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A Few Words Are Worth a Thousand Images

Protest in In Washington, DC against police killings. (Photo:  Susan Melkisethian/flickr/cc)

As people in towns and cities around the nation – including Ithaca, New York, where I live – explode over the second non-indictment of a white police officer who killed a black man in little over a week, many have remarked upon the resemblance between violent, racist repression here and in Israel/Palestine – and on the impunity enjoyed by those who represent the “law” in both places. According to the Israeli human rights and information organization B’tselem, from 2001 to 2011, the Military Police Investigations Unit “did not conduct investigations on Palestinians killed by Israeli soldiers.” Since then, those responsible for beatings and abuse “are not fully prosecuted. A new law passed by the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, makes it almost impossible for Palestinians wronged by Israeli security forces to claim compensation.”

The parallels become less surprising when one considers programs such as the Law Enforcement Exchange Program (LEEP), a creation of the Jewish Institute of National Security Affairs (JINSA), whose motto is “Securing America, Strengthening Israel.” Delegations of U.S. law enforcement officials – including “police commanders, security experts, and FBI agents” from LA, Chicago, DC, Boston, Philadelphia, New York, St. Louis, and other cities – are sponsored by JINSA and the Anti-Defamation League to learn Israeli methods of surveillance, intercepting “illegal immigrants,” crowd control,  and other “counter-terrorism” and “law enforcement” measures that are conducted upon the people for, so it is said, their own protection.

Of course, U.S. authorities were not strangers to repressive tactics before this. As journalist Mark LeVine has pointed out, urban police departments and the federal government found counterinsurgency methods used in Vietnam to be useful in responding to the civil rights, anti-war, and United Farm Workers labor rights movements at home in the 1960s.  And comparisons don’t imply equivalencies. Says LeVine, “Israelis are still living in the American 1950s, while Gazans remain trapped in a ghetto in which no Ferguson resident would want to live.” Still, Jimmy Johnson has reported in Electronic Intifada that in 2005, “the then-chief of police of Washington, DC, a city that has adopted Israeli-style policing to an extreme degree, told The Washington Post that Israel is ‘the Harvard of antiterrorism.’”

In Israel/Palestine, as in the U.S., the buck spent on surveillance – or at least its value - stops when it comes to cops. On May 15, 2014 – the anniversary of the Nakba, or the “catastrophe” in which hundreds of thousands of Palestinians fled or were killed in the 1948 war – two Palestinian teenagers were shot to death by Israeli police. According to CNN, “Security cameras captured the second fatal shooting that day of … 17-year-old Mohammad Odeh Salameh…. Doctors pronounced Salameh dead on arrival at the hospital, with a bullet wound that had pierced his back and exited his chest. No arrests were made….” An American-Israeli blogger not only denies the responsibility of the Israeli killers; he suggests that the video footage was simply a “’Pallywood’ production,” a “hoax in which no one was actually killed.” 

Meanwhile, it’s the videotaping messengers who fare the worst. Ramsey Orta, the 22-year-old who captured Eric Garner’s death on his cell phone, was subsequently indicted – also in Staten Island - for weapons possession. Orta told the arresting officers, "You're just mad because I filmed your boy.”   Strangely, his grand jury did not find him as credible as Daniel Pantaleo’s grand jury, of the same borough, found Eric Garner’s killer. “Karma’s a bitch” Orta’s arresting officer allegedly counseled him. Ira McKinley, director of the recent documentary The Throwaways (about mass incarceration and police brutality in upstate New York), was aggressively accosted by police for filming as they stopped a young black man near a community center in Albany, soon after Trayvon Martin’s murder. (He felt that some footage might be helpful.) When McKinley was arrested in Ithaca in 1989 – before cellphone cameras – the Ithaca Journal  headlines ran “Differing Views” and “Two Versions Cloud Charge of Brutality.” Meanwhile, the routine fate of devices that record assaults on Palestinians (and their owners) is best summed up by the title of the documentary Five Broken Cameras.

As each graphic record hits the headlines – from Rodney King to Mohammad Odeh Salameh to the carnage in Gaza this summer to Eric Garner – those here and there who cling to a sliver of faith in justice believe that a tipping point has been reached, that after this, it can’t go on. But a few words from PR firms, think tanks, and prosecutors whose livelihood hinges on their complicity with police forces are apparently worth a thousand images.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

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Harriet Malinowitz

Harriet Malinowitz is Lecturer in Writing at Ithaca College and a member of Jewish Voice for Peace.  

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