Why Donald Trump's praise for Israeli policing is bad news for the United States


On September 19 — hours before Linden, New Jersey, police arrested Ahmad Khan Rahami in connection to a bomb attack that injured 29 people in New York City two days earlier — Donald Trump went on Fox News to make the case for religious profiling.

"Our local police, they know who a lot of these people are," Trump said, referring to suspected terrorists living in the United States. "They are afraid to do anything about it because they don't want to be accused of profiling."

The GOP presidential nominee then pointed to Israel as a country whose tactics the U.S. should emulate.

"You know in Israel, they profile," he said. "They've done an unbelievable job — as good as you can do ... And they'll profile. They profile. They see somebody that's suspicious. They will profile. They will take that person in. They will check it out."

Trump's characterization of policing in Israel has complex geopolitical significance. At its core is the decades-long conflict between Palestinians in the region and the U.S.- and European Union-backed Israeli state, which was established in 1948.

The vast control Israel exercises over the territory, to Trump's point, is enforced through security measures which include heavily-guarded borders and airports as well as checkpoints which impose stringent restrictions on people trying to pass through.

John Locher/AP

Profiling is widely documented, but difficult to quantify, as studies of Israel-Palestine relations often note. But the anecdotal evidence is overwhelming. Israeli security forces, whether airport screeners or military personnel at checkpoints, regularly engage in racial profiling targeting Arabs, Palestinians, Muslims and people perceived to be any of the above.

"I know for a fact that religious, ethnic and racial profiling is being used by Israeli law enforcement," said Tom Levron, a legal intern from Haifa who also served in the Israeli armed forces. "I know that since I've witnessed events in the army, where using these tactics was a clear directive, and it is very common."

The Arab American Institute — a Washington, D.C.-based civic leadership organization — has collected dozens of accounts of U.S. citizens alone who've been stopped, searched and harassed traveling through Israel and Palestine.

In 2015, a legal petition to end ethnic profiling at Ben Gurion International Airport — the nation's largest — was struck down by the High Court of Justice. The case noted that profiling was indeed one of the airport's security criteria, but it had been reduced sufficiently since the petition was filed in 2007.

The Israeli news publication Haaretz addressed the issue much more simply last week: "Israel profiles. It does so overtly, most notably in its airport, but profiling exists in one way or another in just about every facet of security and law enforcement."

Nasser Shiyoukhi/AP

Indeed, Palestinians and Palestinian-Americans continue to claim they and their families are unjustly targeted by these law enforcement practices.

"We're subject to scrutiny, security checks, detainment, humiliation tactics," said Nerdeen Kiswani, a 22-year-old Palestinian-American recent college graduate from Brooklyn, who regularly visits relatives in Palestine. "I know every time I talk with [Israeli police], it means me being harassed and subject to random searches."

"I live in the Old City of occupied Jerusalem, and Israeli police stop Palestinians on a daily basis when going in or out," added Rafat Mustafa, a Palestinian human rights activist. "It happened to me many times and I never saw them stopping an Israeli. They usually go for young men and boys, but women and girls especially those wearing hijab are also targeted."

Kiswani said she was held for 16 hours while attempting to enter Israel from Jordan in 2015. Police searched her, asked questions about her political beliefs and left her alone for multiple hours at a time, only to come back and ask her the same questions again. The authorities ended up banning her from entering the country entirely after she refused to let them log into her Facebook account to search for potentially incriminating posts.

"Israeli police are trained to deal with Palestinians like they are terrorists," she said. "Like this is a war, and these people are their enemies."

JACK GUEZ/Getty Images

Instead of building trust and a sense of safety, profiling has made many Arabs and Palestinians mistrustful of Israeli authorities.

"The process of being profiled, whether in a racial or religious context, has the effect of legitimizing and endorsing a pervasive culture of mistrust communities have for law enforcement," said Khaled Beydoun, a professor at the Detroit Mercy School of Law who studies racial profiling in the United States and Europe. "If [Trump] wants to base his anti-terror programming on a place where Palestinians are third-class citizens, at best, and perpetually marginalized, that's a bad start."

In some cases, in fact, Beydoun says, this tendency to treat an entire minority group as if its members were criminals has actually pushed people toward radicalization.

"In the worst instances, profiling can have a counter effect," he explained. "Research out of Europe shows that when individuals profiled for fear of radicalization ... [it] might serve to bring about its own undesired effect."

But American law enforcement using ethnic, racial or religious profiling is not a mere hypothetical. As recently as the presidential debate at Hofstra University on Monday, Donald Trump touted New York City's "stop and frisk" program, which gave officers wide latitude to stop and search anyone they deemed suspicious and disproportionately targeted black and Hispanic people, despite police finding contraband on a smaller portion of these subjects than they did on white people they stopped.

"Now, whether or not in a place like Chicago you do stop and frisk, which worked very well — [New York] Mayor [Rudy] Giuliani is here — worked very well in New York. It brought the crime rate way down," Trump claimed.

Colleen Long/AP

In fact, crime in the city has continued to fall long after the practice was abandoned. The main legacy of "stop and frisk" is now its ineffectuality: Only 1.5% of stops conducted under the policy resulted in a jail or prison sentence, while .01% led to a conviction for a violent crime or possession of a weapon.

With regard to Muslims, profiling has been most apparent in the post-9/11 era. After the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks in New York City, the U.S Department of Justice interviewed 3,200 people who had entered the U.S. between 2000 and 2002 from predominantly Muslim and Arab countries. Authorities thought because they fit similar "demographic" profiles to the 9/11 hijackers, rounding them up would help prevent future attacks. Not one of them was convicted of a terrorist offense.

Between 2002 and 2011, New York City police pumped money into a counter-terrorism surveillance unit — targeting predominantly Muslim communities in the Tri-State area — that failed to nab a single terrorist suspect or suss out a planned attack. 

Both "stop and frisk" and the Muslim surveillance unit met with embarrassing ends. "Stop and frisk" was deemed unconstitutional by a federal court, and nominally disbanded in 2013. The NYPD's Muslim surveillance program, meanwhile — known as the Demographics Unit — was ditched in 2014 after the Associated Press exposed its practices and general uselessness.

"[Not] one single piece of actionable intelligence ever came out of that unit in its years of existence," former-NYPD Chief William Bratton said during a press conference about the unit in November.

Richard Drew/AP

One major difference in the U.S. and Israeli approaches to policing and profiling stems from their differing legality. The U.S. has a constitutional ban on such targeted discrimination, though it persists in many places nonetheless. Israel, in contrast, does not.

"There is nothing in Israeli law equivalent to American law that guarantees equality for all the country's citizens," said Nadeem Shehadeh, a civil rights attorney with Adalah — The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel. "Given the lack of such a law, discriminatory profiling is used extensively."

When we ask ourselves if profiling "works," we should follow it up with, "for whom?" Is it a worthwhile pursuit when, in the name of national security, the result is effectively to criminalize an entire ethnic minority? In the case of Israel — and whether the U.S. should emulate its practices — Palestinians have a clear answer.

"Following the state of Israel will bring the U.S. into a state of further xenophobia, militarism and state violence," Issa Amro, a Palestinian human rights activist from Hebron, said. "That is not a path anyone would like to see the U.S. take."