Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Barnie Fife And The Curious Incident At The Falafel Stand

When I was a child, I knew that there was a force of Good in the world. But it wasn’t G-d at that point in my life. It was the police.

There was a large police station just a couple of blocks away from our house. My siblings and I used to go to the huge park across from the station and watch the goings on, trying to guess what the uniformed officers were doing and where they were headed. Occasionally we got lucky and saw them leading a handcuffed prisoner into the station.

We never questioned that the police were the good guys. It was back in the days before 911 (gasp!) and I remember that we had a sticker with the number of the police stuck to the side of our phone. We knew who to call if there was trouble. Yes, it is true that cops were parodied in the media. Who can forget the bumbling Barnie Fife, or Boss Hogg’s half-wit lackey Roscoe P. Coltrane? But I think that at least in the civil portion of American society, police were respected as symbols of the law.

I don’t think that much has changed in the States over the years. The world has moved, on and cynicism has crept into every corner of society. And people are more weary of strangers in general, even ones in uniform. But I don’t get the impression that the average American has a fundamentally different view of the police force than I did as a child. If anything, in this day of public transparency, there is even a stronger feeling that the police are checked from corruption and brutality. In fact, many feel they are reigned in to an excessive degree. And the few times that I dealt with a policeman in the States only confirmed my impression that they are for the most part hard-working, courteous and honorable people.

Check out this link about a shooting in New York just the other day. What I found interesting is not the fact that the family is crying murder; that’s to be expected, regardless of what really transpired. What’s interesting to me is the fact that Mayor Blumberg is calling for a grand jury investigation. And yes, I know that somebody was killed. But surely officers of the law understand that there is a system of oversight in place, and that excessive actions at least in theory will lead to hearings and possible sanctions.

Now contrast this with the perception of the Israeli police force. The average Israeli understands that the police are virtually worthless, when not an outright danger to life and limb. Crimes frequently go unreported, except for insurance purposes. Why bother? It’s not as if there’s going to be a serious investigation and attempt to apprehend a mere thief. And corruption – just forget it. An acquaintance of a friend (admittedly a shady character, though he did not seem to be lying) related that he was once in a hotel room where mafia elements were passing out bribes to dozens of officers. The officers literally stood in line, waiting patiently for their turn to collect a plastic bag full of cash. One need only glance at the geriatric officers that amble in groups down the streets of major cities in Israel to know that it isn’t these yokels that protect the citizenry.

The current buzz in the Israeli media, for those who don’t check the local news, is the recent escape of serial-rapist Benny Sela, and the intense manhunt still in progress. Of course, it is true that escapes happen everywhere, even in the United States. But apparently, as one Ha’aretz reporter points out, such escapes are becoming an epidemic in Israel. And the general consensus seems to be that despite the claims of the officers transporting Sela, the rapist wasn’t even handcuffed at the time of his escape.

Why the difference between American and Israeli police? For starters, order in Israel is essentially kept by the IDF, not the police force. In America, police are paid a decent salary, but certainly nothing to write home about (www.salary.com has the average for a patrol officer at about 40-50k). Israeli police, on the other hand, are paid much better than the average Israeli. This means that while the US police forces will (as always) attract a certain percentage of power-trip types, the vast majority will be those dedicated to a career in the public service of law and order. The ranks of the Israeli police (and the army, for that matter) are filled with those who seek a decent paycheck and a wonderful package of benefits.

There seems to be an underlying sentiment among the American bloggers that I’ve seen that although the rioters against the planned Gay Pride Parade were brutalized by the police, they essentially deserved it. And I don’t mean to say that they deserved to be beaten for their ideological stance. Rather, I mean that the perception that on the ground, no policeman actually attacked any protester unless “he deserved it.” Nothing could be further from the truth. I know of countless first-hand reports that testify to the fact that there was a systematic attempt by the police to brutalize any protester, peaceful or otherwise. A few students related that personal possessions had even been stolen by policemen – one, a valuable watch, and another, his wallet emptied of cash in front of his eyes.

Don’t like it? File a report.

And yes, I know that Israel is a society fighting for survival; who has the time and energy to completely remake the police force when Qassams continue to rain down among us? But the fact is, too many internal ills of Israeli society are blamed on external foes. I think we’ve reached the stage where Israel must choose between being first world country or a third world society with a tangential high-tech industry.

What’s my point here? Perhaps what got me thinking about this whole subject was the police officer beside me at the falafel stand yesterday. Obese and elderly, he didn’t look fit enough to chase down the falafel ball that escaped his pita and rolled across the grimy counter, much less a youthful criminal escapee. Or perhaps it's the following: First, Americans should appreciate yet another facet of the G-d given gift that is the United States. And second, that people should be less hasty to retroactively condemn every action of the protesters against the Gay Parade. In previous posts, I have categorically denounced any violent actions taken by the protesters. Nevertheless, we should keep the state of the Israeli police force in mind whenever we hear of incidents in Israel involving the police as it exists today (…and I’m guessing that most Religious Zionists will agree wholeheartedly.)

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