The killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police has prompted a national conversation on police training. Today’s dispiriting record of police brutality against African Americans is clearly rooted in entrenched racism and inequality, and has been worsened by the recent militarization of police departments.

The problem of police violence under scrutiny, moreover, extends beyond policing toward people of color, and encompasses unjustified force against non-violent protests by groups such as Occupy Wall Street, Stop The Dakota Access Pipeline, and other multiracial movements.

Robert Schaible

Amidst the national debate on police training, however, there exists a glaring omission. The elephant in the room never mentioned in the media is the training of U.S. police, including in Minneapolis and our own state of Maine, by the police and military forces of Israel. Such training includes aggressive crowd control, hyper-physical restraint and invasive surveillance.

This lack of attention is disturbing, given how widespread the training is. Several U.S. organizations arrange and pay for such training, often helped by the U.S. and Israeli governments. One group alone, the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, has organized the training here of some 11,000 police officers by Israel and also sends many additional law enforcement personnel there. The Anti-Defamation League and other pro-Israel groups also sponsor such trainings.

Why should training of our police by Israel worry us? Because Israel has a decades-long record as a brutal occupier of another people and because training by its police risks normalizing for our own police a militarized approach to both crime and political protest. One of the present authors, himself a former trainer of police in Maine, can attest that Israeli training is not what’s needed in America.

Amnesty International, other human rights groups, and the State Department have all criticized Israel for its human rights record. According to A.I., routine violations include “unlawful killings, using ill treatment and torture (even against children) and using excessive force against peaceful protesters.”

The knee-on-neck technique that killed George Floyd is often used against Palestinians.

Larry Gilbert Sr.

Israel is known for using surveillance and racial profiling in ways that violate fundamental civil rights.

In 2012, the then Chief of Maine’s State Police visited Israel and later spoke favorably in a newspaper interview of how Israeli police controlled civil unrest and kept the country safe from internal “terrorists.” He noted Israel’s “vast experience identifying potential threats and neutralizing them,” and added, “They call it riots and we call it civil unrest.” His equating of the two is understandable since, according to Jewish Voice for Peace, in Israeli trainings “Direct parallels are made between the Palestinians and (U.S. protesters) who are presumed to be a threat to Americans.”

U.S. trainees are generally unaware that Israel’s tactics are used mainly against people peacefully protesting their oppression and lack of rights. In America, where President Trump and Attorney General Barr refer to peaceful protesters as “thugs” and “terrorists,” grave concern is warranted when our police are trained in Israel where every protester is similarly viewed as a terrorist.

Recent news stories shine light on a unit of the Maine State Police known as the Maine Intelligence and Analysis Center, whose activities have been cloaked in secrecy. Like other American police officers who have visited Israel, Maine’s police visitor admired the vast array of cameras tracking civilians: “In the old part of [East Jerusalem], they can follow you anywhere …  It was like Star Wars compared to what we do.”

Perhaps the MIAC system serves a good purpose. But, one trooper blew the whistle on inappropriate surveillance of Maine political activists, including those opposed to Central Maine Power’s controversial energy corridor. Information on these and other Maine activists was allegedly sent to CMP and a wide range of other corporate executives, education leaders and state officials.

It seems fair to ask whether such violations of our privacy and civil rights were inspired by what our police learned in Israel.

No one step will end police violence and the violation of basic constitutional rights, but a good start would be to end what Jewish Voice for Peace calls “the deadly exchange,” between policing here and in Israel.

Robert Schaible is professor emeritus, University of Southern Maine and chairperson of Maine Voices for Palestinian Rights. In October, 2019, he and his wife made their fifth trip to Israel-Palestine since 2010.

Larry Gilbert Sr. served in the Lewiston Police Department for 25 years, eventually serving as chief of police. He later served as the mayor of Lewiston from 2007 to 2012.

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