Insecure Exchanges

by Rhoda Kanaaneh

This essay is part of a series commemorating the 50th anniversary of the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip


I was born in the Palestinian village of Arrabeh but have spent most of the last twenty odd years in New York in the United States. My two homes are geographically distant from each other, but I’m often reminded of how closely linked they are.  President Trump’s promised wall is modeled after Israel’s. His attempted Muslim travel ban pales in comparison to Israel’s almost seven decade long ban against Palestinians who fled the war in 1948 and their descendants. Stories of police brutality and impunity, rates of incarceration, and prison conditions also bring these distant places close together. 

In fact exchange programs between the two countries in the fields of “security” and “border control” abound. In March 2017, Governor Cuomo launched a “New York-Israel Commission” explained in the following terms on the governor’s website:  “New York and Israel face similar security challenges, including the threat of terrorism. The Commission will support opportunities for both governments to share best practices and benefit from each other’s experience. By connecting New York law enforcement with their Israeli counterparts, the Commission will help New York learn from one of the world’s leaders in counter-terrorism operations.” Human rights record be damned.

Similar exchange initiatives have become commonplace post 9/11 and are hardly limited to the Trump era. Here’s another example that came across my computer screen recently: “In September 2013, a special team of bomb squad members from cities along the U.S.-Mexico border travelled to Israel in an effort to improve techniques and tactics for dealing with illegal immigration and IED attacks. Sgt. Chris Rogers represented the Pima (Arizona) Regional Bomb Squad – ‘We engaged the Department of Defense and the technical support group to sponsor the trip. So we could get first hand training and experience from the Israelis who have been dealing with cross border IED (Improvised Explosive Devices) for some time now.’ Some of the training for the group included going to a West Bank military outpost with the Israeli National Police bomb squad and visiting an Israeli port of entry to learn about port inspections as they relate to counter explosives and counter IED operations.” That Arizona law enforcement is getting direct lessons from the illegal and brutal occupation of Palestinians should be cause for great alarm.

Thankfully, popular resistance to this cross militarization is also growing. Last August, in A Vision for Black Lives: Policy Demands for Black Power, Freedom & Justice, the Dream Defenders, along with over fifty other organizations across the United States, set forth “an agenda… to advance Black liberation. The platform included a call for the US government to divest from military expenditures and US aid to the State of Israel and instead, invest this war-making money towards building infrastructure to support Black and Brown communities in the US.” Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) launched a campaign called Deadly Exchange against precisely these programs.  JVP argues that “The deadly falsehood that violence against some communities will create security for others is perpetuated by the policies of both the U.S. and Israeli government…In these [exchange] programs, ‘worst practices’ are shared to promote and extend discriminatory and repressive policing in both countries including extrajudicial executions, shoot-to-kill policies, police murders, racial profiling, massive spying and surveillance, deportation and detention, and attacks on human rights defenders.” On a smaller scale, last month the African American Policy Forum hosted a performance in Brooklyn of the play “There is a Field” about the true story of Aseel Asleh–a Palestinian teenage boy from my village who was shot and killed by Israeli police. As the organizers described it, “There is a Field” is “Performed by activists and organizers in the Movement for Black Lives, immigrant rights, Latinx organizers, anti-police brutality activists, and more, the play hits home in more ways than one.”

On the 50th anniversary of the Israeli occupation, as more names are added to the list of Say Her Name, as more people are brutalized and turned away at the United States border, it is high time that anthropologists join this resistance.

Rhoda Kanaaneh is the author of Birthing the Nation:  Strategies of Palestinian Women in Israel (University of California, 2002) and Surrounded:  Palestinian Soldiers in the Israeli Military (Stanford, 2009).  She co-edited an anthology with Isis Nusair titled Displaced at Home: Ethnicity and Gender Among Palestinians in Israel (SUNY, 2010).