A Radical Geography Community
by Rhys Machold, Balsillie School of International Affairs
Following the recent attacks on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and a kosher grocery store in Paris, a political intervention took place, which has become all too familiar. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seized on the opportunity to weigh in with comments on the event, expressing his solidarity with the French people fighting Islamist terrorism. Netanyahu also gave his personal recommendations about what should be done to destroy this common enemy: “My message–in Paris, in Jerusalem, anywhere–is that the first rule in fighting terrorism is to refuse to knuckle down and knuckle under fear and pain of fear, to refuse to be afraid”.
There is, of course, absolutely nothing unusual about the tone or substance of these remarks. They have become the default script for Israeli state officials following acts of terroristic violence around the world. Similar remarks were made following the 2008 Mumbai attacks, the 2013 Westgate mall attacks in Nairobi, and countless other examples, including the 2012 Toulouse school shootings. In these situations the message (though sometimes more or less explicit) is fairly consistent: the reason your country has been attacked is because you lack what Israel has–i.e. “security”. Therefore, if you “learn” from us, your country will become less vulnerable to future attacks.
Netanyahu’s prerogative to comment on the Paris attacks reflects Israel’s dominant position as a source of expertise on matters of counterterrorism. As Israeli scholar Neve Gordon (2011) has elaborated, Israel has emerged as a “homeland security capital” in recent years. The so-called “Israeli experience” fighting terrorism has been successfully situated by Israel’s security industry as global “model” to be emulated by others, particularly in the control of urban spaces. As Stephen Graham (2010: xxii) has argued, although “the colonization of urban thinking and practice by militarized ideas of ‘security’ does not have a single source…the Israeli experience of locking down cities and turning the Occupied Territories into permanent, urban prison camps is proving especially influential. It is the ultimate source of ‘combat-proven’ techniques and technology”.
Netanyahu’s intervention in Paris is nevertheless quite striking because of its sheer audacity. Although it was reported that French President François Hollande specifically asked Netanyahu not to travel to Paris and attend the marches and demonstrations, Netanyahu rebuffed Hollande (Ravid 2015). Not only did he travel to Paris but he also made a “shameless shimmy” to the front of the line of world leaders, marching arm-in-arm with them throughout the city. And Netanyahu did not stop there. He used the occasion to welcome European Jews to Israel, proclaiming it as their natural homeland on Twitter:
These actions have provoked fierce criticism from France’s Jewish community. By most accounts Natanyahu’s intervention turned into something of a PR disaster. While the visit was clearly intended to re-situate Netanyahu “as one of the leaders in the battle against global terrorism”, it arguably backfired (Schechter 2015). Israeli commentator Ben Caspit openly ridiculed Netanyahu’s suggestion that Israel represents a safe haven for French Jews, asking rhetorically in the Hebrew daily Maariv: “Are the Jews of Paris more threatened than us [Israelis]?”. As he went on, “All of Israel’s territory is targeted by thousands of accurate and heavy rockets and missiles that could be fired on our heads in the next flare-up with Hizbullah. Just this past summer, Tel Aviv (Tel Aviv!) was a city that was bombed for 50 days. So the French should flee here?” (quoted in Tait 2015). Others further noted that France already has among the most draconian anti-terror laws anywhere in the world, making the suggestion that Israel had anything teach France rather absurd (Derfner 2015).
Thus following Netanyahu’s intervention it is now less clear than ever what exactly French authorities might learn from their Israeli counterparts. Netanyahu’s actions have instead served as a rare occasion for media commentators to openly mock this notion. So while Netanyahu’s position as the leader of Israel gave him a privileged platform from which to speak, the crude and blatantly self-interested manner in which he tried to insert Israel into the attacks’ aftermath revealed the connections between the “Israeli experience” and the Paris attacks as anything but natural or obvious. Instead of further reinforcing the imaginative geographies have sustained the global war on terror from the outset (see Gregory 2004), Netanyahu’s actions provided unexpected opportunities to tear them apart.
