Are Israel’s police officers respected by the public?

Ask the Ovadia family - they have 26 members on the force.

 An illustrative image of an Israel Police officer. (photo credit: ISRAEL POLICE)
An illustrative image of an Israel Police officer.
(photo credit: ISRAEL POLICE)

“F*ck tha Police.” If you know ’90s rap, you’ll recognize this hit N.W.A. song from Compton, California, which has become an anthem for minorities in the US and feels like the sentiment from many citizens around the world, even in Israel. Citizens of Israel might not say it, but they certainly act like they mean it.

In a society where talking back and getting loud with an officer on the street is not just permitted but seems like the norm, where do officers stand? How do they feel? And what do they think?

Just ask the Israel Police international spokesman Dean Elsdunne, who moved to Israel from South Florida and has been working his way through the force since age 22. Today, Elsdunne represents Israel’s police internationally and is promoting the feel-good story of the Ovadias, a deeply Zionist family with 26 family members on the force.

“It’s disheartening to witness members of the public disrespecting police officers,” Elsdunne said. “The same person yelling and cursing in a police officer’s face is the very same person whom that officer, without a hint of hesitation, would take a bullet for if a life-threatening scenario presented itself.”

Elsdunne represents some 35,000 individuals who make up the Israel Police.

 SHAKED OVADIA (pic at L) successfully completes Makim course (commander’s course).  (credit: Courtesy Ovadia family)
SHAKED OVADIA (pic at L) successfully completes Makim course (commander’s course). (credit: Courtesy Ovadia family)

The Ovadias: An Israel Police dynasty

THE OVADIA family is spread out all over the country and serves across a wide variety of fields. Ronen Ovadia and his nuclear family are at the center of this report. Living in Beit Shemesh, the family has deep roots in Jerusalem, where Ronen’s parents settled after having left Kurdistan and Morocco.

Today, the patriarch is the head of the Zion Region, which extends from Beit Shemesh, Givat Ze’ev, and Mevaseret Zion to Jerusalem and slightly northward. Ovadia said he spent years there trying to keep his work outside the four walls of his home. This attempt lasted only until his children began to join the force and see it as a way to both serve the country and get closer to their father.

“Most of the family is in the security forces. We all mobilized for ideological and value [related] motives, in order to do everything for the State of Israel, our country, and for public safety,” Ronen said.

“They [as children] had many questions on a variety of subjects and when they [now] see the work, paired with the rewarding feeling they receive, they become more and more familiar with the work – as well as the friction.”

Ronen has been through a number of different roles, starting his service in 1998 as a Border Police guard and remaining in that department for seven years. Most of his positions were core operational and command roles. During the Second Intifada in 2002, after establishing crossings around Jerusalem, he continued as a commander, controlling the central Jerusalem District Police.

Ronen has worked as head of operations, traffic vision officer, and commander at the Moria station. After all his years of hard work, he was appointed to the position of deputy commander of the Zion area and eventually assumed the role of area commander.

“The most rewarding aspect is seeing that personal security and the various events end successfully on the one hand, and that we in the police manage to maintain the foundations of democracy – freedom of expression, worship and movement – on the other hand,” he said.

When asked what kind of unexpected skills are needed for the job of an Israeli police officer, all the Ovadia offspring answered in the same way. They said their parents always taught them to approach people first as human beings. This mindset has taken them a long way and came up a number of times during the interviewing process for this article.

TAMAR OVADIA, 23, works in the field and spends many hours providing assistance to police teams. Tamar said that even though she’s only been on the force for a short time, she can tell that the general public doesn’t understand what goes into being an officer.

“There’s actually a much wider range [of work], things that the police are led to handle in the course of the day. People see it [police work] too simply,” Tamar said. “They think they know it so well, but it’s a whole different world.”

She went on to explain that while most people imagine an officer working with civilians in the field, there are also endless roles such as human resources, communications, legal or even marketing work.

Tamar said she grew up in a patriotic community that loved the country. She was proud to share with her classmates that her brothers and sisters, uncles, and her father were in the police. She often brought a family member to class to talk about his or her work. Tamar noted that while her father wasn’t able to always make it to school functions, she felt confident her peers understood it was because he was out serving the country.

It was only when Tamar left high school that she began to ask herself if it was safe to share that her family was on the force. As Tamar became old enough to detect the moments of tension between the police and the public, she started to draw her pride inward.

During the 2005 disengagement from Gush Katif [Gaza], where the police were involved, she began to ask herself if she should reveal her family’s involvement with the force.

“I knew the faces, the identities behind the faces, and still I was proud. Overall, I knew they wanted to protect and serve and that there was a greater calling for them,” Tamar explained.

When talking about her family, Tamar said she feels like she has two.

“You have family at home and family in the field, and this brings about a calling to wear the uniform,” she said. “Being in the police allows you to do good. And when you do good, it has a domino effect – you want to keep doing it.”

For Tamar, stories of heroism have been passed down, if not within her own family, then through the family of a close contact. As the country struggles to maintain unity while judicial overhaul measures rock the base for Right and Left voters alike, Tamar said it’s important to recognize that the police are an intrinsic force that maintains democracy.

