Members of Jewish Voice for Peace call for an end to the Anti-Defamation League's police delegations to Israel during an October 2019 protest outside the organization's New York City office.
As protests against police brutality raged in June 2020, senior Anti-Defamation League (ADL) employees recommended that the organization end its controversial practice of sending police delegations to Israel, according to a draft internal memo obtained by The Guardian and Jewish Currents. The memo draft—authored by ADL senior vice president George Selim and Greg Ehrie, its vice president for law enforcement and analysis, and addressed to ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt on June 9th—concluded that the law enforcement trips to Israel should be terminated in part because they were a source of “high controversy.” The delegations are the target of the long-running Deadly Exchange campaign, an initiative begun in 2017 by the activist group Jewish Voice for Peace, which argues that the program reinforces the use of brutal police tactics in the US.
The ADL publicly dismissed that line of critique in the summer of 2020. “Seeking to link Israel as a state to US police misconduct is a bizarre excuse for the centuries-long history of racism and injustice that has been part of American history, really since our founding,” Selim told JTA. In the memo, however, Selim and Ehrie admitted the possibility that their trips could fuel police misconduct. “In light of the very real police brutality at the hands of militarized police forces in the US, we must ask ourselves difficult questions, like whether we are contributing to the problem,” Selim and Ehrie wrote. “We must ask ourselves why it is necessary for American police, enforcing American laws, would need to [sic] meet with members of the Israeli military. We must ask ourselves if, upon returning home, those we train are more likely to use force.”
The memo offers an unprecedented look at the ADL’s calculations as it sought to balance its commitment to civil rights with maintaining close ties to law enforcement around the country at a time of mounting criticism of police. It also reveals deep internal dissent over a program the ADL has publicly defended, showing an organization attempting to respond to the protest movement sparked by the police murder of George Floyd, and to the specific concerns raised by activists whose claims it had long denied.
A year and a half after the memo was written, the delegations to Israel—known as the Law Enforcement Leadership Seminar—remain on pause because of the pandemic, according to Selim, though he said that in his final recommendation on the program, he counseled that the ADL should “continue the program with updated curriculum and content in order to increase the value and impact of this type of law enforcement engagement.” In an email to The Guardian and Jewish Currents, Selim wrote that, while the George Floyd protest movement prompted the organization to put its law enforcement program “under even more rigorous evaluation beyond budgetary concerns to make sure that it is entirely aligned with ADL’s priority of fighting hate in all forms,” the review ultimately “reminded [the organization] of just how incredibly false and baseless the criticisms of the program from anti-Zionist activists are.”
“We want to be unconditional and clear here: ADL is proud of its decades of work with law enforcement and believes strongly that those relationships are crucial in helping protect all people from hate crimes and hate-motivated violence,” Selim wrote in the email. “As we said in the memo, the Law Enforcement Leadership Seminars have led to stronger relationships with law enforcement that have directly helped ADL with the investigation of hate crimes and protecting local communities.”
The ADL is considered one of the top civil rights organizations in the US, known for tracking white supremacist activity, lobbying for hate crimes legislation, and leading educational efforts on bias and racism. At the same time, the organization has been the target of repeated criticism in the era of Black Lives Matter. It has attracted the ire of activists by making close relationships with law enforcement a pillar of its overall strategy, and regularly honoring controversial law enforcement officials. It has also alienated civil liberties groups through its Israel advocacy, prompting dissent among employees, as Jewish Currents found in an investigation last year. For instance, in 2016, the ADL supported amending federal civil rights law to employ a controversial definition of antisemitism that condemns some forms of criticism of Israel—a change that many of the organization’s own Civil Rights Division employees opposed as unconstitutional. In August 2020, over 60 social justice groups, including the Movement for Black Lives, Dream Defenders, and Mijente, launched an initiative called “Drop the ADL,” calling on progressive groups to refuse partnerships with an organization that “has a history and ongoing pattern of attacking social justice movements led by communities of color, queer people, immigrants, Muslims, Arabs, and other marginalized groups, while aligning itself with police, right-wing leaders, and perpetrators of state violence.” The Drop the ADL campaign also cited the ADL’s law enforcement exchanges as an example of how the group supports “racist, militarized policing.”
