Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Protestors at a 2009 rally against Israel in Boston. Israel and Palestine have long been a flash point in Boston and Cambridge, set off once more by revelations of Cambridge police getting counterterrorism training in Israel during a trip paid for by a local businessman. (Photo: Mike Dao)

A second week of already difficult debate over police officials’ training in Israel doubled in complexity Monday when a letter emerged saying a private citizen had paid for the trip, leading to city councillors excoriating the city manager — who was suddenly taken ill and unable to appear before them — for pursuing the policy.

The council heard almost two hours of public comment a week ago against police training in Israel, when it was believed the trip was paid for by the Anti Defamation League, a Jewish group that says it works with law enforcement to fight hate crimes. This time, other residents came forward to speak in favor of the trip and training, saying it could even keep Cambridge safe from terrorist attacks, and against language in the council policy order under discussion that they saw as unfairly critical of Israel.

The order, written by Marjorie Decker, passed with a unanimous nine votes after it was stripped of all text except the most basic request for City Manager Robert W. Healy to report on why the trip took place, what happened during it and whether it took place on public time.

But before that came a somewhat confusing revelation: a letter from Carl Barron, the 94-year-old Putnam/Cort Furniture founder and philanthropist with a longtime base in Central Square, saying “all costs” of the trip came from him — raising questions why it had been presented originally as sponsored by the ADL and whether Barron had also paid the costs of one or even two previous trips to Israel for police training.

“The question here is who paid for the trip, whether it was Carl Barron or the ADL … is it appropriate to allow private entities to pay for such trips?” Decker asked. “The fact that the business community is involved in directing whether or not our public safety officials need more training — it’s a question we should be discussing.”

Barron’s view

Barron, reached at home Tuesday when calls from his office were forwarded, talked briefly about his feelings on the council discussion.

“On the matter of Israel, this criticism has no place before a local board. We have a federal government that handles that. They’re the experts,” Barron said. “I did not know the depths to which bigotry exists in the city I was born in 94 years ago.”

He was unhappy with the “one-sided” nature of the debate last week, he said, and referred to “falsifications” and statements made that were only “partially true” — but be begged off from clarifying what he meant or answering whether he’d paid for one, two or three trips over the years, noting that he was home recovering from surgery that had kept him in the hospital for around two weeks.

The argument that debate over Israel was improper for the council was made even more forcefully during public comment by resident Michael Selva.

“What is your job? Why are you here? Why do we call this the city council? This is not the foreign affairs council, this is not a talk show,” Selva said, thanking councillor Tim Toomey for tabling Decker’s “crazy motion” last week. “What you’ve done by allowing this kind of nonsense onto your agenda is make the council chamber into a soapbox for a bunch of malcontents and rabble who do not represent this city. They’ve come in and taken over your meeting, not just last week but this week. When are you going to put a stop to this?”

Councillors respond

Decker’s motion was more about making a statement on Israel than seeking information, Selva suggested, because if Decker wanted information on the trip she could have just asked.

The nature of all policy orders in Cambridge’s form of government is, in fact, to ask the city manager to look into issues and report back. But Decker had another response.

“It is absolutely appropriate that the City Council is discussing this. It is city officials that went on a trip,” she said:

“It is not the practice of the city to ask private organizations or individuals to pay for professional development. It’s not. And it’s inappropriate. We have not contracted out to any organization to ask them for help in training for counterterrorism tactics. If we want to do that, that’s a conversation the City Council should have with the city manager. And we can do that, but we don’t do that right now — so it is important and it is relevant that the private organization paid for this. People have very different opinions about the organization that paid for this trip, but that’s not what this is about. That conversation happens after we decide we want a private organization to pay for it, then we decide what organization makes the most sense to pay for professional development. But the city, to be clear, in my experience with the council, has not lacked for funds to pay for professional development. So I am curious about why we would allow an organization to pay for this.”

Councillor Ken Reeves said he asked Healy about the paid-for trips and was told, in Reeves’ paraphrase, “I don’t think this will happen again,” although Decker has pointed to a hearing two years ago that made it clear there was already council opposition to the trips.

“How absurd is it that a local businessman can send a delegation from our police department for antiterrorism training in a place that has its own terrorism issues? No matter what your position is on Israel, this as a municipal happenstance is completely incredible. That private business people can send our police department around the world into certain dubious circumstances, the government knows nothing about it and who knows about it is silent is incredible,” Reeves said. “This city manager has to understand that he cannot do this. This is beyond the pale of anybody’s expectation. Who else is traveling on private dime for what purpose and we’re not informed?”

A mix of public opinion

During public comment, resident Cathy Hoffman noted that “we haven’t sent police officers to Libya or Syria,” although the better example for opponents of the trips would likely have been the Apartheid-era South Africa  — a democratic nation whose racial politics were abhorrent to many but as a result had particular skills in areas of policing.

This week, of the 20 speakers taking up about an hour of public comment, at least 13 spoke on Israel and eight were supportive of the nation and trips there.

“I am in support of the city and our public safety officers learning counterterrorism strategies, and in fact insist our local police learn such techniques from the experts in Israel, who remain besieged by terrorist activity,” resident Trisha Jennings said. “My head is not in the sand in terms of any terrorism that may occur.”

Many supporters’ comments acknowledged the rights of the councillors to seek information about the trips but wanted Decker’s language — as it ultimately was — toned down to remove any hint of criticism to Israel and the techniques it uses in dealing with Palestinians demanding land and rights.

“That shouldn’t be done in a manner that even appears biased toward a particular political agenda. If this is a resolution aimed at investigating possible public junkets, let’s not make it about the ADL and Israel,” resident Marshall Shapiro said.