Comment: The ‘natural’ excuse for Israeli racial profiling

Smart police work doesn’t involve castigating a whole community as suspicious, it involves educating police not to be naturally suspicious.

Police Chief Roni Alsheich at the Israel Bar Association Conference at the David Intercontinental Hotel in Tel Aviv (photo credit: NAAMA COHEN FRIEDMAN/ BAR ASSOCIATION SPOKESWOMAN)
Police Chief Roni Alsheich at the Israel Bar Association Conference at the David Intercontinental Hotel in Tel Aviv
On Tuesday, Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich shocked an audience of lawyers when he excused racial profiling by police.
“All over the world it is proven that migrants are more involved in crime than others,” he said. “This also goes for Arabs… and also in east Jerusalem.”
He was replying to a question about why the police have been accused of racism and violence against Ethiopians.
It is “natural [a policeman] is more suspicious” of certain groups, the police chief claimed. In short, the conclusion was that Ethiopians are more likely to be recent immigrants, so they are more likely to be criminals, so the police will treat them like criminals when interacting with them.
The audience shouldn’t have been shocked. Official racial profiling has existed in Israel for years against the Arab community, particularly at airport security.
Not only is racial profiling official, it is also part of Israel’s story of using “smart” security to weed out potential terrorists.
The stereotype and suspicion that “immigrants” are more likely to be criminals has its origins in the early days of the state. After 1948, when large numbers of Jews from Middle Eastern countries arrived in the new state, the mostly European Jewish leadership accused them of being criminals. Anita Shapira wrote in 2012 that there was a “belief that some of the Moroccan immigrants in that first wave had come from the mellahs, the ghettos of the major cities [in Morocco] where harsh conditions of poverty and social disintegration prevailed.
This group included some criminal elements.”
On April 22, 1949, Haaretz writer Aryeh Geldblum claimed that North African Jews’ “primitivism is unsurpassed” and that in their areas you “find the filth, card games played for money, residents getting drunk, and prostitution...
the Africans bring this way of life with them when they migrate and it is no wonder that crime in the country is on the upswing.”
It was “natural” in 1949 that the Israel police of that era were told by the media and “experts” that the “migrants” were criminals. The ancestors of the head of the police were also immigrants to Israel, so would it be safe to say that it was fair for the police of that era to be “naturally” suspicious of them? Almost all of the ancestors of Israel’s Jews are immigrants.
Would it have been natural for the Ottoman police in 1880 to be “naturally suspicious” of these young bucks coming off the boats from Europe? Theodor Herzl – perhaps a suspicious character? Even today almost 40 percent of the Jewish population in Israel is foreign- born, so should the police be looking askance at this mass of suspicious foreigners? And when the police commander says “young immigrants,” perhaps that means it’s natural to be suspicious of people on Birthright. If one wants to find the suspicious criminal class, it’s not merely in east Jerusalem, as the police apparently think, but housed in the dorms of the Hebrew University perhaps, full of young immigrants.
THE MYTH that Ethiopian Jews or Arabs or young immigrants are more likely to be criminals is largely a self-fulfilling prophecy. Since its foundation, Israel’s elites have crafted a narrative whereby those “sabras” from Europe define themselves as positive contributors to the country and view immigrants and Arabs as the quintessential “other.”
In the 1950s they claimed that criminality was concentrated among Moroccan immigrants, as a way to stereotype and stigmatize them and excuse removing them from the center, forcibly settling them in development towns in the periphery. When Russians came, they were also stereotyped as criminals. Israeli writer Gideon Levy claimed in December 2013 that Russians have “crime in their blood.” The only real “crime” is the racism against immigrants, not the immigrants themselves.
They wanted to come to a Jewish country. Instead of being welcomed, an intellectual crime has been committed against them, portraying them with negative stereotypes.
Ethiopian Jews who came to Israel were not criminals. I’ve spoken to many Ethiopian immigrants. In their home villages, there were no criminals, no one had ever seen the inside of a prison, except during the Italian occupation when they were abused for being Jewish.
But in Israel, a socialization process has taken place in which Ethiopians have been shoehorned into a vicious cycle of poverty and alleged criminality.
A 2015 report about the Ofek detention center found that Ethiopian Jews made up 41 percent of Jewish teens detained, despite being 1.5% of the population.
In the conscript IDF service, Ethiopians are disproportionately sent to prison. They are 3% of the army but were 14% of the IDF prison population in 2013. Up to 40% of Ethiopian men in the army end up in prison during their service (compared to 23% of all male soldiers, according a 2011 Knesset report). Yet Ethiopian Jews are also disproportionately recruited to Border Police units.
HOW DID Ethiopian Jews end up as victims of the criminal justice system by such disproportionate numbers? From a population that were not criminals, how are they now stereotyped as “suspicious” by police? This has much to do with stereotyping and the creation, from a young age, of the perception that black people in Israel are abused and neglected by the state. We might ask why Ethiopian Jews were never allowed to live on kibbutzim and were concentrated in dilapidated urban environments because of racist settlement practices in Israel that send different immigrant groups to different places.
The idea that certain populations are “naturally” more suspicious is largely in the mind. In Europe in the 19th and early 20th century, Jews were accused by anti-Semites of dominating criminal organizations and the “white slave trade” or prostitution networks. They were caricatured as suspicious and corrupt, like Shylock in Shakespeare.
In general, poverty is an indicator of criminality, more than race or religion.
To be naturally suspicious of “Arabs” is no more logical than for the Czarist police to have been suspicious of “Jewish highwaymen.” There are Arab criminals in east Jerusalem and there are Arab doctors, just as there are Jewish criminals in Manhattan, like Bernie Madoff, and Jewish doctors. This shouldn’t need to be pointed out, but it needs to be in Israel.
Smart police work doesn’t involve castigating a whole community as suspicious, it involves educating police not to be naturally suspicious. Being able to identify men about to break into a house is important, not simply looking for every dark-skinned face and rounding them up. Racial profiling is the easy way to cast a wide net when people don’t want to investigate crime. If we want an effective Israeli society, racial profiling should be reduced and leaders have a responsibility not to excuse “natural” suspicions but to work against them
■ The writer is the editor of the Opinion section of
The Jerusalem Post.