Lawlessness and Disorder–The Failure of Israel’s Police Force

Haim Watzman

The most frightening piece in today’s Ha’aretz doesn’t appear on the newspaper’s website, in either Hebrew or English. It’s Gidi Weitz’s essay on how the police responded when a pal from his weekly soccer game got beaten up by some roughnecks who didn’t like where he’d parked his car.

There was no police response to speak of. The policeman who arrived a half hour later in response to Weitz’s call was uninterested, took some scratchy notes, and told Weitz’s friend that he could file a formal complaint at the police station. When the policeman left, the assailants threatened the friend that if he complained they would make his life miserable. As a consequence, the friend’s wife panicked and refused to allow her husband to file a claim. When Weitz convinced his friend to accompany him to the police station anyway, the cop on duty showed no interest. All this—beating, initial police response, and subsequent police apathy—took place in the presence of the friend’s 18-year old son.

Weitz’s piece appears in the midst of a wave of violent attacks and murders of Israeli civilians by other Israeli civilians. Dismembered bodies have been discovered in trash bins and a Tel Aviv father was beaten to death on the city’s beachfront promenade, in front of his family, by a gang of young men and women who had been drinking.

It’s a canard to attribute the violence in Israeli society to the tension created by the Israel-Arab conflict. But that’s only part of the story. The core problem is this society’s cavalier attitude toward the law—all laws, including ones made to protect us, by all elements of society, including those charged with enforcing the laws. It’s astounding that the police will only begin to investigate a public act of violence if a formal complaint is filed, yet it’s a fact that every Israeli knows and has encountered personally. And everybody knows that such investigations seldom lead to serious investigations and certainly not convictions. As a result, every hoodlum knows that he can push people around with impunity.

Kids, like the son of Weitz’s friend, grow up learning that the police don’t protect them and that no one will defend them but themselves. So it’s hardly surprising that another article in today’s paper (again, not online) tells us that civilian applications for gun licenses have reached an all time high. Kids also know, as my kids do, that alcohol, often drugs as well, can easily be purchased at kiosks, bars, and even supermarkets. No one who sells alcohol to minors gets fined, so why should they stop?

The law won’t be kept until the law is enforced. If Israel’s police force doesn’t get its act together, we’ll kill ourselves long before our enemies do.

6 thoughts on “Lawlessness and Disorder–The Failure of Israel’s Police Force”

  1. Interesting and depressing piece. It’s a problem in many countries, not least my own (Ireland).

    The viciousness of seeminly random acts of violence is really shocking at times.

    An effective and motivated police service is of course only part of the solution, but it’s an important part.

  2. Coming from the US for an extended stay in Israel, one of the most obvious contrasts is the place of police in daily life. In America cops are ubiquitous. They’re on the freeways, the streets, the sidewalks, everywhere. One is always watching out for cops, whether driving, or as a 19 year old sneaking a beer, etc.
    In Israel the cops seemingly don’t exist. Sure, there is the ‘mishtarah’, but they look like clerks. On and off duty soldiers are the ones out on the streets with guns.
    My only interaction with Israeli police was when I lived on a kibbutz and one of the members had a friend who was a cop. This kibbutz member, with my friend and I in tow, poached a few banana bunches from the kibbutz fields (and neighboring kibbutz fields), connoitered in a parking lot with his friend on the police force, transferred the bananas from the kibbutz vehicle into the policeman’s car trunk, and in turn the three of us got into the Haifa team’s soccer game because the cop was also in charge of security there.

    At the time it seemed to reinforce the quaintness of Israeli society (as opposed to big city America) that I liked so much, but obviously, it’s indicative of several problems. Now that Israel is losing its quaintness and faced with the sort of crime epidemics common in places like the US, I suppose it’s time for a real police force.

  3. Part of it is status. The police are closer to the army in Israel than in the US, so they compare themselves to the big-budget organization.

    It feels like a demotion to be working on pickpockets and bicycle thieves when your neighbor is working on earth-shattering issues of national existence.

  4. I like the idea of a low-key but effective police force. We have too many shaved headed cretans here in the US with their form fit shirts and pants with the creases sewed in and you “don’t have to polish” patent leather shoes and an authority figure complex. The problem is training and a wellingness by the municipal authorities to implement a program that addresses the problem . An effective police force is one that is respected and informed and whose officers are well paid based on their skill level. Sounds like Israel lacks the aforesaid and as usual the right is always looking for a free lunch. They will demand protection but they won’t want to pay for it

  5. This claim is highly questionable:

    The core problem is this society’s cavalier attitude toward the law…

    I’ve only lived in Israel fifteen years, and I’m currently in the Old Country and unfamiliar with these particular stories, but my impression is that this “cavalier attitude toward the law” existed long before the crime problem described here. Even when Israel was a famously nonviolent, supportive community, this “cavalier attitude” was there. So I don’t see how this attitude could explain anything.

    Two factors seem to have arisen at about the same time as this problem: the rise of individualism, and mass aliyah/immigration (does “aliyah” apply to non-Jews?) from the former Soviet Union. There’s been a lot written about the first factor and I have nothing to add, except that I’m a little surprised it was ignored davka here. Regarding the second, I don’t know about statistics, but anecdotally it seems that these immigrants are vastly overrepresented among violent criminals in Israel, especially among young people. And of course the immigrants’ heavy drinking was one of the main reasons for such strong anti-Russian prejudice among Israelis in the 1990s. To the extent that these generalizations are true, it is misleading, to say the least, to look for causes exclusively within Israeli culture. By the way, it should go without saying that I’m generalizing about groups and this doesn’t necessarily apply to individuals.

    The police have their share of responsibility as well. They seem to see themselves as an anti-terrorism force more than as constables preserving law and order. This may be the correct policy given Israel’s circumstances, I don’t know. In my own anecdotal experience, they seem to be uninterested in property crimes, and from this article their threshold of interest seems even higher. A “broken windows” policy would probably make as big a difference in Israel as it did in New York, but I don’t see it happening. Everyone’s focussed on terrorism. Didn’t somebody (Efraim Sneh?) run on a one-candidate law-and-0rder list last time? How many votes did he get?

  6. That cavalier attitude towards the law exists only because the law enforcement here is truly awful. The police are untrained and lazy; there is little if any foot or car patrol, and no interest in follow up or investigations. It is a civil service job with automatic promotions and vicious political infighting and nothing is based on merit and hard work but rather on protexia. Half the force is volunteer and they’re constantly told to “know their place” by the regulars, who don’t want the boat rocked by people like my husband, a volunteer with over 20 years experience as a police officer in the States.

    Nor do the police have any incentives to improve: promotions and pay raises are automatic; hard work on a case is seldom rewarded by the filing of charges that will stick, or decent prosecution. Sentencing is a joke here–murder suspects don’t go into custody, they go to “house arrest”!! People with hundreds or tickets are still allowed to keep their licenses and commit carnage on the roads.

    You need ELECTED judges who answer to a constituency. You need a professional police force and a separate highway patrol for traffic offenders. You need mandatory prison sentences for violent crimes and some teeth put into our traffic offense laws. You need a police force whose members are pro-active, involved in community policing, and promoted on merit instead of time-served behind a desk reading a newspaper and drinking coffee.

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