Editor’s Note: The terrorist attacks of 9/11 exposed many shortcomings in the readiness capabilities of the United States to prevent and respond to foreign-based terrorist attacks on our homeland. Prominent among these was the inability of local law enforcement to meet the challenges associated with their role in the overall effort.
Preventing a violent terrorist attack before it can be successfully launched is the gold standard, accomplished only by the collection, analysis, and timely dissemination of accurate and detailed intelligence. The post-mortem reviews of the 9/11 attacks, however, while recognizing what had been done to enlist local law enforcement in an overall counter terrorism effort, also noted how much more was needed.
Israel has long been recognized as having the most highly developed and effective counter terrorism capabilities in the free world. I use the term “free world” deliberately. China, for example, has a very effective method of dealing with terrorism within its borders. Anyone even suspected of having such intentions is subject to arrest and indefinite detention with minimal, if any, legal protections. Israel, on the other hand is a democratic country whose legal system and law enforcement apparatus operates under constraints and in an environment whose similarity to our country far outweighs the differences.
The Jewish Institute for the National Security of America (JINSA) established in 1976 has been the premier American Jewish organization devoted exclusively to issues of American national security as well as the U.S.-Israel military relationship. Its flagship program, begun in 1982, annually brings recently retired American Generals and Admirals to Israel for meetings with leading Israeli military and civilian leaders.
Immediately following the 9/11 tragedy, a former Chief of the New York City Police Department asked if JINSA could leverage its relationships in Israel on behalf of the American law enforcement community, using what it had accomplished for the military establishments as a model.
The first delegation of the JINSA Law Enforcement Exchange Program arrived in Israel in 2002. Unlike the military, our country’s law enforcement community is not centralized, consisting of approximately 18,000 local, county, tribal, state, and federal organizations. Each of these are autonomous, as well as being vastly different in size, structure, resources, mission, and capabilities. They range in size from police and sheriff’s departments with thousands of officers or deputies like the NYPD, the Chicago PD and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Office, to thousands of small towns and cities whose police departments consist of a handful of officers – as well as everything in between.
Israel, with its smaller size and population and more centralized criminal justice system, avoids some of the problems associated with scale, nevertheless has had to deal with issues familiar to its American collogues. Intelligence sharing and timely dissemination of information, unity of command, and mounting a coordinated response at the scene of an attack, as well as communications interoperability are but a few of the in issues faced by both countries.
Israelis are known for both their directness and willingness to share their experiences and knowledge honestly and forthrightly with their American collogues. One senior Israel National Police (INP) officer told our delegation “We paid in blood for many of the lessons we learned in countering terrorism, we hope that as a result of these exchanges you won’t have to repeat our experience.” The Israeli willingness to admit early mistakes, many of which mirrored some of ours, was absolutely inspirational and one of the greatest benefits of our program. The problems associated with preventing and responding to major terrorist attacks is indeed daunting. To see how well the Israelis had done and listen to them explain how they did it proved to be more than worth the effort.
The week-long schedule is roughly divided in half between the two major themes – prevention and response. Prevention relies on intelligence gathering, analysis, and dissemination. Although in Israel, as in the U.S., much of this mission is in hands of agencies other than local law enforcement – in Israel the Israel Security Agency (ISA) often referred to as the Shin Bet or Shabbak; in the U.S. the FBI – but local police play an important role. In the U.S. for example, there are almost a million local police officers and deputies patrolling our communities, while the number of federal agents across the country is only a small fraction of that. The chances of a local officer or deputy observing something that could be consequential in exposing a potential terrorist threat is real and needs to be incorporated into law enforcement training and operational doctrine.
As important as intelligence collection and analysis are, from a local law enforcement perspective the overriding factor is getting the information into the hands of officers as quickly as humanly possible. Knowing an attack is planned for Tuesday in a certain location will be of absolutely zero value if it reaches local law enforcement on Wednesday.
In Israel, with its tight spaces, information can, and has, been obtained alerting to the dispatch of a suicide bomber from the West Bank targeting downtown Jerusalem. With literally minutes from warning to potential detonation, the INP has been able to intercept a substantial number of these individuals and prevent the completion of the attack. Some of this is due to innovative use of technology in combination with seamless and immediate dissemination of information.
Following the disastrous attack on a school in northern Israel in 1975, which, according to the post-incident review, was made worse by the poorly executed response, the INP was given sole responsibility for managing the response to all terrorist attacks within the borders of the country. While multiple organizations; fire, EMT, etc. will also be present at the scene to carry out their important operations, overall command is in the hands of the senior police officer on site.
This goes a long way to ensure the best possible outcomes. The frequency and lethality of terror attacks in Israel has, unfortunately, provided the Israelis with the experience necessary to develop and train in the best possible response protocols. And they are ready and willing to share what they know with their American counterparts.
The program begins within hours of landing, with an introductory dinner at which a senior member of the INP provides a briefing outlining the structure and mission of the organization, as well as Israel’s overall security posture, and a lecture covering Israel’s history and the larger Middle East.
The next morning, we begin our very packed week-long program. I have learned to expect that around the third day some of our participants will begin to comment on the length of the days and the number of activities we can squeeze into each day. It’s always done humorously, and I respond in the same spirit, reminding them that they are all young and strong and here to learn and experience as much as possible.
