Occupy Wall Street and 'Israelification'

Kareem Rabieby Kareem Rabie, City University of New York

For my final post in this batch on Occupy Wall Street and Palestine, I’m going to draw heavily on an exchange I had recently with my friends Jimmy Johnson, an activist and the founder of Neged Neshek, who is doing indispensible research on Israel and the arms industry, and David Spataro, a student in Geography at the CUNY Graduate Center. Recently, the question of “Israelification” of the American police has emerged as a result of the brutal repression of protesters in New York, Oakland, Boston, and UC Davis. Max Blumenthal argues that, “the Israelification of America’s security apparatus, recently unleashed in full force against the Occupy Wall Street Movement, has taken place at every level of law enforcement, and in areas that have yet to be exposed. The phenomenon has been documented in bits and pieces, through occasional news reports that typically highlight Israel’s national security prowess without examining the problematic nature of working with a country accused of grave human rights abuses. But it has never been the subject of a national discussion. And collaboration between American and Israeli cops is just the tip of the iceberg”. Blumenthal documents some of the many ways that Israeli and American police forces are cooperating and training (here’s a recent example) and the favorable way that these exercises are portrayed.

In the US, the Israeli model for airport security is as widely admired by policy makers as it is loathed by Palestinians, Noam Chomsky, Arab-American former cabinet secretaries, and so on. Numerous scholars have recently tried to understand the relationships between American and Israeli military practice – Naomi Klein and Eyal Weizman are two of the most widely-read – and have discussed Israeli military as a sort of a social and practical model for other militaries and a lucrative export for Israel. Stephen Graham, Sarah Roy, Neve Gordon, Shir Hever, Jonathan Nitzan and Shimshon Bichler, and others – including Irus Braverman in Antipode – have discussed the forms of urban warfare, surveillance, and systematic de-development of parts of Palestine as military and economic practices. It is clear that similar things are happening in America, and in Europe, but it is less clear how they are tied to Israel.

Part of the argument about Israelification, I think, comes from vestigial ideas about the strength and self-reliance of the Israeli military – clearly Israel is exporting the very idea of success along with actual military technology. Some of what gets lost in this argument is that police forces in America act with brutality against populations of color regularly, and the protests in Seattle against the World Trade Organization in 1999 and in New York surrounding the Republican National Convention in 2004 were brutally repressed by the police. So what is new here? First of all, these crackdowns are a node in a series of rare occasions where police crackdown on mostly white protesters, but what is obviously not new is the mixture of domestic policing and the military (after all, Bloomberg considers the NYPD to be his private army); clearly, the projection of military power is intended to give the impression of domestic security; and increasingly since 2001, as in Israel, crowd control and urban warfare are conflated with terrorism and so the repression of dissent starts to look, I guess, like occupation. But they are not the same thing, and it is not clear what is gained by equating what American police departments are doing with what the Israeli military and police forces are doing – and by implication the protesters with Palestinians.

The funding links between the US and Israeli militaries are well known and don’t have to be repeated here, but there are other ties that are closer and more obscure. Since 2001 the Department of Homeland Security has been throwing money at American police forces, and these protests are one of the first times we’ve seen the things that they’ve been buying with those funds. I have seen the NYPD Homeland Security unit at demonstrations with large Arab populations, and the anti-terror TARU unit is a fixture at Zuccotti videotaping the demonstrations (something that was, until recently, illegal). Crowd control, urban policing, and security are becoming wrapped into supposedly anti-terrorism actions, and it’s not clear that talking about these issues as Israeli exports does much to advance political organizing among a 99% that contains many different agendas tied together by the same exploitation by the capitalist 1%, nor does it advance the move from a politics of solidarity to a politics of common struggle (and again, what does it mean to make this claim when even tweets of solidarity are controversial?).

It would be useful here to shift the conversation to focus on the nature of the links between Israeli and American policing; the militarization of domestic policing doesn’t mean that Israel is coming to the States, but rather that the US is a country that acts toward parts of its population as brutally and undemocratically as does Israel. And this is happening in large part by private individuals and organizations. As Johnson and Blumenthal have reported, mainstream rightist American Zionist organizations like the Anti-Defamation League (a group with a less-than-admirable record of protecting Arabs and Muslims from being defamed, and that recently, crazily, strongly implied that Thomas Friedman is anti-Semitic and anti-Israel) have long been bringing together American law enforcement with the Israeli military (see here) and encouraging close relationships. The point here is only to suggest that there is not a single or clear link between Israel and American policing, and to point out that the desire for cooperation goes both ways.

So back to the original question: What is Israeli about this? And why are we seeing this phenomenon? I’ll give the last word to Jimmy: “It’s a reductive answer, but part of it I think has to do with the US abandoning the pretense of universal inclusion (the Great Society, New Deal, New Frontier, etc.). If we’re not going to make any pretense of inclusion, then those excluded should be seen as a kind of hostile, surplus humanity, like Palestinians are to Israel. We’re in the process of creating this internal frontier and I think James Ron’s Frontiers and Ghettos is apposite. Ghettos are still a kind of ‘us’ in the sense that even the ‘others’ who live in the ghettos are part of the body politic and acceptable-ish to be seen in public. Those outside the frontier, however, are not…. What is done outside the frontier is far different than what is done in an internal ghetto”.

This is the last in a series of three posts on Occupy and the question of Palestine. Kareem’s Thoughts on Occupy Wall Street and anti-Zionism appeared on 30 January, and Occupy Wall Street and ‘Occupation’ came out 13 February.