“The ADL is not a civil rights organization,” said Lara Kiswani, the executive director of the Arab Resource and Organizing Center and a leader in the Drop the ADL campaign. “It is a pro-Israeli apartheid interest group aimed at undermining efforts in solidarity with Palestine in the US, and therefore undermining broader racial and social justice movements.”
Black Lives Matter and Palestinian rights activists have particularly focused their criticism on the ADL’s Leadership Seminar—originally known as the National Counter-Terrorism Seminar—an annual program bringing law enforcement executives to Israel to “study first hand Israel’s tactics and strategies to combat terrorism.” Launched in 2004, the program responded to US law enforcement’s increased focus on counterterrorism programming after the September 11th attacks. The ADL promoted the trips by presenting Israel’s experience combatting Palestinian militants as instructive for US law enforcement officials. The memo notes that the delegations furthered the ADL’s mission by helping the organization form relationships with law enforcement, facilitate the investigation of hate crimes, and promote community safety. The delegations also served the organization’s goal of strengthening the US–Israel alliance. In 2015, David C. Friedman, at the time the group’s Washington, DC, regional director and director of national law enforcement initiatives, told the Jerusalem Post that meetings between Israeli police and US police served to build bridges “between law enforcement agencies in two democracies,” and that the US officers “come back and they are Zionists. They understand Israel and its security needs in ways a lot of audiences don’t.”
Since the ADL’s program launched, at least 500 law enforcement officials have participated, including federal officials from Customs and Border Protection, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the US Marshals, and various city and state law agencies. Itineraries obtained through public records requests by JVP and the anti-Zionist news website Mondoweiss reveal that American participants have toured Israeli prisons, visited Israeli-occupied areas in the West Bank and Golan Heights, and met with retired Israeli army officers and active-duty police officers for sessions on counterterrorism.
In interviews for this story, US law enforcement officials described being impressed by Israel’s approach to counterterrorism and surveillance, while acknowledging that their techniques could have troubling implications for civil liberties. “The Israelis are very innovative, out of necessity, with technology and measures for providing security and detecting threatening behavior and criminal behavior,” said Bill Ayub, the sheriff of Ventura County in southern California, who went to Israel on an ADL trip in 2017, referencing controversial predictive policing tools that critics say can violate civil liberties and lead to racial profiling. He described being impressed by the “Hollywood-esque” surveillance systems he observed, which can record and track people’s movements and listen in on conversations. He admitted that the software is “a little more invasive than you would see here in the US,” and described the use of force during arrests as “shocking”: “It was like, ‘Wow, you do that?’ . . . We’d be in jail if we did something like that here.” But he argued that the Israeli security force’s surveillance tactics “allowed them to have a really good handle on problems brewing and to track known dissidents or known criminals,” and that the exchange “broadened my perspective.”
Another participant in ADL programs, Santa Barbara chief deputy sheriff Craig Bonner, also raised questions about whether the strategies and technologies presented by Israeli law enforcement officials were appropriate for an American context, even as he praised the ADL’s training. Roughly seven years ago, he attended training sessions at ADL headquarters in Washington DC, which involved similar programming to the Israel trips. He said he was particularly interested in the Israeli tactic of placing armed undercover officers on public transportation as a counterterrorism measure. At the same time, he noted that some of the aggressive policing measures he observed would likely be prohibited in the US: “Is our society ready for whatever that additional level of precaution is? For the most part the answer is no. In many instances, the things done there are simply not allowable by law and/or the constitution.”
