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.

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