I’ve frequently pointed out that I believe the society around me in Israel to be dysfunctional, and to be collapsing, as my back stairs collapsed in St. Paul many years ago. In addition, I’ve pointed out that we are waiting for war in the shards of shattered illusions, as did Lily Galili in Ha’aretz. Most Israeli high school kids have been out of class for the last six weeks due to a teachers’ strike, a plan to replace gas masks that are now outdated from the 2003 American attack on Iraq continues in a very haphazard pace, with gas masks being collected slowly, and new ones hardly issued.
More evidence of this collapse of the civil society here and the glue holding it together comes from a friend of mine, a North American immigrant in the Border Patrol. My friend differs from me in some respects (aside from being a whole lot more physically fit – quite an accomplishment for a guy older than me). I asked him for a story about his experiences and he offered me three, asking only that I leave his name out and "honor" him with a copy of what I write, so here is my condensation of his first-hand account of conditions here.
First, a little background. The Border Patrol (Mishmár haG’vúl) is officially part of the Israel Police, but its members generally come from volunteers from the army, and occasionally from the civilian population. The Border Patrol wears khaki, is under military discipline, stays in barracks, and functions as a para-military organization. The “blue” units of the Israel Police are like police in other countries, and while formally a certain amount of military-like discipline, are civilian forces. They wear blue uniforms. I am a member of a volunteer unit with the Israel Police wearing the blue uniform.
According to my friend, the three incidents all involve Jews in and around Mevasseret Zion, a prosperous suburb of Jerusalem. What links these incidents, in his view, is an attitude among certain Israeli Jews – an attitude of privilege and self-absorption and an absence of civic-mindedness and social consciousness that reflects itself as nothing less than contempt for the Israel Police and a careless, dismissive attitude toward the threatening security environment with which we here are all burdened.
The unit my friend serves in patrols in Mevasseret proper and around the neighboring Jewish moshavim such as Motza, Beit Zayit, Castel, Nataf, and others; in the valley between Mevasseret and Jerusalem known as Wadi Arazim, which contains popular smuggling dirt roads and trails into Jerusalem through Beit Iksa, a “Palestinian” village on the other side of the Green Line; and on the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv Highway (Highway 1) from the exit from Jerusalem going west to the entrance to Beit Shemesh. The unit also patrols in the Israeli Arab village of Abu Ghosh. Working in jeeps and on foot, sometimes in uniform, sometimes undercover, his unit is essentially an anti-terrorist unit, but they also interdict undocumented Arab workers, those who transport them (including, unfortunately, from time to time, Jews), car thieves and house burglars. According to my friend, “they have made some good ‘catches.’"
Car Chase in Mevasseret Zion
One night, around 2:30 am, the unit was patrolling in a marked Border Patrol jeep inside Mevasseret specifically concentrating on car theft, a big problem in that suburb, since a stolen car from there can disappear, via the dirt roads in Wadi Arazim, toward Beit Iksa and onward into the Palestinian Authority, toward Ramallah, in minutes. At that hour of the early morning in a small, quiet suburb like Mevasseret Zion, anyone driving around automatically attracts police interest.
They noted a relatively new SUV being driven by a lone adult male and decided to follow it. The driver, spotting the jeep behind him, sped up. At that point they turned on the blue flashers (Israel Police uses blue lights atop its vehicles instead of red) and ordered the driver, through the loudspeaker, to pull over. Rather than stop, he fled through the streets of Mevasseret. They turned on the siren and chased him, for some distance, through various twists and turns, until finally he pulled into the driveway of a single-family house. Convinced they had trapped a car thief or worse, the four members of the Border Patrol (Magavniks) leaped out of the jeep and surrounded the man and his vehicle, rifles at the ready.
As it turned out, the driver was Jewish (In Israel, people tend to segregate by religion and nationality in the smaller towns; nearly all the residents of Mevasseret Zion are Jews), in his own car, at his own house. He screamed at them for chasing him and for raising their rifles at him. He demanded that they get their jeep off his private property. "What am I, a terrorist?" he shouted. To make matters worse, a number of his neighbors came out of their houses and joined the melée against the four Magavniks. Over the radio they summoned a regular "blue" police unit for back-up. When that unit arrived, the angry driver and his neighbors berated those officers as well and lied brazenly, claiming that the Magavniks had cocked their rifles and pointed them at the driver's head – which they had not done.
