Police Vs. Civilians, In NYC, And Jerusalem

There are aspects of spending time in Israel that can take one completely out of a “New York state of mind,” and refreshingly so. For all the problems that Israel has, and there are many, I have yet to spend time there without experiencing one or two encounters with people that are so unlike life here in New York, and I treasure them.

When I left for Israel on December 21, New York was a city on the edge, just barely holding it together. Upon my return just a little over a week ago, it seemed much the same, and it still does.

Weeks of protests against what many saw as an unjustifiable use of lethal force by police against African-Americans and people of color was followed by the murder in cold blood, allegedly intended as an act of revenge, of two NYPD officers, sitting innocently in their squad car.

Large portions of the African-American and Latino communities have lost faith in the police. The police feel themselves endangered and under siege, abandoned by the city’s political leadership. The mayor, fiercely liberal and married to an African-American woman, is hopelessly triangulated between sympathy for the African-American community and the need to be supportive of the police, who are, largely, furious with him.

I have to admit, leaving New York for Israel in late December was a wonderful feeling. It felt like shedding a few layers of what, to paraphrase Milan Kundera, might fairly be called the “unbearable heaviness of being.” There is no element of life here that has been left untouched by the tense cloud that hangs over the city, waiting for the next spark to ignite the conflagration. Breathing the air of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and spending time with family and friends, was a welcome respite.

But of course, Israel is no sane person’s idea of a place to go to get away from the tensions of everyday life. Israelis live their daily lives with almost unimaginable tensions, these days as much as ever before. Individual jihadists have made even routine outings an adventure, plowing their cars into bus stops, perpetrating random stabbings, and generally trying their hardest to make “normal life,”whatever that means, ever more difficult and stressful.

The Palestinian Authority is moving, through its newly certified membership in the International Criminal Court, to charge Israel and her citizen-soldiers with war crimes, and the European Union is helping to make that possible. Though Islamic terror has hit France hard this week, the countries of Europe are slow to draw a connecting line between Jihadi violence and Israel’s predicament. It is not the easiest of times in Israel, not by a long shot.

I was thinking about all this while walking through downtown Jerusalem one day, and observing the green-beret-wearing members of Mishmar HaGvul, Israel’s border police. (In Hebrew slang, they are known as “Magavnikim;” Magav is a contraction for Mishmar Hagvul, and Magavnikim are the members of the force). These strapping men and women look like soldiers; they are all wearing green army fatigues, are armed with machine guns and often wearing battle gear, but they are actually more like a paramilitary force, the anti-terror operational arm of Israel’s police.

They are the ones who are deployed in Israel’s urban centers like Zion Square in Jerusalem to deter those who would attempt attacks, and who, if Arabs are rioting on the Temple Mount, or in the Old City, are on the front lines of the battle to contain the violence. It is a very, very difficult assignment.

While Israel’s military is a product of universal conscription and has men and women of all ethnic and socio-economic varieties, one is not “drafted” into Mishmar Hagvul; one applies, and joins. Largely poorer, working-class Israelis, particularly those of Sephardic and North African origins, have historically populated it. I’m not quite sure how to say this in a delicate and politically correct way, but the Magavnikim have, I’m told, a well-earned reputation for being, shall we say, tough. They know the streets, and they do not shy away from confrontation.

All of this is good and appropriate for people whose job it is to confront terrorists and quell riots. You don’t want PhD’s in literature in those jobs. You want people who know how to defend themselves, and the Israeli public. All good, unless you happen to be on the wrong side of an encounter with them.

For as long as I can remember, going back to my junior year abroad at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem in 1971-72, Palestinians and Arabs citizens of Israel have been complaining about the “harsh tactics” of the Magavnikim. They are not “gentle spirits,” and they’re trained to be as tough as the situation demands. But what has long been said about them is that, often, they are tougher than the situation demands, much tougher.

Sound familiar?

Here in New York, police are trained to show no fear when confronting those who might wish them harm. To show fear is to create a self-fulfilling prophecy of vulnerability, and only a hopelessly naïve fool would deny the myriad dangers that they face on a daily basis. The only question, and it is a real and unavoidable one, is how does a police officer assess what the true nature of the threat is, and whether or not that threat assessment is rooted in preconceived ideas and attitudes. We, the citizens of New York, depend on their courage to keep us safe. But society, and the rule of law, do not grant law enforcement officers a free pass. It's so difficult, and so complicated.

The same might easily be said of Israel, where her citizens depend on Magavnikim to be the first responders, if not preventers, of mayhem and violence. They are the thin line, the thin green line, if you will, between terror and security. But if you’re a Palestinian, the chances are that you’re not going to get the benefit of the doubt when the use of force is involved in a tense situation, and it won’t always be fair, or pretty.

Yes, it’s good to get away, particularly to Israel. Breathing the air of Jerusalem is a great tonic for the soul, political and religious mishegas aside. But that “New York state of mind” goes with you, for the simple reason that what is happening here is not unique. New Yorkers on both sides of these issues would do well to understand that.

Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the spiritual leader of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.

About the Author
Rabbi Gerald C. Skolnik is the Rabbi Emeritus of the Forest Hills Jewish Center in Queens.