“The thing that pops up most is freedom of speech and movement. The police are an apolitical force. When you have people protesting, the police don’t manage the protest to the Left or Right, but they protect the people,” Tamar said.

“During the Pride Parade, police made sure people could come out to demonstrate safely, and they did not stop people from speaking.”

With all the work the police do to ensure that citizens can live a free life, Tamar resents one attitude – a lack of appreciation. From her viewpoint, the average person does not give enough credit to police officers, who deal with everything from petty crime to issues of international terror.

“Every single day, they are on the line,” Tamar said fervently. “There is not enough recognition that officers are doing it because it’s their calling.”

Today, Tamar works in the internal communication department of the Israel Police, enabling officers to communicate with one another, helping them reach higher commands to address issues within the force and even doing some public diplomacy.

SHAKED OVADIA, 21, serves as a combat officer in the Border Police. She is responsible for 52 communities and supervises the boundaries between Israel and the 1967 separation line. On the other side of it is the West Bank.

Shaked told the Magazine that she deals with burglaries, illegal immigrants jumping over the border fence, and often, she said, with talking down someone about to commit suicide. While there is a team in Israel committed to helping people step away from the ledge, patrol officers are the first on the scene.

“Sometimes someone makes the call for themselves, sometimes it’s for a friend,” Shaked said.

Then there’s a police department that works with a new technology to review media, she noted. With this update, officers can locate people who are posting suicidal thoughts on Facebook or Instagram. Sometimes a person will reach out to the police using the messenger chat option. Even if it’s just a suspicion, the police will send an officer to make sure the person is alive and well.

“Every police officer has basic training to deal with these situations, but at the end of the day you have to get in touch with your personal sensitivity on the matter so you can speak to the person until the Israel Police negotiation team arrives on the scene… and that’s their profession,” Shaked said.

She explained that during such discussions, people often tell her why they want to end their lives. It could be because of a fight with a parent or an argument within a romantic relationship that can be triggering the trauma. She noted that every person has a unique life and a personal reason.

Dealing with these sensitivities is “seriously not” something Shaked ever expected to contend with when joining the Border Officer unit.

One of the most interesting neighborhoods for Shaked to patrol is the mixed neighborhood of Neve Shalom, where Arabs and Jews live together. She said her team is a mixed bag of people from every background and that the work feels routine, regardless of who is on shift.

When asked if Arab officers have to deal with criticism and pushback from their Palestinian neighbors, Shaked said it does happen, but her Arab colleagues see it as simply part of the job.

“There are some places like checkpoints where they work in shifts, and sometimes there are some shouts or exchanges of words that are not pleasant. But the officers know they are there to serve and protect,” Shaked explained.

Shaked stressed that officers face so many daily challenges, it would be near impossible to do the work without a strong love for the country. “My service, and my family’s service, is a Zionist act. To be honest, it’s not the easiest thing to be an officer. The hard hours, the pay. If you don’t love what you do and love your country, you won’t be able to do this job.”

Shaked said it is due to the efforts of every officer that the State of Israel continues to exist.

“Without police, there’s no law. Without law, there’s recklessness in the streets. We allow the country to continue operating,” she insisted.

Shaked said she hopes to marry in the future and to see the country cease its internal conflict. She said that she and her siblings learned from her father, Ronen, to treat every person they meet on the job as a human being first, and to always think of that person’s mother when talking to them.

THE MATRIARCH of the Ovadia family, Rachel Ovadia, echoed those sentiments. Although, with so much precious cargo on the line, Rachel said worry is always present, but that it’s simply part of the natural complexity of Jerusalem, Israel’s capital.

Rachel relies on “the grace of God” and the merit of her ancestors to manage day-to-day life. But at night, she wakes up to check that everyone is all right, stays engaged on every phone call, and tries to find out information about characters who have been hurt or should be arrested, without putting her family in a compromising position.

Rachel described how, as a little girl, her mother pulled her to safety during a terror attack on the number 18 bus in Bayit Vagan. She said that was the moment she began to understand the intricacies of life.

When most people are celebrating holidays and national events, Rachel’s entire family is often out in the field. She has become “creative in creating family time” and benefiting from times when traffic is slow and few people are celebrating. She said she does it with a smile.

Looking back at her family history, she said, “Our grandparents dreamed of the moment they would arrive here. They ‘ate dust’ on the way, lost wealth, and lost loved ones on the way to this land. My grandpa, may his memory be a blessing, came as an orphan to this land. If someone had shown him a picture of what awaited him in the future, maybe [his] life would have been simpler and more beautiful.”

Rachel was raised in a 1950s absorption camp under harsh conditions while her father prepared the land for future Jewish cities. Her husband, Ronen, lost his father to war and witnessed an uncle become wounded while serving the country.

“It’s not easy to fulfill a vision, but it is possible – definitely possible,” Rachel said.

Rachel said she expects her children to always respect their subordinates with empathetic understanding and to remember their home, children, parents, and country. Her husband shares the same sentiment.

Ronen concluded with, “My vision for Israel is that we can be a country without struggling for existence and without wars; to live in peace among ourselves. We, as the Israel Police, have a significant part in realizing that vision.” ■