And why did this respectable burgher of Mevasseret Zion flee from the Border Patrol vehicle? As it turned out, his vehicle registration had expired. The "blue" police gave him a ticket.
Another story – again, early morning in Mevasseret, around 4 am. A young man, late teens, is standing alone at the bus stop/hitchhiking post along Highway 1 in the direction of Tel Aviv. The Magavniks, in their marked Border Police jeep, pull over, get out and ask to see his identification. He says he has none. He speaks fluent Hebrew, is well-groomed and well-dressed, appears to be Jewish, claims to be from Beit Shemesh, but, when patted down, has nothing in his pockets – no ID, no money, no cell phone – nothing.
The Magavniks ask the young man his name, his address, his ID number. He refuses to tell them anything (in Israel, it is the law that a person asked to identify himself, must produce identification). He's not drunk, not sick – just stubborn. "I don't have to tell you anything," he says. He’s advised that if he refuses to identify himself he is coming to the police station (under Israeli law, a person who refuses to identify himself can be detained by the police for questioning). No, he's not, he says. He is told him to enter the jeep; he refuses. He is told that if he continues to refuse, force will be used. In the end, the Magavniks have to manhandle him into the jeep.
At the police station the same story continues; the young man refuses to identify himself. Finally, the unit commander finds the key to open him up. "How old are you?" the commander asks. "Seventeen," says the kid. "So you're going into the army soon, right?" says the commander. "Oh yes!" says the kid, and starts to brag about how he's definitely going into an elite combat unit (under the law in Israel, a person over the age of sixteen must carry a Teudat Zehut, an ID issued by the Ministry of Interior).
"No," replies the commander. "After my report on you tonight through official channels, you're not going to be in a combat unit. You're not going to be enlisted. You will be explaining to your parents and your friends why you were unable to qualify for the IDF."
That did it; the kid's composure collapses. He tells the Magavniks his name, his address and his ID number. Why did he resist this? Because he thought he could, that's all. He tied up an anti-terrorist unit for hours with his antics simply because he believed himself to be above the law. The question arises, did he absorb that attitude from his parents? What was he doing in Mevasseret Zion at that hour of the morning? He had been at his girlfriend's house and was trying to hitch a ride home to Beit Shemesh.
The Terrorist Alert
Third story – the day before the Annapolis meeting, a general terrorist alert was called throughout the Jerusalem region in mid-afternoon. Israel Police had intelligence information which included the suspected terrorist's name and Palestinian ID card number and the warning that he was already inside Jerusalem but heading towards Tel Aviv.
My friend’s unit was instructed to back up the regular "blue" police in completely closing down Highway 1 in the direction of Tel Aviv at the Harel interchange at the entrance to Mevasseret Zion. This is called a maHsóm in Hebrew, a roadblock or checkpoint. They stood guard and directed traffic while some eight "blue" police checked the ID of every single vehicle occupant that passed through the quickly-improvised checkpoint.
At the Otéf, the standard checkpoint at the entrance to Jerusalem from Samaria, there is such a checkpoint, and cars pass through in silence. Though the drivers are frustrated with the wait, they understand the security concern. This is also true in the checkpoints that I have manned as a police volunteer. Not here, though. The shouting, the honking, the curses, the complaints of fellow Jewish citizens, whose passage toward Tel Aviv was delayed for a few minutes, was appalling. The Border Patrol was trying to save lives, but good residents of Mevasseret Zion, that cul de sac of privilege north of Jerusalem? They were losing their precious time.
Quoting my friend directly, now:
These anecdotes are all police-related, of course, but are illustrative, I believe, of a terrible decay of social cohesion in the Jewish population of Israel. Everyone will have their own view of why this is the case, and I have mine, of course, but since mine is no more enlightened than anyone else's I'll leave it for another time.
I asked him if he was willing to hazard a guess and write it down. He answered:
“Maybe one of these days, but not now – it's too tiresome and depressing”.
Ladies and gentlemen of the reading public, I rest my case.