Monday, December 12, 2011

Ajami, Part One: Between "Security Crime" and "Ordinary Crime"

As I post this, I am en route to Israel, to participate in the Israeli Law and Society Association Annual Meeting. At the conference, I plan to discuss a recent Israeli-Palestinian film, Ajami. The film examines the complex relationships between Israeli Jews, Israeli Arabs, and Palestinian undocumented workers, in the Ajami neighborhood in Jaffa. The plot is incredibly complicated, and throws the heroes of our story into a web of drugs, violence, political turmoil, and neighborly disputes. It is the perfect film for any criminal justice scholar and practitioner who wants or needs a window into the Israeli criminal underworld.

At the talk, I plan to use scenes from Ajami to uncover and dispel two prevalent myths in Israeli criminal justice: The dichotomy between "crime" and "security" and the romanticization of restorative justice. This post will be devoted to the first of those myths.

Israeli newspapers often report of ongoing police investigations, particularly of violent crime, by pointing out whether the investigation is pursuing a "criminal angle" or a "security angle". The assumption is that these two categories--security crime and ordinary crime--are mutually exclusive, and each requires a different model for understanding and approaching it. These models are different in our perception of them, in our discourse about them, and in the techniques and technologies we apply to them.

"Security crime" is special and takes prevalence over "ordinary crime". When an act is labeled a "security crime", it is placed in the context of the permanent state of emergency in Israel. It is seen not just as a threat among criminals or to the "other", but as a direct threat to "us", the collective Israeli social fabric. As such, it draws in the army as a primary respondent, as well as the increasingly militarized Israeli police (now governed by the Ministry for Internal Security, rather than its former name, the Ministry of Police). Investigations into security crimes bring to life the dilemma of torturing suspects, supposedly forbidden by the Supreme Court, but alive and well (albeit reduced) according to human rights organizations.

The isolation of security crime above all crime, and the approach that it is somehow special and merits special governing techniques, is a feature of the general, ethnicity-based "divide and conquer" taxonomy Israel applies to its residents and their problems. Among some examples of these approach, we can think of the un-Arabizing of Israeli Druze citizens (some of whom serve in the army as military judges and attorneys); the un-Palestinizing of Israeli Arab citizens; and the supposedly impermeable boundaries between race, religion, and degrees of religiousness.

There are several problems with this rhetoric. The first is that it is false. The Israeli crime map, masterfully exposed and illuminated in Ajami, shows that the distinction between security crime and "ordinary" crime is false. Crime occurs across all categories, and the complex motivations behind the crime cannot be reduced to a national/profit-based dichotomy. In fact, the supposedly impermeable boundaries in society constitute optimal conditions for crime to occur: The Israeli car theft industry flourished due to these boundaries, as seventy percent of all stolen cars in Israel found their way to chop shops in the Palestinian authority. Ironically, what reduced much of this activity was a non-security, specified policing unit dedicated specifically to car theft, and unpreoccupied with the security/crime dichotomy.

Another problem with this dichotomy is that it allows the Israeli public to keep criminal activity compartmentalized and labeled, without making the connections between different types of marginalization. That the occupation creates undocumented labor markets plagued by illness and poverty, which in itself gives rise to "regular crime", is conveniently hidden from the overt discussion of "security crime". Moreover, while "security crime", such as the kidnapping of a soldier, serves a Durkheimian function of galvanizing and uniting us, "ordinary crime", especially in the context of organized crime or drugs, creates a sense of alienation and indifference. Not only is this harmful to law enforcement efforts, it is harmful to our national psyche. This approach of alienation reminds me of a phenomenon that Darnell Hawkins discusses in the context of African American crime: While crimes perpetrated by Black offenders against White victims are seen as threatening, crimes within the Black community are treated with relative leniency and indifference.

Some of the implications of this dichotomy can be seen in the realm of criminal courtroom practices and sentencing. Research consistently confirms that Arab defendants are treated worse by the Israeli law enforcement system, starting with arrest rates and ending with sentencing. Is this mere ethnic discrimination? Or does it stem from the suspicion that any crime involving an Arab or Palestinian defendant has some security overtones that require attention and special severity?

But one of the most harmful effects of the dichotomy is related to Jonathan Simon's Governing Through Crime. In the book, Simon argues that one of the perversities of modern society is seeing everything through a lens of crime and victimization. Citizens come to see themselves primarily as potential victims, which affects our modes of living, our choice of vehicles, our recourse to situational crime prevention, and our demonization of cities, urban youth, and the poor. Simon makes the suggestion to shift from models of "war on crime" to "wars" on something else, such as cancer or natural disasters. My critique of Simon's argument builds on the Israeli experience. As opposed to the U.S. experience, in which crime is a metaphor for anything else, in Israel war in itself is the metaphor, for crime among other things. While the boundaries between "security crime" and "ordinary crime" remain in place, the prestige, urgency and importance of security-related concerns creates a warped social universe in which, to gain priority for one's issue, the issue needs to be framed in terms of national security. And so, the police becomes increasingly militarized, in discourse as well as in approaches and technologies; and we launch war against environmental pollution, obesity, and other harms that are analogized to the security survival threat. This survivalist approach creates a culture of fear that magnifies, and sometimes exceeds, its counterpart in the United States.

More on this in our next post.

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