and of the 32 brought in by police, 19 were arrested for using the drugs only, not for anything having to do with drug dealing.

The drugs in question were marijuana and hashish, and the sums were at most in the hundreds of shekels, according to police. And though it was a “highly sophisticated network,” police said the kids used the code words “green” and “brown” to describe marijuana and hashish, perhaps indicating they were not the most cunning of criminal masterminds, nor that police needed the Military Intelligence Directorate’s code-breakers to crack this cipher.

The day the case broke it got pretty heavy play in the national media, and was part of the news cycle for about 24 hours. Looking back, a few questions come to mind, just like after every one of these cases.

Why is this a national story? Why is the arrest of a group of teenagers for smoking pot and small-time dealing between their friends a story that warrants discussion on Israeli radio and its top news channels? By this standard, half of the students I knew in high school in the US would have been famous or at least would have known people who were.

Furthermore, in the police press release it highlighted the fact that one of the teens admitted to smoking pot with his mom, an allegation she herself confirmed to investigators. Why this is an issue for police and not for child protection services and their like is unclear, nor why it was necessary to report that aspect of the case that is subject to confidentiality issues being that it involves minors.

More importantly though, what happens after the case breaks? The story makes the rounds one day, but after the dust settles, what’s the net result? How many of these arrests led to indictments and how many were thrown out of court? Regardless of how many of the cases result in indictments, one thing certain is that all of these teens have juvenile cases opened in their names and a record with law enforcement, all in the same year that they should be having their initial draft interviews with the IDF. The fact that such arrests can potentially jeopardize a youngster’s future is of seemingly no concern to police or at all part of the media coverage.

It’s very likely that the motivation for these press releases is to raise public awareness among parents about what is happening with Israeli youngsters, to let them know that even at the best schools and the nicest neighborhoods, if parents don’t pay attention, their children can get into trouble. Nonetheless, these press releases typically seem alarmist and out of proportion.

Though in this case it was teenagers, rarely a week passes without a new police undercover drug sweep reported by the Police Spokesman’s Office. With some exceptions the story follows a familiar script – a cop from outside the district is brought in (if it’s in Tel Aviv or the Center, the cop is usually brought from the North or the South), he’s sent undercover posing as a drug user or smalltime dealer, and lives in the city making street-level buys. After a couple months, the investigation “goes public” as police swoop out in force and arrest dozens of dealers. Few, if any, are ever above the street level or busted with more than a small amount of drugs.

Another type of undercover operation is potentially more problematic. These cases don’t involve a cop from out of town sent in undercover, they involve everyday civilians recruited to be “police agents,” who then build cases on suspects who are typically arrested down the road. The suspects are often friends, neighbors and other associates the person has easy access to.

One of these cases broke last September, when a 26-year-old single mother and hair stylist from Petah Tikva – nicknamed “Nikita” by her handlers – was recruited to build drug cases on dozens of local dealers and users. Nearly a year later the case netted 29 arrests of people allegedly involved in the drug trade, though virtually all of them were friends or acquaintances she knew from the hair salon, people who hooked her up with a small buy and then were hauled in as dealers. While it’s not legal to buy drugs for your friends, and even if these police tactics don’t constitute entrapment, at least this still seems a far cry from being Donnie Brasco with a curling iron.

These undercover cases and the story of the dozens of teens brought in by cops paint a picture of a police force looking to get headlines, while maybe not all that sensitive to the effect legal issues can have on your average citizen. By no means should people get a free pass to break the law, but when the case involves minors or everyday people without criminal records who were selling or possessing the most negligible amounts of contraband, it would be wise to exercise restraint.

These cases came to mind on Monday, when details were cleared for publication of how police stopped a mob hit in Ashdod, the second underworld killing they’ve prevented in the city in the past few months. The story has everything – bad guys with bombs, cops shooting and killing a suspect (rightfully?) who rammed their cars and a gang war between two mobsters – Shalom Domrani and Benny Shlomo – who are legitimate celebrities in Israel and household names in a lot of bad households in the country. Police still have a lot of room for improvement in its fight against organized crime, but it has victories to be proud of.

Perhaps the police could learn from fishermen from time immemorial that you throw the small fish back, and only boast when the big ones are caught.

Public Security – Always the bridesmaid of ministries

As you probably noticed, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Right survived Election Day intact, emerging victorious despite an attack by Arab hordes (i.e. “voters”) descending on polling stations by the busload.

By Monday evening President Reuven Rivlin had received endorsements from a total of 67 MKs, recommending that Netanyahu be tasked with forming the next coalition. As anyone familiar with Israeli politics knows, now is when the real fun begins, when the ruling party starts doling out the ministerial portfolios to the parties making up the governing coalition.

