Since 9/11, high-ranking American police officers from all over the country have been sent to Israel for counterterrorism training, a practice critics find problematic due to Israeli security forces’ record of human rights abuses.
Demilitarize! From Durham2Palestine—a coalition of local activist groups—wants the city council to pass a resolution condemning these exchanges and provide assurances that the Durham Police Department will not allow its officers to participate in the future.
Durham’s last two police chiefs have participated in these exchanges. Former DPD chief Jose Lopez attended a national counterterrorism training program in Israel through the Anti-Defamation League, and current chief C.J. Davis helped to establish and coordinate exchanges through the Atlanta Police Leadership Institute before she came to Durham.
Wil Glenn, the DPD’s public affairs manager, says the department itself has not participated in these exchanges, and Lopez went to Israel independent of his role as chief.
But Noah Rubin-Blose, a Triangle Jewish Voices for Peace member who has been working on the demilitarize campaign, says that is misleading because most of these exchanges happen through groups like the Anti-Defamation League or the Jewish Institute for National Security of America, not the actual police department.
Through a spokesperson, the ADL says it is proud of its counterterrorism training and emphasizes that it also provides important training on hate crimes and implicit bias to police departments.
“As a civil rights organization with a strong racial justice and criminal justice reform agenda, we are in a strong position to effectively work on these issues with the law enforcement community,” the spokesperson writes in an email. “This includes credible and effective implicit bias training for law enforcement agencies.”
But tactics used by the Israeli Defense Force are often criticized by international watchdog groups as being extreme and discriminatory, a 2015 report by the U.S. State Department found that Israeli forces employed targeted assassinations and torture.
Ihab Mikati, a volunteer with the demilitarize campaign, says allowing high-ranking officers to participate in these programs validates the tactics used by Israeli forces—tactics the activists do not want to see more of in Durham.
“This is certainly something that has potential to affect policing in Durham,” Mikati says, “and it’s not coming out of nowhere. So we think it’s good to get ahead of it and just say in the future these aren’t going to play a role in how we do policing here.”
Rubin-Blose says activists think about it as an exchange of “worst practices” that reaffirms the most harmful elements of both.
“They’re exchanging tactics about surveillance, they’re exchanging tactics about repression, they’re exchanging how best to racially profile people, so they’re both learning from each other how to do bad things to communities,” Rubin-Blose says.
Ahmad Amireh, a volunteer with the campaign who is working to establish a Students for Justice in Palestine chapter at Duke, says being in Israel as a medic and attending a protest where he saw the repressive tactics used there reaffirmed his commitment to educating people about the conflict and America’s role in it.
“You see them there completely unarmed and unthreatening, and this one soldier just fires a rubber bullet and hits this man square in the chest,” Amireh says. “You also just saw innocent civilians just getting engulfed in tear gas.”
As of publication, their petition has 736 signatures, which was launched in October, and they feel confident the city council will support their planned resolution.
City council member Jillian Johnson is on board. She says when she first heard about the exchanges, it struck her as unnecessary. She says training with a foreign military responsible for overseeing an occupation sets the wrong tone for police officers in Durham.
“When you send a police department to train in counterinsurgency techniques, that sends a message that you expect them to be dealing with an insurgency, and I don’t think we have an insurgency in Durham’s neighborhoods,” Johnson says. “So I think it’s important that our training reflects our values.”
Stefanie Fox, national deputy director of Jewish Voices for Peace, says if the resolution passes, Durham would be the first American city to go on record condemning American-Israeli police exchanges.
“It’s a really exciting example of what can happen when communities come together and say we believe in safety through community investment and solidarity with one another, not through militarized policing,” Fox says.