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September 3, 2014 | 8th Elul 5774

The Long Arm of the Law

Galilee Diary #467, November 25, 2009 
Marc Rosenstein

Judges and officers [shotrim, the word used in modern Hebrew for police] shall you set up in the gates that the Lord your God shall give you for your tribes, and they shall judge the people justly.
-Deuteronomy 16:18

The other day I was driving through Karmiel when my cell phone rang. I answered it and navigated off the road to a bus stop bay where I could stop out of the flow of traffic. I ended the call quickly and continued my journey, when I noticed a police flasher in my mirror. Sure enough, the cop had seen me talking on my phone while driving. He asked me if I had anything to say for myself, and I protested feebly that I had pulled off as soon as I answered the phone, but he was not impressed; after all, I had been driving and talking, even if it was just for a few seconds. The law is the law - and the cost of violating it was 1,000 shekels (about $250). I really do think that the law makes sense (it has been on the books, and enforced, since cell phones first became popular), and rarely speak on the phone while driving - generally only long enough to tell the caller that I can't talk now since I'm driving. And while there was the temptation to say something nasty (and unhelpful) like "Why are you spending your time nailing minor offenders in town when you could be preventing fatal accidents by lying in wait for speeders and illegal passers who abound on the rural highway just a mile away?" I resisted that temptation and accepted my fate, if somewhat sullenly, and really have resolved simply to ignore my phone if it rings while I'm driving.

It's interesting how different the image of the police is in Israel from that with which I grew up in the United States. The police force here is a national institution, and overlaps in some ways with the army (for example, some young people do their compulsory service in the police, not the army); there is a Minister of Internal Security (i.e., police) on the cabinet While there are of course local police stations, the force is not really a local institution, and is often not perceived as the positive helping presence in the community that characterized the American neighborhood or small town cop. The popular image of the policeman is either as an annoyance - stopping cars randomly on the highway to check ID's, giving out "easy" traffic tickets like the one described above - or as an incompetent. Police work has always been considered a low-status profession in Israel. It is not clear if this low status is a kind of racist response to the fact that the force is disproportionately populated by Jews of Middle Eastern descent (and Arabs) - or if the ethnic makeup of the force is the result of its being a low-skilled entry into the job market, providing a secure civil-service job to people without a strong educational background. There aren't too many jokes about Jewish mothers wanting their sons to grow up to be policemen. However, I know objectively that the popular image is not fair, and that there are people who go into police work out of idealism, or searching for challenge. While the grass-roots public face of the police doesn't always reveal it, there are certainly bright and serious people on the force, bringing dedication, self-sacrifice, hard work, and sophisticated high-tech and low-tech means to bear on the ills that beset Israel like any other society, e.g., family violence, organized crime, human trafficking, a horrendous driving culture, drug dealing, violent demonstrations - and even terror. And like anyplace else, our cops have their successes and failures, their heroes and rotten apples. 

I wonder if our centuries of ambivalent experience of the police as an arm of non-Jewish society have made it difficult for us to accord the Jewish police force the status and the respect it deserves as an essential factor in making our lives livable in the Jewish state.

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