Despite its specificities, this episode reflects something critical about how Israel sustains its position in the vanguard of international debates about security more broadly. It draws attention to the kinds of ongoing work that are involved in staging Israel as a global authority on such matters. As I have argued in a forthcoming article in Environment and Planning A, “Mobility and the model: Policy mobility and the becoming of Israeli homeland security dominance”, a key weakness of the critical literature on the rise of Israel’s security industry is the lack of attention to the continuous labor that goes into making Israeli homeland security (HLS) actors visible as sources of universal expertise, making a case for the need to address how Israeli claims as global HLS leaders become materialized performatively. In the article I argue that Israel’s status as an HLS leader must be looked at in terms of the industry’s persistent and conspicuous media presence rather than because of the symbolic weight of the claims they bring to bear.
Rather than rehearsing these arguments here, however, I wish to draw out some of their political implications. I want to suggest that Netanyahu’s intervention in Paris serves as a timely invitation to re-think our own critical “responses” to the claims of Israeli state officials. This is particularly pertinent in light of another recent discussion about Israel’s role in promoting global militarism–namely, debates within the United States about the militarization of policing.
In the wake of the protests that followed the fatal police shooting of unarmed teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri last year, the aggressive American police response has raised alarm. A range of commentators quickly pointed out that the unfolding scenes looked like “war zones”, drawing attention to the use of armored personnel carriers, assault rifles, and combat-style uniforms used in US combat missions overseas. There are a number of problems with these analyses (see Batuman 2014) and the associated civil/military breakdown which they suggest (see Neocleous 2014), though I cannot elaborate on these here. As part of these discussions, however, a number of media accounts have cited Israeli involvement in the training of US police personnel, sometimes in Israel, as a potential explanation for why the crackdown on protesters unfolded as it did:
“The dystopian scenes of paramilitary units in camouflage rampaging through the streets of Ferguson, pointing assault rifles at unarmed residents and launching tear gas into people’s front yards from behind armored personnel carriers, could easily be mistaken for a Tuesday afternoon in the occupied West Bank. And it’s no coincidence. At least two of the four law enforcement agencies that were deployed in Ferguson up until Thursday evening–the St. Louis County Police Department and the St. Louis Police Department–received training from Israeli security forces in recent years.” (Khalek 2014)
Much like Natanyahu’s remarks on the Paris attacks, these stories are now quite familiar. Over the past few years, news reports and scholarly works have documented the involvement of Israeli security experts and police trainers around the world from Rio to Chiapas to Mumbai. But they are not unproblematic. The first issue is their imprecision. Because the alleged policy transfers to which they refer are never elaborated in any real detail, such articles present little specific information about what exactly was transferred to American police authorities through their involvement with Israeli security experts. So while suggesting that events in Ferguson reflect a broader “Israelification” of American policing (Blumenthal 2011), such claims are made in absence of any clear evidence of what has actually traveled from Israel to America–tactically, ideologically, or otherwise. Furthermore, while involvement with Israeli trainers suggests a radical transformation of American policing since 9/11, these accounts offer few insights into what about this broader pattern of police militarization is distinctly Israeli. In doing so, stories about Israeli involvement in training security and police forces do important work for Israel’s HLS industry by reinforcing the picture that Israeli training results in the smooth and unhindered global replication of the so-called “Israeli approach” to security around the world.
The second problem, which follows closely from the first, is that such critiques end up largely reinforcing industry narratives of Israel’s status as an “HLS capital”. This is because articles about Israeli involvement with American policing have adopted an approach to critique which is based on revealing “hidden truths” behind Israel’s repressive security apparatus. As one such account notes: “Training alongside the American police departments…was the Yamam, an Israeli border police unit that claims to specialize in ‘counterterror’ operations but is better known for its extra-judicial assassinations of Palestinian militant leaders and long record of repression and abuses in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip” (Blumenthal 2011). In pursuing this line of critique, these narratives therefore only alter one aspect of the pro-industry narrative–namely, the normative position about the role of Israeli expertise in shaping the practice of American policing. In doing so, they also divert attention away from the violent and repressive character of police power, irrespective of Israeli influence.
