Friday, March 02, 2007

Writing and Righting Wrongs in Israel

Not long ago, a woman whom I had known in the U.S. was returning with her husband to their Jerusalem apartment when they realized that it was being burglarized. With the help of neighbors, they subdued the burglar and held him until the police arrived and took the fellow into custody, along with his stash of cash and jewelry. The victims quickly realized that they should retrieve what had been taken and hurried to the neighborhood police station. When their possessions were returned, the money was gone. Soon enough, the culprit was gone because he was never prosecuted.

Welcome to the world of Israeli police, a world where at times it is hard to distinguish between the criminals and the lawmen. According to the just-released report of the Zeiler Commission which examined aspects of Israeli police conduct, this is a rotten and corrupt world infiltrated by the Israeli mafia where cops commit murder and their foul deeds are covered up by higher-ups.

In this regard, Israel's police may not be worse than police elsewhere. Corruption is an inevitable companion of police work. Last year, there was a trial in Brooklyn of two much-decorated former New York's finest who for years served as mob hitmen. What makes Israel's police story most depressing is that this huge governmental force does little to combat or investigate ordinary crime. Some of this has to do with its vital role in maintaining security, scarcely an excuse for the high tolerance exhibited toward criminal activity.

When thousands of cars were being stolen off the street and shipped a short distance to Arab chop shops, the police saw nothing. Israeli cities are plagued by burglaries but unless the culprit falls directly into the arms of the cops, there is no investigation and no arrest. Israelis protect their homes by putting bars on their windows and locked gates on their porches.

Although there has been improvement because of public pressure, the forced sexual slavery of thousands of women, mainly from the Former Soviet Union, remains a deep stain on Israel's record. The slave trade exists not because it is hard to track down - Israel is a small country and the police have stores of information on everyone - but because the police have been bought off.

It's not that the police are entirely inactive. While they do little about ordinary crime, they are adept at clubbing demonstrators, whether they be Arabs or fervently Orthodox Jews or settlers. They also specialize in investigating real and alleged misdeeds of those who are in power, usually making mountains out of molehills and indulging along the way in leaks and other behavior designed to promote the notion that those who are targeted are guilty before they are accused. Each Prime Minister over the past twenty years has been harassed; none has been indicted. It is sufficient reward for the police that their prey has been found guilty by the media. Occasionally they have a scalp, as in the incredible trial of former Justice Minister Haim Ramon who was convicted of kissing a female subordinate without getting her advanced permission.

Israel's police are in desperate need of reform, meaning bottom to top changes starting with how they are trained and the definition of their role. They should follow the example of the U.S. where over the past generation there has been enormous improvement, thanks in part to the Ford Foundation's funding of the Police Institute in Washington. Hopefully, instead of endowing one more unneeded building on an Israeli campus, some philanthropist will fund such an enterprise in Israel.

Much else in Israel is sorely in need of reform. Successive commissions have examined basic education and called, even pleaded for changes. Few of their recommendations have been implemented and the failure level in many Israeli schools has passed crisis proportions. A friend who is at a major foundation told me how its reform efforts at the elementary school level have been thwarted by the mafia-type leader of the teacher's union.

Israel banking system is another scandal area. Consumers are ripped off and the sum is staggering. The Knesset is considering reform legislation; the smart money is on those who have the money to purchase maintenance of the harmful status quo.

The need for reform reaches the Supreme Court. People of stature in legal and political circles have long challenged the court's anti-democratic reach, its usurptation of authority, its endless interference in the operations of government officials and agencies and its self-perpetuating composition. In a remarkable recent article in Haaretz, Ari Shavit who is one of Israel's most respected journalists wrote of "inside information" testifying "to the outlook" that "the law enforcement system in Israel does not operate in good faith but as the long arm of the Supreme Court."

Shavit told of "a senior minister whose lifelong dream has been to serve as minister of justice" who decided that he could not take the position because he was convinced that if he did, "he would shortly find himself questioned under caution in a police investigation." The police would find "some criminal pretext or another."

What is written about these matters in the Diaspora? Next to nothing. We may debate relations with Palestinians, withdrawal from this or that piece of territory and so on, but on domestic Israeli matters we are conditioned to be cheerleaders. Our silence inadvertently reinforces what is wrong. It gives me little satisfaction that I was the first American Jewish writer to describe Israel's sordid complicity in human trafficking or that for years I have written about Israel's dysfunctional police.

We need more writers to challenge what is wrong. Else, what is wrong won't be righted.