Commander on the front lines

Ultra orthodox use Nazi imagery to slander law officer protecting women's rights.

Police officer depicted as Nazi (photo credit: Courtesy)
Police officer depicted as Nazi
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Every so often I meet with my friend, Ni sso Shacham, the commander of the Jerusalem police. Sometimes, on a Friday afternoon when he has time, after the faithful have completed their prayers at the holy mosques and if it seems that a peaceful Shabbat is about to envelop our city, we go to the Mahane Yehuda open market together, to finish our last-minute shopping and preparations for Shabbat.
Commissioner Shacham doesn’t look like a stereotypical Hollywood policeman: he’s not 6 foot 4 inches tall, he doesn’t wear Ray-Ban sunglasses, and his commander’s hat doesn’t seem to sit comfortably on his head. He looks like an average 53-yearold man and, as his friend, I know he struggles constantly with his weight.
Shacham likes to go to the market every Friday, to mingle with the late shoppers, buy the best fish for dinner, and select the herbs that can be found only there. The commander of the Jerusalem police force is a great cook. When he gets really tired of his job he says: I'd rather open a restaurant of my own and start cooking for people. That would be much more peaceful than the work I’m doing today.
Yet he shoulders his responsibility to the city he tries to run and to managing the constant tensions of the different groups that live in the city. He is in charge of the entire city, including that one square kilometer known as the Old City of Jerusalem in whose name untold millions – Muslims, Christians and Jews – have already died and untold millions more are willing to die in the future.
Shacham’s job is to ensure that no one will die. That’s quite a difficult task, when there are so many extremists who care so little for coexistence. Jerusalem is called the City of Peace but it is almost always on the verge of war.
Shacham was born in Jerusalem. He grew up poor and with lots of love from his parents and friends. He could have joined the gangs that roamed the streets of the lower-class neighborhood in which he grew up, but he didn’t. After finishing his military in a dangerous combat unit, he joined the police.
He started his career as a detective in a unit fighting drug dealers, and his career as a commander began at the police station on Mount Moriah, facing the Western Wall and the Al- Aqsa mosque. Then he assumed responsibility for the Old City and, since last year, he’s been responsible for the entire city.
He lives on a 24-hour-a-day roller coaster. So far, he says – and, just for sure, we should all knock on any piece of wood that happens to be around – no one has been killed in a massive terrorist attack on his watch.
The way he shops tells us a lot about the way he manages his job. The head of the police pays for everything by himself, checks the prices, haggles and gets no special discounts on account of his position. As he selects his vegetables, people approach him and greet him, Mediterranean style, with a kiss on both cheeks. It’s the local way to say thank you, to express appreciation and respect. And Shacham kisses back.
A man comes from behind a counter, embraces Shacham and kisses him enthusiastically. “When I was a young detective in the drug squad, I put this guy away in jail for ten years,” Shacham tells me later.
“And he kisses you for that?” I ask. “Why?!”
Ask him, Shacham says.
So I do. As the commander moves forward, I stay back and talk to the man as he stands behind his vegetable counter. Referring, in typically Israeli style, to Shacham by his first name, he tells me, “Nisso was fair. He caught me. He could’ve killed me. He could’ve destroyed my family. But he trapped only me. He took me to court and he never lied. He even visited me when I was in jail. I will never forget that. That’s why I respect him.”
Yes, this is the stuff that good police stories are made of. But over the years, as we have become friends, Shacham has made it clear that he will not be a source for my stories, that his ethics and professionalism keep our friendship and his work separate.
But I’m writing about him anyway because I am so furious. Shacham has earned the respect of nearly everyone in this city. He has dedicated his life to their safety and well-being, touching – often literally – the lives of us all.
But recently some people have called Nisso Shacham a Nazi.
Take a look at this poster. This is a copy from the Internet, and many copies were posted in the Haredi neighborhoods in northern Jerusalem. The headline reads: Fresh import from Berlin. And here is a picture of Shacham, photomontaged into a Nazi uniform. Adolph Nisso Shacham, a genocidal murderer, they call him.
We survived Hitler, we’ll survive his successor, they promise.
The Haredi community has a long history of using Nazi propaganda. Any authority's move to limit the community’s self-appointed “right to self-rule” and any police action that is aimed at limiting their attempts to enforce their beliefs on others – such as keeping main roads open on Shabbat – usually elicit Haredi protests. Thousands of demonstrators (all men, of course) demonstrate against the “Gestapo” – the Israeli police – which they accuse of annihilating Judaism.
I will never forget the demonstrations against opening the first public swimming pool in Jerusalem, some 50 years ago. Thousands were demonstrating on the famous Emek Refaim Street, shouting “Nazis! Nazis.” And this was only 15 years after the Holocaust.
But these posters didn’t follow any encounter with the police. On December 28, Shacham was summoned to a Knesset committee session dealing with the exclusion of women fromthe public sphere and, when asked, he responded clearly and definitively: Every citizen has the right to demonstrate, and he will do all he can to enforce that right. But he also said that discrimination of any kind is illegal, and that he will use his power to assure full equality for each and every woman or girl on the streets and in the public spaces of this city, whether she is an 80-year-old grandmother or an eight-year-old child.
Shacham spoke softly, as he always does. But he was aware of the implications and the impact of his words. He knew how the Haredim would view his promise to do his job and uphold the law – which means the right of women to move freely in the streets and to ride on the buses of our cities without being relegated to the back seats.
The posters appeared the next day.
Those of us who believe in coexistence in the city would have expected the Haredi rank and file to tear the posters down. We would have expected them to isolate the groups who try to isolate their community even further from mainstream Israeli society.
But they didn’t.
Sure, some politicians condemned them. And even some Haredi politicians expressed reservations about the language. But not many, and I have no choice but to view their silence as tacit support.
They are all complicit in helping the seeds of hatred and extremism to grow. According to orders from the Internal Security Minister, Shacham should now be guarded at all times.
We remember: the last time demonstrators photomontaged Nazi uniforms, a prime minister was assassinated.
Shacham is refusing the escort. He says this is his city and he refuses to be intimidated. He will not allow a minority to rip apart the thin fabric that still holds this city together. And anyway, he says, how is he supposed to shop freely in the market, and choose the best produce, if he’s surrounded by security people?
Commander Shacham has found himself in the center of a new-old front: The front of the freedom of speech, the front of equal rights for women, and the front of the inevitable collision between the minority that tries to impose their way of life on the majority. Maybe this isn’t a war, but it’s certainly a clash of values and an assault on democracy, and Shacham is the one on the front lines, defending democracy, freedom of religion, the rights of women – and the soul of Israeli society.
This is a different, more bitter kind of struggle than the ones that Shacham is used to. This is an internal Jewish struggle, of the worst kind. It’s unlikely that he’ll receive many kisses, Mediterranean-style, in the market for his efforts. The politicians will try to keep their distance from the man who is doing what they are trying to get out of doing.
I think we’re lucky to have him, that he is the right man at the right time in the right place. And to the Haredi community I say: Of course you can demonstrate. You can disagree. You can even try – democratically, that is – to impose your views on the rest of us.
But leave the Nazis out of it.
Eliezer Yaari is a journalist and an author from Jerusalem.