The most prestigious portfolio – the Defense Ministry – will almost certainly remain with the Likud, while other top portfolios like the Foreign and Finance ministries may be up for grabs, although there are already strong indications who will receive those. There has been some talk that the Public Security Ministry may go to Kulanu’s No. 2 Yoav Galant, former head of the IDF Southern Command; or to Ayelet Shaked, No. 2 on the Bayit Yehudi list, who has in the past expressed interest in the post.

What’s certain is that the ministry will remain a second-tier portfolio that will not receive the interest it warrants from the coalition members.

The fact that Public Security is a non-prestigious portfolio speaks volumes about the low status held by law enforcement and the issue of crime – both of great importance to the quality of life in Israel and in how the state relates to its Arab citizens.

The ministry is in charge of not only the police (including the Border Police) but also of the Prisons Service and of Fire and Rescue Services. It is responsible for tens of thousands of public employees whose careers are devoted to the cause of public safety, in one of the least safe regions in the world. It is the ministry that is ultimately responsible for handling much of the violence that relates to conflict with the Palestinians.

This was seen most clearly this past year during police measures to calm tension on the Temple Mount, and the deployment of massive reinforcements of officers to Jerusalem to stop a wave of lone-wolf terror attacks and violent rioting against security forces.

These are incidents that, if handled carelessly, have the ability to spiral out of control and take on dimensions far beyond that of simple riots – and have an impact beyond Israel’s borders. This requires strong and sound leadership.

The gravity of the portfolio should be more apparent in the wake of the controversy over Netanyahu’s race-baiting warning about Arab voters, just hours before the polls closed last week. The statement made waves in Israel and beyond, and represented yet another dark chapter in the state’s relations with its Arab citizens.

After his sweeping victory, Netanyahu said he would be the prime minister of all of Israel’s citizens – Jewish and otherwise – as did his aides. One defense offered repeatedly in the days to follow – including by Netanyahu himself on Monday – is that no government invested more in infrastructure in the Arab sector than did the Likud over the past six years, actions speaking more loudly than words.

If the Likud and the other parties in the governing coalition do believe this is the case, and are interested in showing they will govern for all citizens, a great place to start would be with the Public Security Ministry – which must be given the prominence it deserves.

Israel’s Arab citizens encounter law enforcement and the criminal justice system at a rate that is well out of proportion – they comprise 20 percent of the general population, and around half of the country’s murder victims.

Their communities are rife with illegal firearms and are hotbeds of drug dealing and gang warfare, and unlike their Jewish neighbors, for the Arab sector crime is always a major issue among voters.

If the new government were to launch a major effort to systematically fight illegal firearms in the Arab sector and to improve policing in Arab towns and communities, it could potentially help heal the damage caused by the prime minister on Election Day. It would send the message that while the Right certainly does not speak the language of tolerance, it will invest the resources necessary so that Israeli Arabs do not feel their families and communities are second-class citizens when it comes to security.

The onus also lies on the members of the Joint List, which will represent the Arab sector with 13 seats – the third-largest faction in the 20th Knesset – and should make itself a force in committee meetings dealing with public security issues.

The past public security minister, Yitzhak Aharonovitch, was a driven and passionate head of the ministry who spoke often about the need for greater cooperation between police and the Arab sector, and worked to achieve this goal. The next politician to hold the ministry must do more; he or she will also preside over what is expected to be a years-long process, wherein the Israel Police will work to solve the sexual harassment crisis that has shaken the organization over the past few years.

Crime in the Arab sector won’t be a vote-getter as long as most Israeli Arabs don’t vote for Zionist parties, but tackling this issue would go a long way towards ensuring that Israel in practice – if not always in words – is a country of all of its citizens.

One step forward for police, two steps back

(This post originally appeared as a column in the Jerusalem Post weekend magazine on February 26th, 2015)

Congratulations are in order for Gila Gaziel, who became the highest-ranking woman in the Israel Police on Sunday, when she was made the latest female assistant-chief – the second-highest rank in the force.

Gila Gaziel in a ceremony celebrating her appointment to assistant-chief.. (photo credit: ISRAEL POLICE)

Gila Gaziel in a ceremony celebrating her appointment to assistant-chief.. (photo credit: ISRAEL POLICE)

A non-threatening pat on the back is also in order for the Israel Police, for making the promotion – as long, of course, as it avoids being tarnished by yet another sex scandal involving police officers that breaks before you finish reading this sentence.

That’s about how it’s gone for the Israel Police over the past couple of months – sex scandal after sex scandal, and one “[temporarily] unnamed senior police officer” after another accused of sexual misconduct against female subordinates.

With his police force the subject of public ridicule and disdain (at least, more than they were already), National Commissioner Insp.-Gen. Yohanan Danino vowed late last month to appoint more women to senior police ranks, and said the day might not be far off when there is a female police commissioner.

