“Zionism doesn’t end at Ben-Gurion Airport, that’s where it begins,” says Jay M. Shultz of the Internationals Tel Aviv salon, addressing English-speaking immigrants on the 12th floor of Tel Aviv City Hall.
It’s a rather muted pep talk, but there’s a decent turnout to hear it on Monday night – 30 or so immigrants who have heeded the call to sign up as volunteer officers with the Tel Aviv Police’s Yarkon subdistrict civil guard, which covers the city’s north.
They seem to be a pretty good cross-section of the immigrant community in Tel Aviv, mostly young men in their 20s, but also several young women, a middle-aged man and a woman who looks about his age. There’s also a stocky young guy with a beard and a kippa holding his police application and medical forms in hand and a middle-aged woman who brought copies of a book she wrote on counterterrorism and was looking to pass them out to the two officers waiting to address the would-be recruits.
The volunteer drive was organized by Shultz; founder of the TLV Internationals young professional group, along with Jonathan Javor, who leads the municipality’s Young Aliyah Department and runs the oleh group Project TA together with Shultz. Javor said he tried to launch a similar effort last year with the Lev Tel Aviv subdistrict on northern Dizengoff Street, but it didn’t work out.
In the email sent out to the TLV email list last month, the group wrote that “as part of our mandate to encourage civic action amongst olim within Israeli society, ProjecT.A., in partnership with the Israel National Police, invites our TLV Internationals community to help give back to our adopted home, and train to become official active-duty volunteer police officers in Tel Aviv.”
Of course, there’s more to it than just giving back to the community.
“I thought it’d be pretty badass,” says Emily, a native of Westchester County, New York, “but I’m not a vigilante, I own zero capes.”
A 25-year-old student at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, she made aliya 2.5 years ago and finished a year serving in the IDF’s Liaison Unit, finishing as a corporal.
She said she was also inspired by her mother, who decided to try out for her local police force in New York at age 54, though she added that mom didn’t make the cut.
“Marcos,” a 27-year-old native of Venezuela, said he’s used to volunteering, having been part of a security service back in his hometown’s Jewish community. Marcos said he made aliya back in 2008 and served 32 months in the IDF, in a combat engineering unit, and sees volunteering with the police as yet another way to serve the country.
He thinks the “Israel police are kind of a joke and maybe we could help them,” though he admitted that the Venezuelan police have more than enough to be embarrassed about.
He didn’t seem to be volunteering because he was a cowboy looking to cruise Tel Aviv with a badge and a gun, though after learning this reporter was from Texas, he said, “I’d love to travel there, they let people get guns really easily.”
Marcos didn’t want his real name given, nor did his friend “Steve,” a 24-year-old South African immigrant who made aliya in 2010. Steve also just recently finished his army service in the Engineering Corps and spent some time volunteering at a lone soldiers center. “I’ve got time to volunteer, I might as well,” he said.
Steve works as a bouncer at a couple of clubs in Tel Aviv, and said that on the job and in his free time he sees a city that has changed, becoming more dangerous and shady in the past four years.
The neighborhoods they’ll be policing are among the most crime-free in Tel Aviv. These include Bavli, Ofeka, Ramat Aviv, Ramat Hahayal and Neveh Sharett. The last neighborhood did have a reputation back in the day as the “crime neighborhood” of north Tel Aviv, but times have changed, and not much happens there these days.
When asked what type of crimes or tasks they might be dealing with, Officer Mirit Hadar, the police liaison for the group, said, “In Ramat Aviv you have children’s parades, Purim, Hanukka, stuff like that.” There are also “suspicious packages” (that might be bombs) or fights between neighbors, an officer present named Emil said.
Hadar did say that there is also a lot of property crime, in particular people breaking into cars to steal phones, purses and the like. For the most part, the job of the around 530 volunteer police in these areas is to increase the police presence and the public’s sense of security, she said.
Hadar was asked, with all those Israel-born volunteers in her subdistrict, what’s the attraction of immigrant volunteers? She answered that in Tel Aviv, people “demand the type of attitude and courtesy you bring” and that immigrants aren’t as hardened or “rough and rugged.”
The training will consist of six meetings of four hours each, which Hadar said is more than the usual four meetings for native-born Israelis, because of language issues, and also because as immigrants, they probably don’t know the ways of the street in Israel too well.
One immigrant asked how much of the training would be in English, to which Hadar said, “None of it will be in English.”
Before all that, they have to go through a background check. Hadar said “We need to check first that none of you have any criminal record or criminal connections. You would not believe how many people come to us who have criminal records.”
That said, the background check will only be carried out in Israel, with the Israeli authorities. If an immigrant had a criminal background in his country of origin, there would be no way for Tel Aviv police to know through the typical volunteer background check, Hadar admitted.
“That’s one of the reasons that they won’t go in the most sensitive positions, because I can’t tell entirely where they came from or who they are. It’s not like they’re from here and they have easy to follow tracks from the army or high school. But we’ll go through the people we receive and find out who they are,” she said after the meeting.
She said that often Tel Aviv volunteer police are one of two extremes – either they’re people who “want to sit around all day and have their friends see them in the patrol car,” or they’re completely “muralim,” literally “poisoned,” gung-ho types who try to rack up arrests every shift.
In her holster she has her service weapon – a Beretta 71 .22 semi-automatic pistol with an 8-round magazine, the same weapon that the police volunteers will get if they complete their training and licensing.
There are a little over 28,000 sworn officers serving in the Israel Police and the number of volunteers in the civil guard is significantly higher. This is much lower than in the mid-70s, when there were more than 130,000 volunteers in the civil guard.
The issue of having so many volunteers out on the street with the ability to arrest civilians is not without controversy. Regular police training takes seven months.
Nonetheless, civil guard volunteers play an important role in the Israel Police and provide a serious boost to police manpower. Many of them also provide special expertise, for instance those serving in forensic or cyber units.
Judging by conversations with over a half dozen of the mostly Anglo immigrants present Monday night, it didn’t appear that they were a bunch of cowboys looking to get a pistol and live out their own version of Taxi Driver
, nor did any say that they were joining because of the recent “lone wolf” terrorist attacks or express any anti-Arab sentiments. It seemed that most of the people present were relatively new immigrants who were too old to serve in the army and were looking to give back to the community.
For Maud Gawsewitch, 35, from France, the army stopped being an option more than a decade ago, and though she said she would have wanted to volunteer for ZAKA – the haredi body recovery organization – as a woman, that’s not an option.
“I want to help with some of the smaller things, do my part,” she said, before smiling and adding “I also like the uniform.”