Critics of the delegations argue that learning from the Israeli security forces who uphold a military occupation of the Palestinian territories might encourage US police to employ violence at home. The exchanges are responsible for “significantly aggravating [the] already deep-seated racism and dangerous militarization process” of US police departments, argues Omar Barghouti, co-founder of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement for Palestinian rights, which has joined US activists in calling for an end to the trainings. The ADL is not the only organization that hosts police delegations to Israel, which also occur through groups such as the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs and the Georgia International Law Enforcement Exchange (GILEE). In a 2018 report on such programs, published after they launched their “Deadly Exchange” campaign, JVP charged that the trips “instill militarized logics of security into the civilian sphere” and “deepen ties between US and Israeli officials to shore up support for a shared security model that justifies flagrant human and civil rights violations.” As an example, the report points to the Atlanta police department, whose police chief visited Israel on a GILEE trip in 2008, and which modeled its Video Integration Center—a citywide network of thousands of cameras that has been criticized by privacy advocates—after the surveillance system used by the Israeli police force to monitor the Old City in Jerusalem.
The ADL rejects charges that its programs encourage police militarization. It maintained its support even during the George Floyd uprising: “It is on these trips to Israel that local law enforcement leaders can learn about the resiliency of a country that has dealt with terrorism for its entire history,” wrote Tammy Gillies, the ADL of San Diego’s regional director, in a July 2020 opinion article for the San Diego Union Tribune. “They can learn how people remain hopeful when faced with security challenges daily in a multicultural society.” Two years later, the ADL is not backing away from the exchanges. “The seminar is entirely educational and cultural in nature,” Selim wrote in the email to The Guardian and Jewish Currents, describing the trips as “a collection of professional exchanges which consists of briefings, presentations and site visits” and “include meeting with both Israel National Police (INP) and Palestinian law enforcement leaders.” Selim continued: “Contrary to the most outrageous claims made, there are absolutely no tactical trainings of any kind. As the memo notes, participants did not learn how to apprehend or restrain individuals, nor to conduct interrogations or apply any related practices.”
Still, the memo reveals ADL staff questioning the value of the police delegations, and suggests that discomfort over the delegations came to a head in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd. The memo also raises concerns that the trips were too expensive to justify their existence. “Each trip costs . . . upward of $200,000 per year in the staff time it takes to support the trips and defend the trips from controversy,” it states. The memo contradicts itself on whether the delegations have actually been beneficial for the organization: The authors reiterate that the delegations deepened the ADL’s relationships with local, state, and federal law enforcement, thereby helping the organization address hate crimes in local communities. But they also write that the impact of the counterterrorism delegations was “unclear,” noting that it wasn’t evident that attendees “change policies” to better address antisemitism or white supremacy upon their return.
“The trips were not popular inside of the organization,” said one former ADL executive who requested anonymity to protect his professional standing. “The feeling was that the optics were so bad, and the benefit not very tangible.”
The memo laid out several options for the ADL’s future approach to police delegations, including a scenario in which the organization could reshape law enforcement exchanges into an “Institute for Global Dialogue” that would focus on conversation instead of “training,” with sessions that would address “cutting-edge issues that are important to police around the world,” such as “investigating hate crimes, combating extremism and addressing implicit bias.” They also suggested that such an institute could expand the “geographic orientation” of the program so that Israel would be only one country among several involved. Ultimately, however, the memo concluded that the best approach for the ADL would be to end the programs altogether. “This is the best approach because it allows us to shed critical budget commitments and eliminate a program with limited impact and high controversy,” the authors wrote.
Supporters of the Deadly Exchange campaign see the memo as a direct response to the pressure they exerted on the ADL, and thus their biggest victory so far. But they also say the ADL’s reconsideration of the program came far too late, and that their campaign against the ADL’s broader agenda won’t stop. “The ADL admitted their police exchange programs might militarize the police, but instead of stopping them and addressing any harm they have caused, the ADL tried to conceal their assessment, and then recommitted to their programs of law enforcement engagement,” said JVP Executive Director Stefanie Fox.
Indeed, while the ADL’s police delegations to Israel remain paused for now, the organization is not backing away from its ties to law enforcement. “We remain committed to law enforcement engagement and professional development nationally and internationally and are likely to expand our educational law enforcement programs,” Selim said.