Until that day comes – assuming it does – the highest-ranking female cop we have is Gaziel. The 54-year-old mother of three and resident of Modi’in- Maccabim-Re’ut has a master’s in education and has spent 27 years with the police, working almost entirely in the organization’s Manpower Branch.

Her resumé reads somewhat similarly to that of Maj.-Gen. Orna Barbivai, who in 2011 became the highest-ranked female officer ever in the IDF, when she was appointed to head the Manpower Branch.

The impact Gaziel’s appointment will have on her subordinates and the police as a whole remains to be seen, but it would be over-optimistic to expect a single appointment to provide even a temporary solution to the crisis facing the force.

As important as the Manpower Branch is to the police as an organization, it is far from being a marquee position in the public eye. Officers holding the rank of assistant-chief are typically district chiefs or division heads. A major appointment would be to see a female head of, say, the Tel Aviv District; any of the branches within Lahav 433, the elite unit often called (in the Israeli media) “The Israeli FBI”; or the police’s Investigations and Intelligence Branch.

The latter role is about as prominent you can get without being chief of police, but what about seeing a female officer in charge of the Central District – the largest in Israel, and home to some of Israel’s most crime-ridden cities? The district is also home to Ramle and Lod, where most of the highly publicized honor killings have happened in recent years. Seeing a woman tackling this crucial and high-profile police position could be a major move.

But is seeing a woman in charge of a district or branch really what it takes? Arguably, female appointments could have more of an impact lower down the food chain, if just in the right places.

In July 2013, police made 32 appointments of senior police officers to new positions. These included new subdistrict and deputy district heads, and new officers in top investigative positions. Only four went to women, including one in the police planning branch, one in the legal branch and one in the police disciplinary branch.

The four female promotions most prominently included Dep.-Ch. Yael Edelman – who was made the first-ever police adviser on women’s affairs.

According to police figures from last year, there were six women with the rank of deputy chiefs – the third-highest in the police force – 24 commanders and 91 chief superintendents. These are all nice numbers, if one doesn’t look too closely.

Though female officers make up nearly a quarter of the police force, out of 128 district, subdistrict and station commanders in Israel, only four are women. And while Ben-Gurion Subdistrict Ch.-Supt. Sigalit Bar-Tzvi is a highly regarded officer and Givatayim Station Ch.-Supt. Miriam Peled was an admired officer and detective in the Tel Aviv district’s investigative branch, neither are marquee posts, no more decorated than the positions held by Ch.-Supt. Eti Meirson of the Zichron Ya’acov station or Ch.-Supt. Anna Ben-Mordechai of the Mevaseret Zion station.

A look at the mid-level command may indicate where part of the problem for the Israel Police lies. There are simply nowhere near enough women with command positions in local stations and subdistricts, with positions of power and authority out in the field – where, for the most part, it’s a man’s world.

Standing in the freezing cold at the entrance to Jerusalem on Thursday night, national chief Danino was asked about the string of sex scandals, when all he really wanted to do was talk about police preparations for the snow that was set to fall. Moshe Nussbaum, Channel 2’s crime reporter, then inquired if in light of all of the scandals, maybe the time had come for him to resign.

Danino, to his credit, didn’t dodge the question. He said that as he sees it, resigning at this point would be a dereliction of duty, abandoning his post at a time of crisis, and that part of the reason we’re hearing about so many scandals is because of police efforts to expose sexual harassment within their organization.

He then repeated a statement he’s made a number of times recently: The scandals the public reads about in the press don’t represent the police force as a whole – and don’t have anything to do with the tens of thousands of police who fulfill their duty day in and day out, without committing sexual misconduct.

That sounds like wishful thinking.

Like it or not, the series of officers – including several district chiefs – who have resigned or been dismissed amid sexual misconduct probes are the face of the organization to the Israeli public.

Appointments like Gaziel’s may help change that image, but there is no magical solution or quick fix. It will take a long, multi-year process in which we will probably see many more cases come to light, and probably a number of police commanders – senior and mid-level – facing criminal charges.

Hopefully, when all is said and done, the police force will be seen as safer for women than it is today – and a point of pride for the public.

Caution: Arabs will steal this column!

(This post originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post weekend magazine on February 13th, 2015)

To paraphrase Naftali Bennett, if you are reading this column in a café, watch out: Arabs will steal your laptop.

Speaking at a conference at Tel Aviv University on Sunday, the head of the Bayit Yehudi party said public security in Israel had reached a low point, then cherry-picked some examples.

“Anyone who has toured the Negev in recent years knows they can’t leave their car at the small makhtesh [crater] or next to one of the rivers, because it’s a sure thing the cars will be broken into or stolen – also in Petah Tikva, and the Galilee. And farming equipment and tractors are stolen from farmers.’’ Turning to east Jerusalem, he said, “You can’t even go to the Mount of Olives or Mount Scopus anymore. And it’s already impossible to enter any Arab village or city. This, first off, has an effect on the Arab citizens – because the state decided that the rule of law is maybe in Tel Aviv, Haifa or Ra’anana, but not in these places.”

