Wednesday, July 24, 2024

A police trip to Israel for a counterterrorism seminar drew a flood of comment at Monday’s meeting of the City Council, resulting in an epic two-hour public comment session of which 70 percent of the time — that’s 23 of 34 speakers — was spent on the topic.

The impetus for all the comment was a policy order by city councillor Marjorie Decker, tabled without a vote until a future meeting, asking the city manager to report on why the trip took place, what happened during it and whether it took place on public time. Like one taken more than two years ago, this 16-person trip was paid for by the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish group that says in a sheet of talking points distributed Monday that its “extensive work with law enforcement is critical to the League’s ability to counteract hate crime, extremism and terrorism.”

The sheet, passed out by Regan Communications Group senior account manager Sean Martin, also says:

“This is an unfair resolution filled with numerous factual inaccuracies and undermines the credibility of the city and the City Council. The council should at least take the time to explore the facts and obtain answers to questions the council might have.”

Martin’s sheet says Decker’s policy order “presents a one-sided view of Israel,” which resulted in Decker amending the order to delete language accusing Israeli counterterrorism tactics of including indefinite detention, illegal occupation and torture.

What remained one-sided, however, was public comment — or at least it was extremely lopsided, since no fans of Israel chose to speak. Among the 23 speakers were several who claimed firsthand knowledge of Israeli violence against themselves or Palestinians and who represented themselves as being from the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, American Friends Service Committee, Jews for a Just Peace and the Palestinian Solidarity Project.

“Where I come from in the South, we’re taught that you’re known by the company you keep. The people of Cambridge have never kept company with governments that oppress, vilify and militarily disobey their own courts, let alone international law,” said Jean Entine, of Jewish Voice for Peace.

“It’s time to wake yourselves out of your stupor,” said Gerald Bergman to the councillors, claiming there had been in fact three ADL-sponsored trips to Israel in the past five years. “And put a stop to it. It sends totally the wrong messages.”

Perhaps the most pointed and entertaining critique of Israel and the Cambridge officials’ trips there came from David Slaney:

“When I found out Cambridge police had gone to research Israeli security, I was completely puzzled. I could not make sense of it — why in the world would such a thing happen? I spent a lot of time thinking about it, and I finally have come up with what I think is the only plausible scenario … all I could figure out was: Is it true that Cambridge is planning to invade, occupy, annex and settle parts of Somerville? Possibly in a line from Union Square to Davis Square? Because if we were going to do that, then it would make great sense for our police to learn how the Israeli police work. Because if we were going to do that, we would have to expropriate people, expel people, we’d have to knock down their houses. I know those people in Somerville. I live very close to the border. Some of those people would probably resist, they would probably not want us coming in to take their property and their houses, and when that happened we would probably have to brutally repress them. And if we were going to do that, who better to learn from than the Israeli security forces?

Decker’s policy order was brought forward early for discussion but tabled by councillor Tim Toomey using his “charter right” when he said he wasn’t ready to vote. Councillor Henrietta Davis noted there had been many e-mails from other residents asking for the matter to be tabled — apparently because they also wanted a chance to speak but couldn’t appear Monday.

City Manager Robert W. Healy is in charge of running the police department, not the council, councillor Ken Reeves told the crowd gathered in City Hall, and the council was ignorant of the most recent trip to Israel until a press release was posted in the Cambridge Chronicle because information about such things isn’t always easy to get.

“Not because we haven’t asked for it,” Reeves said. “It just doesn’t come.”

There was a hearing two years ago about the previous trip during which it was made clear to Healy that councillors strongly opposed the trips, Decker said.