Hayim Nahman Bialik, the famed Hebrew poet, said during the 1920s that the Jews would know that their dream of a nation-state had been fulfilled when there were Jewish prostitutes, Jewish thieves and a Jewish police force. There were already Jewish prostitutes and thieves during the pre-state period. With Israel’s independence in 1948, they were joined by the Israeli police force. But, writing in Ha’aretz, the television critic Adrian Hennigan said, “I think it’s fair to say that the police force is the least-respected of Israel’s emergency services. Let’s just say that if you’re outside, need assistance and hear an approaching siren sound, you’ll be as well served if it’s an ice cream truck as a police unit.” He went on, considering US police brutality, to refer to the “already tarnished reputation of the Israeli police force internationally.” Israel’s police force certainly took a battering in the wake of the arrest and murder of George Floyd in 2020 as false reports circulated that the tactics used Derek Chauvin, kneeling on George Floyd’s neck, had been learnt from seminars with the Israeli police.
By comparison, in the Diaspora, writing in the British newspaper, The Jewish Chronicle in 2018, journalist David Aaronovitch asked, “” This is because the world of the police is perceived as one that excludes Jews. Back in 1944, German-Jewish philosopher, Hannah Arendt wrote of ‘the traditional Jewish fear of the “cop” – that seeming incarnation of a hostile world. At the time of writing, this made a great deal of sense when considering the native police forces of Nazi-occupied countries, the Jewish police forces in the ghettoes assigned to help the Nazis’ bidding, and the police battalions who were initially responsible for the genocide.
Many Jewish immigrants hailed from countries like Tsarist Russia, where the police acted as agents for anti-Jewish governments, and when they settled in Western Europe and the United States, the police forces hardly opened their arms to the new arrivals. What is more, there was a belief that the police force was a very anti-intellectual and goyish (gentile) profession, given that it overwhelmingly drew from the unskilled and semi-skilled working class. Policing, therefore, was not seen as a practical profession for either immigrant or native Jews. In the United Kingdom, for example, as Jenni Frazer wrote in The Jewish Chronicle, “policing as a career is considered an arcane choice among Britain’s Jews. But for years, becoming a police officer has not been on the radar of the Jewish community.” in a book entitled Synod of Sleuths: Essays on Judeo-Christian Detective Fiction, James Yaffe asked of the profession, “Is this any job for a nice Jewish boy?” The other side of the coin is that, since policing embodies goyim naches — the Yiddish term meaning non-Jewish joy or enjoyment or pleasure for the gentiles — denial of one’s Jewish self, even self-hatred, becomes the price to be paid for acceptance into the goyish police ‘family.’ Alternatively, the idea of the Jewish police officer is considered as an oxymoron and often treated as a fertile subject for humor, especially in American drama (think of Andy Samberg as Jake Peralta in the long-running sitcom, Brooklyn 99).
How does this affect the depiction of the civilian side of law enforcement in Israel? Often overlooked in the Diaspora, how does the representation of the Israeli Police fictional dramas on film and television compare? Does the image of the Israeli police reconcile the stereotypes and oxymorons I referred to at the outset and how do they compare to the far more well-known security services: the IDF, the IAF and the Mossad?
There is certainly no shortage of material to choose from on film and television. A by no means comprehensive list includes the following films: Life According to Agfa (1992), The Investigation Must Go On (2000), Made in Israel (2001), Ajami (2009), Wounded Land (2015), Avinu [Our Father] (2016), Eynayim Sheli [Love Trilogy: Chained] (2020); and on television: Timrot Ashan [Pillars of Smoke] (2009 – 2011), Akhat Efes Efes [One Zero Zero, translated as Downtown Precinct] (2011-), Metumtemet [Dumb] (2016), Ir Miklat [Asylum City’] (2018), Tik Ne’edar [The Missing File] (2019), HaShotrim [Line in the Sand‘ (2021). However, because this rich catalog of Israeli series, as far as I’m aware, has never been seen in English-speaking territories and hence are not always accessible to Diaspora audiences, our view has been shaped by a few key exports.