To be fair to Bennett, at no point did he say “Arabs will steal your car,” as some reported. Still, anyone who’s lived in Israel for five minutes can read between the lines here. Farming equipment in the Negev, car theft in the Galilee, rock throwers in east Jerusalem, and the dangers that you – everyday (Jewish) citizen of Israel – face upon entering an Arab village or city, all very clearly say to the Israeli ear: The Arab citizens are a public security threat, both national and criminal, both in terms of property crime and violent crime, for the Jewish citizens of Israel.

Forget the fact that actually it’s not impossible to enter an Arab village or town in Israel – a statement almost along the lines of the Fox News claim that whole swaths of Paris are no-go zones for police and non-Muslims. Forget about the fact that the vast majority of the car bombs that blew up in Israeli streets over the past few years were part of feuds between Jewish gangsters, and were detonated in Jewish neighborhoods.

Forget the battered women – Jewish and Arab – who have been killed by their spouses in recent years, after police and the system failed to protect them. Forget the countless small businessmen – Jew and Arab alike – across Israel being extorted by Jewish and gentile gangsters.

Forget the man who was a witness in an extortion complaint against a Jewish gangster and was blown up in his car last month in Hod Hasharon, not far from Bennett’s Ra’anana home.

Forget all of them: Public security is only an issue, only a campaign talking point, when it involves threats – exaggerated or otherwise – that Arabs pose to Jews in Israel.

Bennett was right when he said that crime in Arab communities first affects Arabs, and was also right to say that the state has neglected these areas, preserving the rule of law for places like Tel Aviv. Still, there’s a right way and a wrong way to talk about crime in the Arab sector.

Crime is one of the main issues affecting Arab communities in Israel, along with unemployment, poor infrastructure and poverty. The state does not deal with the local infrastructure or enforce local ordinances like it does in Jewish cities, and police do not respond to violent crimes with the same seriousness that they do when a shooting or stabbing happens in a Jewish town.

The state and the police aren’t the only ones – the media do the same. An underworld shooting in Tel Aviv is frontpage news; one in Tira, Tuba-Zanghariya or Tel Sheva warrants a brief, maybe more if it’s a slow news day. That’s why Israel Police Chief Insp.-Gen. Yohanan Danino said, after the fatal drive-by on the Tel Aviv promenade near Jaffa last February, that “if this had been 50 meters south [in Jaffa], no one would have cared – but because it was next to the Tahana [entertainment] center, everyone was screaming to the high heavens.”

He got some grief for the quote, but he was right, basically.

It’s no secret that crime rates in the Arab sector are disproportionately high.

According to a 2011 report by the Public Security Ministry, 67 percent of murder cases involved Israeli Arabs, as did 70% of attempted murders. Arab offenders were also represented in a disproportionate percentage of assault, robbery and arson cases, according to the report.

The issue was highlighted by Welfare and Social Services Minister Meir Cohen in January, when he told a conference in Kafr Kasim that around 50% of Israeli murder victims are Arabs – despite the fact that they make up only around 20% of the population.

At the same gathering, Nohad Ali, a sociologist from the University of Haifa, presented research he had compiled with the Aman Center and the university, which examined data on violence in Arab society between 2007 and 2013.

Ali said at the meeting that the Arab sector in Israel has one of the highest levels of violence, if compared to Arab countries in the region. The data showed that violence among Jews decreased from 2005 to 2013, while violence in the Arab sector increased from 2006 to 2011, and that 70% of attempted murders take place in the Arab sector.

They also found that 95% of the Arab population in Israel sees violence as the No. 1 problem in their society.

Tackling the violence wreaking havoc in the Arab sector – where the amount of illegal firearms is multitudes higher than in Israeli Jewish society – is one of Israel’s main public security issues, even though the victims are predominantly other Arabs.

Crime and public security should be a top election issue, not only when it involves cases where the victims are Jews, or “one of us.” This comes sharply into focus in light of recent outrage, sparked by the latest case of a Druse soldier who reported being beaten after being overheard speaking Arabic. The outrage is very justified, but I assume it would be far more muted if the victim of such an alleged hate crime was an Arab, Muslim or otherwise, who did not serve in the IDF – and was not one of us.

Politicians across the political spectrum – including Bennett – have almost entirely abandoned crime in their election campaigns, preferring instead to argue over matters like who’s the bigger Zionist.

Though it probably won’t earn them many votes, it’d be refreshing to see a politician in this election cycle talk about how his party can make Israel a safer place for all citizens, even if they live in Arab towns – those no-go zones Bennett warned about – where no one will vote for Bayit Yehudi.