Israel, Justice

Baltimore, the IDF, and Our Values (and T-Shirts)

[pullquote] As a society, we expect law enforcement and the military to be of the people, to work for the people, and to protect the people.
[/pullquote]Law enforcement and the military are necessities, not commodities.
Whether economic commodities whose paraphernalia we wear, or policy commodities whose actions stand in for real problems in society.  And what Baltimore or Hebron can teach us is that it is time that we readjust our expectations of law enforcement and the military, as citizens and as parents, as Americans and as Jews.  Perhaps even adjust our prayers.
I was joltingly reminded of this again while listening to the radio walking along Pennsylvania Avenue, focusing on coverage about the crisis in Baltimore and then noticing a number of teens walking past the White House in their IDF garb.  My hunch was that these liberal-looking kids, and perhaps their parents, would be sympathetic to the protesters.  Yet I wondered whether they had connected at least some of what these protests are about to the meaning of the shirts they were wearing.  Probably not.  So let’s try to do it here.
[pullquote align=left] What we have done in our country is undoubtedly unfair to the cops – we are expecting them to work within, and hopefully solve, a range of social ills, usually with no such training.
[/pullquote]Many much wiser commentators than I have sought to analyze Baltimore, and the ongoing issues of race and law enforcement overall.   The summary version for me that makes the most sense is that there is a fundamental disconnect of expectations between the community and law enforcement.  As a society, we expect law enforcement (domestically) and the military (internationally) to be of the people, to work for the people, and to protect the people.  They are asked to do this to reflect a society’s views of what behaviors should be combated, whether through the legal criminal justice process or, if needed, war.  Hopefully we train officers and soldiers throughout to understand this balance and to carry it out fairly.
The current wave of protests in America bears for all the grim truth that, for at least one group and sometimes others (like young Latino men), the law enforcement system is not only failing to come from and to work for them, but is instead working against them.  These numbers of a recent think tank study about “missing black men” highlighted by the NY Times call this out in stark relief, but I am constantly struck by the stories that black parents tell of how they have to speak to their kids, especially boys, about interacting with police, and the fear and defensiveness that runs through it all.
Quite simply, black boys and men cannot live out the expectation that my kids and I have of law enforcement, that they will be there when we need them and that they are simply acting within the scope of what our society has asked of them.  That their instinct will be to protect us from behavior that we reject, rather than target us as the embodiment of what has been rejected.  My kids and I assume that our officers act with a level of morality and sensitivity that reflects us, while too many in the black community can have no such assumption.
But the larger problem is that, like we expect of schools and teachers, we expect the law enforcement system and its officers to solve our social policy problems.  Baltimore, Ferguson, and other crises have been laid at the feet of racial bias, underfunding for officer training, community poverty and failed education, dearth of mental health and substance abuse facilities, etc.  Yet those are the real and underlying policy issues that law enforcement is now standing in for.
[pullquote] Many in the American Jewish community have the same inappropriate and ultimately counterproductive expectations of the IDF.
[/pullquote]What we have done in our country is undoubtedly unfair to the cops – we are expecting them to work within, and hopefully solve, a range of social ills, usually with no such training.  That’s a disconnect in our expectations, and the critics and analysts prove it when one side justifies what police do with “You get out there and do it,” and the other sees them as evil actors.  When we can adjust our expectations of and for law enforcement, and start to finally deal with the broader social issues, then we will get somewhere.  Using cops as a pawns in broader social policy debates means we are setting them up, and the communities they are serving/targeting, to fail.  But either lionizing or demonizing them in the meantime hurts us all.
Sooo…what about those IDF t-shirts?
In short, many of us in the American Jewish community have the same inappropriate, outsized, and ultimately counterproductive expectations of the IDF, and the Israeli men and women serving as soldiers in the West Bank or in operations in Gaza.
[pullquote align=left] When stories emerge of Israeli soldiers targeting Palestinians in cruel ways, eerily similar to how some police are treating American black men, we are torn.
[/pullquote]That is, we often unwittingly expect them to deal with the social and policy issues caused by the Occupation.  There is obviously no argument that IDF soldiers come from within Palestinian society, and so we are not, in general, as surprised when it targets them overall.  But we do expect the IDF soldier to represent Israeli society and values, which we usually say represents Jewish values as well.
And so when story after story emerges of Israeli soldiers targeting Palestinians in cruel ways, eerily similar to how some police are treating American black men, we are torn.  Usually we revert to defensive and circular “What would you do?” lines to defend all that they do, or decry them for being racist, immoral demons targeting an entire population.  Neither of which is useful in moving forward, just as it isn’t in Baltimore or Ferguson.
[pullquote] When we wear IDF apparel, we contribute to this distortion and make it nearly impossible to discuss broader issues at the core of the Occupation.
[/pullquote]The expectation disconnect here starts with the tired propaganda line that the IDF is the “most moral army in the world,” then is followed up by the propagation of the IDF through the commodities of t-shirts, hats, etc.  Those actions convey an expectation that the soldiers will not just do their jobs, but go to an outsized standard to do it in representing us.  Yet sadly, the truth is many Palestinian parents often talk to their kids in much the same way that black parents talk to their kids about police because of what soldiers may do.
When we buy in to the idea of the “most moral army in the world” and wear the apparel, we contribute to this distortion of expectation and make it nearly impossible to have an honest conversation about their actions, or the broader social and policy issues at the core of the Occupation, which is what is needed.  Just as, for so many people, the actions of the Baltimore and other police are either obviously right, or obviously wrong, our views are rarely matched with realistic expectations of what soldiers and law enforcement office can and should be doing in complex places where the real issues have little or nothing to do with what they are trained to do.
Or, worse, we start to believe that the soldiers or the police are a source and reflection of their own values, rather than ours.  The truth is that if they fail, it is because we fail as societies.  And an IDF t-shirt or “Stand with the Police” sign only masks that further.
As a parent, this comes back to what we say and do with our kids.  Here are a few ideas:

  1. Talk to your kids about what it means to serve in the law enforcement and the military, and what those jobs really are all about.
  2. Discuss with your kids the stories of those who are on the “other side” of police and soldiers and ask them to understand a bit about what that experience must be like.
  3. Say, and teach your kids to do the same, “Enlighten the hands of those who defend us,” rather than “Strengthen the hands” when reciting a “Prayer for the State of Israel.”  They usually have enough strength; it is sadly the understanding of how to use that force to reflect societal values that is sometimes lacking.
  4. Stop wearing attire supporting the IDF, the U.S. military agencies, or law enforcement.  There are many ways to support them, but creating outsized expectations for them is not one of them.

What are you saying to your kids these days?   Leave a comment, but ultimately we must all recognize that these terrible actions are a reflection of our values and expectations, as much as anything else.  Let’s hope our kids can see that more than many of us do.

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