Notes >From An Israeli Prison

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Notes >From An Israeli Prison

One of the most interesting parts of my recent fellowship in Israel was the visit to an Israeli maximum security prison (for security reasons, I can‘t  say which one). I had never been inside a prison before, and wasn’t sure what to expect, with my only experience with one coming from television. Well, the prison was nothing like what I was expecting. The warden, an Israeli Arab, does not believe in rehabilitation and makes no effort to convert the prisoners, the vast majority of whom are convicted terrorists (“regular” criminals are housed in separate facilities from the “security” prisoners), to non-violence or pacifism. Instead, the prisoners are free to associate with whomever, read and watch on TV whatever they want. Materials that incite violence are forbidden, but that’s about the only limitation.

The prisoners live in cells of 8, which open into a yard where they can exercise and socialize with others. Each cell block holds, if I remember correctly (we weren’t allowed to make any notes) 120 prisoners, and 60 are allowed into the yard at one time (except on Friday, when everyone is allowed to attend a communal prayer session). The prisoners are allowed regular visits from their families, have little electric stoves and teak kettles in their cells, are allowed fresh fruits and vegetables, and have televisions with access to Arab TV channels, including al Jazeera and Saudi, Jordanian, and Egyptian channels. When the prisoners step out of line, they lose their privileges forever…to date, however, the warden stated that there hadn’t been more than a handful of serious problems.

From what I know of prisons in America (and again, what I know pretty much comes from TV and reading), if I’m going to be sent to a maximum security prison, I’ll take one in Israel, thank you very much.

And this points out what struck me the most from my visit: the differences in the way that Israel and the US treat those arrested in the struggle against global terrorism. Where the US detains its suspects in military prisons, often in solitary confinement, Israel puts those convicted of killing in Israelis in open prisons, where they have contact with the outside world and their families.

Israel is on the front-line in the war on terror in a way that the US is not. Yes, the US suffered the worst terror attack of all-time on 9/11, and there have been reports of a few attacks that have been broken up, like the recent plot against JFK airport or the plot to blow up numerous flights between the UK and the US. But Israel has been under near-constant attack since the signing of the Declaration of Principles in Oslo in 1993. Here’s a list of just the suicide attacks in that time period. And yet, Israel has responded much more soberly and carefully than has the US.

I have long gone back and forth on where I stand vis-a-vis the US response to 9/11. On one hand, I realize the threat that terrorism poses to a democratic polity. A state that cannot protect its people cannot function, and terrorism preys on that fact, seeking both to undermine the nature of its opponent as well as exploit its openness. The public must believe that the government is on top of the situation and doing what it can to preserve the peace; this is what explains so many of the visible, yet likely ineffective, security measures, like the restriction on liquids on planes (something that security-crazed El Al doesn’t bother with, mind you).

On the other hand, the civil libertarian in me believes that the threat has been overstated. I see the danger in undermining our freedoms with wiretappings or the suspension of habeas corpus for suspected terrorists.

If my trip to Israel did anything, it reinforced the latter of these beliefs. Terrorism is a threat to democratic states. But that threat can be managed. And it can be managed in a way that doesn’t undermine the very nature of our democracy. There is a price to paid for living in a democracy. Yes, our freedoms make it easier for terrorists to attack us so we must be vigilant. But the US has much to learn from Israel on how to balance the fight against terror with the need to preserve a normal, democratic life. In my next post, tomorrow or Friday, I’ll go into more detail on the Israeli response to terror. Israel isn’t perfect, but much of its response make a lot more sense than that of the US.



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