Do Small Town Cops Need Training in Israeli Counterterror Techniques?
Georgia state Rep. Jason Spencer believed he was being trained by an Israeli special forces officer, but was actually an unwitting participant in a sketch by British comedian Sacha Baron Cohen. Under the impression that he was at risk of a terrorist kidnapping, the Republican agreed to Cohen’s increasingly absurd instructions, shouting racial slurs, dropping his pants, and threatening to turn any would-be attacker into “a homosexual.” Footage of the encounter made it onto the comedy series Who Is America? and ended Spencer’s political career.
Spencer is not the first Georgia politician to fall in love with the mystique of Israeli counterterrorism training. There’s a thriving cottage industry for American officials who believe their towns and cities are under terroristic threat and that exotic special tactics are necessary to quell the danger.
The practice of Israeli-style police training began at the Georgia International Law Enforcement Exchange (GILEE) in the 1990s. The institution also organized a U.S.-Chinese police exchange at the request of China’s government, among other programs.
The specific interest in Israel spread across America after the 9/11 attacks. At the same time the public was reeling from terrorism, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was also in full swing, inspiring U.S. officials to look to Israeli security tactics as a model.
Nonprofit organizations from the liberal Anti-Defamation League (ADL) to the conservative Jewish Institute for National Security of America (JINSA) set up exchange programs allowing U.S. law enforcement officials to study in Israel. Local and federal taxpayer money helped finance the Mediterranean junkets for local cops.
“It is the tragic reality that these heinous [Palestinian] attacks have taught Israeli officials lessons that no nation ever wants to learn first-hand,” former FBI Assistant Director Steven Pomerantz, who created the JINSA program, wrote in a 2020 op-ed for Forward. “Nearly two decades after 9/11, and following more recent attacks in San Bernardino, Orlando, and New York, these lessons unfortunately remain pertinent to the U.S. law enforcement community.”
Training abroad was one of many war on terror measures that changed the face of American policing, from the 1033 program that supplied local police with military surplus equipment to the “fusion centers” that created a nationwide domestic intelligence network.
“There was this thought that some of the things that were occurring within Israel—whether suicide bombings or the bombings of really soft targets like universities—we would start to see them in the United States,” says John Skinner, a former Baltimore deputy police commissioner who attended the first JINSA trip to Israel in 2002. “I think relationships to share ideas are always helpful, but obviously we never needed the techniques and tactics they were using on a day-to-day basis there.”
A more recent social movement is starting to push American law enforcement in the other direction. As the Black Lives Matter protests erupted in the early 2010s, activists turned their attention to the role of military-style tactics in police brutality.
Israeli police training became a target of scrutiny. After all, Israeli authorities operate in the Palestinian territories under martial law, and most Palestinians do not have Israeli citizenship rights.
A coalition of activists, led by the left-wing group Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), has begun organizing against Israeli police training. The activists published a report in 2018 detailing imported Israeli techniques they believed have changed American policing for the worse.
“Upon their return, U.S. law enforcement delegates implement practices learned from Israel’s use of invasive surveillance, blatant racial profiling, and repressive force against dissent,” the report states. “Rather than promoting security for all, these programs facilitate an exchange of methods in state violence and control that endanger us all.”
At the very least, visits to Israel have helped American police justify more snooping on citizens and stricter secrecy. Critics also assert that Israeli training encourages excessive force, but there is less evidence the training is responsible for American law enforcement uses of excessive force.
In a draft memo leaked earlier this year, ADL officials themselves wondered whether the training they sponsor could lead American officers to act more aggressively toward civilians. Publicly, the ADL still insists that the U.S.-Israel police exchanges are appropriate, although its exchange program is suspended with no word on when it will resume.
Foreign terrorism was once the center of American politics. But some 20 years after 9/11, Americans now have a growing concern over the changes in policing brought on by the attack. The fate of U.S.-Israel police exchanges will show whether the practices 9/11 wrought are here to stay.
Israel has been haunted by the specter of terrorism for much of its modern existence. In 1948, amid a civil war in the British Mandate of Palestine, Jewish nationalists declared the new state of Israel. Both the Israeli independence movement and its Palestinian opponents used tactics such as car bombs to kill and intimidate their enemies.
Israel found itself at war with neighboring Arab countries for the next several decades, and it captured the remaining Palestinian territories (the West Bank and Gaza) in 1967. All the while, Palestinians fought for a state of their own, sometimes with direct military resistance against Israeli rule and sometimes with terror against Israeli civilians.
In the late 1980s, Palestinians launched a popular uprising called the intifada, leading to the Oslo peace agreement, which promised self-rule for the West Bank and Gaza. But the peace process stalled out, and a much more violent Palestinian rebellion known as the second intifada broke out in the early 2000s.
As part of its security strategy, the Israeli government has given itself expansive police powers. Since the end of British rule, Israel has been in a legally declared state of emergency, allowing authorities to jail people without trial, censor news reports, seize property without a warrant, restrict civilians’ movement, and set up a vast surveillance network.
The Supreme Court of Israel officially outlawed torture in 1999, but the Israeli human rights group B’Tselem says that the country’s intelligence services continue to use “abusive interrogation techniques.”
American interest in Israeli police tactics began in the early 1990s when Atlanta was gearing up to host the 1996 Summer Olympics.
“I immediately thought of Munich 1972 and how to prevent that from happening in ’96,” says George State University criminologist Robert R. Friedmann, referring to the 1972 Summer Olympics, where Palestinian nationalists kidnapped and murdered 11 Israelis.
So Friedmann created GILEE through the university’s criminology department in 1992. He tells Reason that he found the Israeli government “more than willing to share its lessons learned with other police forces simply for the sake of saving lives.”
Over the decades, over 1,100 law enforcement officials have gone through 290 GILEE training programs, according to the institution’s website. GILEE not only runs U.S.-Israel exchanges but also boasts of relationships in countries ranging from Hungary to China.
“Nations have different political systems, and countries have different systems to maintain law and order,” then-Georgia police Colonel George Ellis said in a 2002 review posted to the GILEE website. “Our visit to China promoted a good international relationship and led to a delegation from China visiting Georgia thanks to the GILEE Program.”
Friedmann says that exchange came at the request of Chinese authorities, who were looking to prepare for the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing and to create a police training center of their own.
At the U.S. State Department’s request, GILEE also gave American-style law enforcement education to police from post-Communist countries “not exactly known for democratic traditions,” like Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, according to Friedmann.
“I think in the West and particularly the United States, the issue of—I don’t want to start talking about the First Amendment and free speech, but I think we are incapacitating ourselves as a society by not takin
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