Yet given that Israel’s security industry openly brags that its knowledge is derived from testing on live Palestinian bodies (as Israeli filmmaker Yotam Feldman has elaborated in his documentary The Lab) and explicitly leverages its involvement with foreign police forces around the world as evidence of its status as an HLS leader, these critical revelations ultimately give us little new information. Rather than supplying an alternative account of Israel’s rise as an “HLS capital” (and the contingencies involved in this process), they essentially tell us that what we (think) we already know, that Israel remains at the center of the global security landscape. In doing so, they do nothing to unsettle this image itself. Indeed, the trick of openly leveraging its claim to “combat-proven” knowledge by Israel’s HLS industry is that it effectively disarms many of the criticisms based on trying to expose this dark reality.
It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that explicit critiques have actually been appropriated by Israel’s HLS industry in their promotional material. For instance, drawing on a Al Jazeera article critical of the growing reach of Israel’s HLS industry (Silver 2012), the Israeli HLS promotional group i-HLS (2013) recently posted the following news release on its website: “The Israeli homeland security industry attracts attention globally. Al Jazeera the TV network has recently devoted a report to this industry. In this report Israeli experts said that no other country has emerged as a serious competitor to Israel’s homeland security trade”. In this way, explicit criticisms of Israel’s HLS industry and its global influence can unwittingly work to reinforce and entrench Israel’s dominant position as a global security leader.
This reflects a broader problem: existing critiques have not simply proven ineffectual at mounting a challenge to Israel’s security industry, but in some ways may even prove directly counterproductive. I do not mean to shoot the messenger here. After all, the only reason we know anything about Israeli involvement in police training is from the hard work of investigative journalists and critical researchers. Nor do I wish to suggest that academics or journalists can be fully responsible for how their work may be re-appropriated by the Israeli military machine. (As Eyal Weizman’s  work on the IDF program of “walking through walls” makes clear, even the radical scholarship of Deleuze and Guattari has been effectively put to work in the subjugation and slaughter of Palestinians.) My point, rather, is to show that forms of critique, which are based merely on revealing the growing global influence of Israeli security doctrines, produce few, if any, actual revelations. They tell us little about how Israeli security tactics actually travel geographically to be “applied” on bodies in Ferguson or elsewhere.
What is missing (and much needed) in the critical geographical literature is an active deconstruction of state and industry narratives and the imaginative geographies they conjure. This requires taking apart the very idea of security laboratories. By this I do not mean to suggest that the laboratory metaphor is inherently counterproductive–either analytically or politically. It does, however, suggest that we need to differentiate more carefully between the notion of Israel as a security laboratory as an ideological construct versus its potential to act as a critical analytic. It is worth asking here why it is that Israeli state officials and security industry representatives are so fond of referring to Israel and the Palestinian territories as a laboratory for military experimentation: What is this construct doing for them? We also need to start asking questions about boundaries and limits: What isn’t a security laboratory? If security laboratories exist, where do they begin and where do they end? We should not anticipate any easy answers. Yet asking such questions is necessary first step to unsettling the taken-for-granted qualities of industry claims and our relationships to them, particularly as critics.
I see this project taking place in a few possible ways. First, by showing how figures like Netanyahu gain traction in public discourses on security matters (or fail to do so). This requires looking into how their messages are received and addressing why Israeli offers of assistance are welcomed in some cases and rejected in others. Here we might take Netanyahu’s misadventure as our model. Second, we need to try to “follow” Israeli policies from one place to another (see Peck and Theodore 2012). Such work is both costly and time-consuming but remains essential to uncovering how global policy learning actually takes place and differentiating between political theatre and the actual geographic diffusion of Israeli expertise and tactics around the world. Finally, we need to take industry claims seriously, not literally. It remains important for critical scholars to engage closely with industry narratives in order to see how they operate. In doing so, however, they should be approached as analytical openings rather than as definitive statements.
I wish to thank Lisa Bhungalia for helpful comments on a previous draft.
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