For years, our view of the fictional Israeli policeman (I use the masculine pronoun deliberately) would have been formed by the extremely successful 1971 Israeli feature film, HaShoter Azoulay [‘The Policeman’]. Officer Avraham Azoulay is a police officer in Jaffa. He is generous, warm, kind-hearted, honest but extremely naïve – a real mensch. All of this makes him a terrible cop. His incompetence is only matched by his soft-heartedness, meaning he has never been promoted during the twenty years he has been able to remain employed on the force. His superiors want to send him into early retirement, but he would like to stay on the force, which he loves more than his spouse. Because the criminals of Jaffa don’t want to see him leave either, they decide to give him a chance to shine in a robbery they stage especially for him. Its comedic nature, fitting into the police-related comedies of the 1960s (think the Jewish actor Peter Sellers as the clumsy bumbling Inspector Clouseau), has served to uphold the oxymoronic nature of the Jewish/Israeli police officer.
Some four decades later, the Israeli sitcom, HaShoter HaTov [The Good Cop], which aired between 2015 and 2017, continues the amusing linkage between Jews and cops. Danny Confino (Yuval Semo) is a First Sergeant serving in a suburban police station in the Petach Tikva police precinct. Danny is honest but quick-tempered, and his anger issues lead to overzealousness in his dedication to fighting crime, often getting him into trouble. His co-workers, though, are incompetent, especially his Commander Jacob ‘Rabi’ (Guy Loel) who is more concerned with hand cream than doing his job well. Danny’s friend, Sergeant Dubi Azaria (Yigal Adika), adheres to the stereotypes one finds in US television: as a veteran cop, he is lazy and fat. But HaShoter HaTov does widen the net to introduce Razi (Loai Nofi) as an Israeli-Arab police officer.
But, in the real world beyond film and television, the list of senior police officers in Israel suspected of sexually harassing female police officers is growing. Fiction provides an opportunity to address this, but does it? While there are some questionable relationships between characters, few are presented as featuring outright illegal or sackable offenses. The police officer Yuval (Danny Geva) in the Israeli horror film Kalevet [Rabies] (2010), written and directed by Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado, does allude to the increasing number of scandals within the Israel Police Force as he sexually assaults two women in trouble (Yael Grobglas and Anya Buxtein). One critic described him as “about the rapiest policeman ever depicted onscreen, and his scenes with the women are more viscerally uncomfortable than any murder in the film.” In their 2013 follow up, Mi mefakhed mehaze’ev hara [Big Bad] Wolves, a sort of Israeli Hostel, a violent police officer helps a bereaved father torture a high school teacher suspected of pedophilia and murder in the basement of an isolated cabin in the woods. Played by Lior Ashkenazi, Miki is a goofball cop who likes to take justice into his own hands, upholding some familiar stereotypes.
Other films feature different kinds of stereotypes. The first forty minutes of Nadav Lapid’s 2011 HaShoter [Policeman] chart the life of the members of a highly disciplined elite police anti-terrorist commando squad. At the unit’s heart is Yaron (Yiftach Klein), who is the epitome of the guilt-free Zionist macho muscle man so familiar in the films about the Mossad I discussed in my previous piece.
In Black Space, following a tragic high school shooting in which four students lose their lives, and many get injured, Special Investigations detective Rami Davidi (played by Guri Alfi) becomes obsessed with finding out who the shooters are. For him, it is personal because he, too, attended the same school, where he suffered from a traumatic childhood beating that left him partially sighted. While he is getting his eye infection checked, the doctor tells him that he will lose his eyesight if he doesn’t take good care of it. He gets an alert of the school shooting during the check-up and at once rushes to the spot. Despite the trope of actual blindness, Rami is more perceptive and keen-eyed than his colleagues. Initially, the media and police chief think it is a political terrorist act, but Rami believes it is an inside job. He thinks some students from Heritage High School have attacked and killed their classmates. The cops arrest some Palestinian workers as suspects, but Rami is not convinced that they are the killers.
