BDS groups claim victory as New England police pull out of Israel training

Pro-Palestinian groups claim counterterrorism seminar organized by Anti-Defamation League teaches racist and discriminatory policing methods

Special forces practice counterterrorism scenarios during a series of exercises in the southern region, February 4, 2018. (Israel Police)
Special forces practice counterterrorism scenarios during a series of exercises in the southern region, February 4, 2018. (Israel Police)

WATERBURY, Vermont (JTA) – Two New England police departments withdrew from a seminar in Israel last week following a public backlash from pro-Palestinian activists.

The activists are claiming the withdrawals in two liberal redoubts as a significant victory in their efforts to foil police security seminars in Israel conducted by the Anti-Defamation League and others, which they say promote punitive police practices and racial profiling.

The Vermont State Police, headquartered in Waterbury, as well as the Northampton, Massachusetts Police Department, pulled out of the ADL’s New England’s leadership seminar in Israel, titled “Resiliency and Counterterrorism.” The moves followed pressure from residents and the pro-Palestinian groups Vermonters for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace.

JVP runs a national campaign, “End the Deadly Exchange,” claiming the seminar promotes “discriminatory and repressive policing in both countries.”

When contacted, Vermont State Police spokesman Adam Silverman pointed to a statement put out by the department.

It said that the Sate Police’s director, Col. Matthew Birmingham, had accepted ADL’s invitation to join the seminar because it offered “an opportunity to interact with Israeli and Palestinian law-enforcement agencies, observe the security strategies and systems Israel uses to prevent terror attacks, and discuss the challenges the parties face in the region,” it continued.

Later, however, Birmingham said he “heard concerns from fellow Vermonters about attending the seminar,” the statement noted.

“The Colonel and Commissioner of Public Safety Thomas D. Anderson weighed the pros and cons of the trip and after discussing the options agreed that it would be in the best interests of the Vermont State Police for Col. Birmingham to withdraw his participation.”

Illustrative photo of Vermont State Police officers at a music event, Coventry, Vermont August 12, 2004. (Toby Talbot/AP)

Northampton Police Chief Jody D. Kasper told the press, “The mayor and I discussed the matter and thought it was in the best interest of the city if I not attend.”

Kathy Shapiro, an organizer for Vermonters for Justice in Palestine, explained her group’s opposition to the trip in an email.

“I would like to make one thing very clear – this action had nothing to do with the BDS movement,” she asserted. Both groups openly support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement targeting Israel.

“I know from many sources – often participants themselves – that these seminars, especially the ones that take participants to Israel, utilize Israel’s vast experience in surveillance, illegal search and indefinite detention, punitive home demolition and targeted assassination against the Palestinian population,” she wrote.

“In Vermont, where there is already a very high level of racial profiling and conviction and imprisonment of people of color and other minorities – despite the fact that we’re a very homogeneous state that’s 95 percent Caucasian – we do not need this kind of training,” she continued.

Shapiro added neither she nor any of her colleagues spoke directly with Vermont State Police leadership.

In a statement, New England ADL director Robert Trestan, who is in Israel for the seminar, challenged such claims by JVP and others.

“The assertion that American Jewish institutions are responsible for rising levels of police brutality and racism against people of color in the US because of this program is patently false, and neither helpful in dealing with the racial challenges facing this country nor in solving the complex Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” Trestan said.

Shellie Burgman, the ADL’s regional communications spokeswoman, said seminar participants do not meet with the military.

“There is no tactical military style training involved in this program,” Burgman said.

“The purpose of the trip is to provide senior law enforcement from New England an educational opportunity to study the latest techniques and tools in preventing and responding to terror attacks with the goal they can be better prepared for extremism at home,” Burgman added.

Illustrative. An elite Border Police unit takes part in an exercise in the IDF’s counterterrorism training center outside of the central Israeli city of Modiin. (Israel Police)

The trip, which left December 2 and runs through December 11, is funded and organized by ADL New England and has run annually since 2002. ADL declined to state how many officers and officials were attending the trip or the police departments they represented.

Burgman said that participants meet with senior officials from both Israeli and Palestinian law enforcement.

“The characterization that the seminar consists of tactical military-style training with the Israeli military is simply wrong,” Burgman wrote.

Rachel Weber, an organizer with the Western Massachusetts chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace, attended a meeting with Northampton mayor David Narkewicz and its police chief amid pressure to cancel the city’s participation in the trip, at which time her group discussed its concerns.

“The ADL didn’t release an itinerary to the participants,” Weber said. “Even though [the ADL] is paying for the trip, taxpayers are still paying people’s salaries while they’re gone for 10 days. When we are talking about sending the chief of police of a town to go to training, the public should have access to what the training’s about and who the trainers are.”

The Boston Police Department, members of which have previously attended the seminar, reportedly also received pressure to withdraw but did not.

Boston police did not respond for requests for comment, but WGBH reported two top-ranking officers planned to attend.

Earlier this year, the City Council in Durham, North Carolina, voted unanimously to bar its police department from taking part in “military-style training” programs abroad, a measure that focused on Israel.

Former Durham Police chief Jose Lopez, who spent a week in Israel on an ADL program, told the council that none of the training involved “militarization.” He said the training dealt with “leadership, it was learning about terrorism and then learning about how to interact with people who are involved in mass casualty situations and how to manage mass casualty situations.”

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