We visit Israeli police installations various cities and towns, receiving specialized lectures/briefings dealing with both intelligence and prevention as well as a range of other issues. We speak to people in the Arab minority community to hear their point of view, including a visit to a facility housing high-level terrorist prisoners who have been given an opportunity to speak to our delegation in what always turns out to be a vain attempt to justify their actions. We have been in Sderot during a rocket attack and have had to seek shelter in the same fifteen seconds as the rest of the population. The discussion that followed with the senior police officer in Sderot explaining what it was like policing a city under constant threat was both informative and emotionally moving.
Visiting the Old City of Jerusalem and meeting with the commander of the police is another highlight of the visit. Policing the Old City is arguably the single most complex, sensitive, and ultimately difficult law enforcement challenge in the entire world – yes, the entire world! Holy to three religions, cramped and crowded, containing numerous sites sacred to each of the religious communities, visited by millions of tourists from the around the world, and, perhaps most significantly, the place where the tensions and violence associated with religious and political differences often play themselves out.
Perhaps there is no place where the consequences of a single major terror incident could have greater worldwide impact. Prevention is key. Observing how the INP, through a combination of intelligence gathering, physical security, and community relations, deal with their responsibilities gives our participants useful insights that they carry home with them.
Shabbat: Time for Reflection
On Friday night, after five days in Israel, our group, primarily comprised of non-Jewish men and women, sits down to a traditional Friday night Shabbat (Sabbath) dinner. We have Israeli guests join us, most of them people we have met with during the preceding week. It is a traditional meal with prayers, chopped liver, and gefilte fish. Fair to say that this is a first for most of the Americans.
Each participant has an opportunity to say a few words. Although we have had more than 200 participants since the program’s inception, the remarks made by the vast majority are remarkably similar.
On a professional level, they characterize the lessons learned in superlative language. Some of them acknowledge they have already spoken to people in their organizations, discussing changes to training and operational procedures, while others talk about plans. More than a few call it the best “training” they have received in their careers. They have observed up close how a country and its people have survived years of living with the ever-present threat of terrorist violence and not only endured but built a vibrant and prosperous democratic society under the rule of law.
On a personal level, most talk about the visit as a spiritual experience. They have visited places and seen sights that they first heard about as children at home and later learned about in Church and Sunday school. They have listened to the stories of survivors of terrorist attacks. They have visited the Holocaust Memorial at Yad Vashem. They have met and been warmly befriended by Israelis – Jews, Arabs, Christians, and Druze – all of whom seem to have in common the desire to meet and feed their American friends. Friendships have been formed that will last well beyond their return home. More than a few tears have been shed by both the speakers and the rest of the group before the meal is over.
Each participant receives a formal survey requesting them to critique not only the overall trip but each of the presentations and lectures. As time goes by, we often hear how lessons learned in Israel are applied at home. Some involve training, some operational procedures, while others address an enhanced understanding of the concerns of the Jewish community and the personal outreach that grew out of their experience. On one occasion a chief described using what he learned in Israel to help defuse an armed hostage situation. Another said what he learned in Israel made his city a safer place.
What started as an effort to provide useful information to American law enforcement executives has not only exceeded our expectations in that regard but has resulted in benefits we didn’t imagine. The building of enduring relationships between Israeli and American law enforcement executives, the enhancement of relationships between Jewish communities and their respective law enforcement leaders, and the goodwill that results from experiencing Israel and its people all fall under the umbrella of positive unexpected consequences.
Backhanded recognition of the success of this program has been provided by the enemies it has attracted. Those hostile to Israel, law enforcement or both, led by the Jewish Voices for Peace (JVP), took aim at the program and in 2018 were successful in getting the city council in Durham, NC to ban its police department from participating in any exchanges. (Of interest is the fact that no invitation was outstanding or anticipated for any such participation.) They were later successful in keeping two police departments in New England from participating in an unrelated program.
Given the insignificant impact of their efforts, JINSA initially chose to ignore JVP and their equally radical anti-Semitic BDS allies. Following the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis and the false, inflammatory, and outrageous efforts on the part of this organization to connect the death of Floyd and others to police exchanges with Israel supported by the American Jewish community, we felt that a line had been crossed and we had to respond. We were far from alone in our assessment of the JVP campaign, which was labeled as anti-Semitic by other respected Jewish organizations.
Formulating a response was made easy by the fact that their allegations were a patchwork of lies. Ignoring their usual rants about the history of Israel and its conflicts with Arabs and Palestinians, we focused on the specific charges dealing with our law enforcement exchanges. Their assertion that the “knee to the neck” technique was taught to our participants in Israel, for example, as well as the rest of their bogus charges were easily refutable. Many of our past participants were eager to speak publicly and in detail about their experience and our itineraries from previous exchanges had been publicly available and stood in stark contrast to the allegations.
We have seen no evidence that the effort to interfere with our program is over nor do we have any concerns about its impact. We will, however, continue to confront them whenever they put forth their false, anti-Semitic allegations. With what appears to be a significant expenditure on their part, at best, they have managed to convince three police agencies out of 18,000 to forego a valuable opportunity to help improve the security of their communities. Congratulations!
As we go forward, we continue to adjust to new challenges and an ever-changing landscape in both countries. Technology, cybercrime, crimes against children, border security, community policing, lone wolf terrorism, and securing vulnerable targets affect police here and in Israel. Much has been learned and shared in the past and scores of American communities have benefitted as a result of this effort. There is every reason to believe that the same will be true in the future.
Steven Pomerantz is a retired asstistant director of the FBI.