Along with the Heritage High School shootings, we also get an insight into Rami’s personal life. Just like every other crime drama, Rami’s life as a cop is stereotyped – pregnant wife and troubled marriage, with events deteriorating as he gets closer to solving the case. Like Danny in HaShoter HaTov, Rami has a “whatever it takes” or “by any means necessary” approach to the job but he takes it to a whole new level through brutal methods that call to mind Doron Kavillo (Lior Raz) in Fauda. In short, he lacks people skills.
In real life, the Israeli Police Force has been characterized by an overwhelmingly masculine culture leading to an unenlightened, chauvinist worldview that threatens the force’s female officers. Until the early 1960s, there were very few women employed by the Israeli Police Force, mainly in administrative roles as secretaries and typists. In the 1960s and 1970s, the increasing need for more police officers led to policy changes that encouraged women to join the force and enabled them to hold a variety of traditionally male jobs. Regardless of policy changes, these women were only partly integrated, because only a few of them were ever given field jobs. Most of these women remained in administrative jobs positions.
Again, film and television supply an opportunity to address this imbalance in representation. One of the first fictional female cops was Ruti (Gila Almagor) in Ervinka (1967), an earlier Ephraim Kishon film in which Shaike Ofir played a police sergeant. In Menahem Golan’s 999 Aliza: The Policeman (1967), when the incompetent inspector Klein does not solve the twin crimes of theft and murder, the cleaner Aliza Mizrahi successfully investigates herself (Edna Fliedel) but the comedy-drama nature of the film plays into old stereotypes of Jewish police officers.
Salary increases and social benefits (i.e., subsidized day-care and pension plans) that were offered to all police personnel in the 1980s served as an added incentive for both men and women to join the force. Greater awareness of policy changes in Western countries about the integration of women in field jobs encouraged more women to apply for these positions and, at the same time, enhanced the force’s willingness to accept them.
This was to be reflected in film and television. In 1992’s Get [Divorce], part of the acclaimed anthology film Tel Aviv Stories, Anat Waxman played Tikva, a police officer who works at Migdal Shalom. During a routine patrol, she suddenly spots her husband who has been missing for several years. But the drama – hence its name – is less about her profession than her domestic arrangements, as she takes an odd assortment of local onlookers hostage, threatening to kill them if she is not immediately issued a divorce.
By 1995, fully 20% of the entire police force was made up of women, and about 24% of all the officers were women (although only 2.7% of the highest three ranks). But women made up 70% of the passport control units at the airport and more than 80% of all administrative workers and only 5% were assigned to the riskier units such as the bomb disposal and detective squads.
That 5% was represented in the 2001 movie Mars Turkey [Clean Sweep]. Aya Mastrichi (played by Yael Hadar) is sent undercover by her commander, who also happens to be her married lover, to entrap a major drug dealer (Gal Zaid). She is represented as sexy, quick-witted, and effective, a female Dirty Harry, and the best of the police officers. But, like Get, the movie focuses as much on her domestic arrangements as it does her policing.
Today women make up at least 30 per cent of the police force, serving in all field positions including operational ones, as detectives, homicide investigators and station commanders. This is represented in Black Space, where Morag Shmuel (Reut Alush) is a “youth detective” drafted to work alongside Rami. In Asylum City, Hani Furstenberg plays Anat, a young police investigator on a murder investigation.
Kevodo [Your Honor] is a complex morality tale about an honest judge drawn into a dark web of deceit and lies as he tries to protect his son who has put into hospital the son of a prominent gangster in a hit and run accident. Ilanit Ben-Yaakov plays Superintendent Hanit Rufus, to whom the judge turns to for help. She is well-respected by colleagues and criminals alike, one of whom tells her, “You don’t need a ritual bath, Rufus. You are pure as is.” Interestingly, in the American Showtime remake, Your Honor, Rufus is played by the Jewish actor Amy Landecker. Again, like HaShoter HaTov, at least one of the police officers is non-Jewish, this time a Bedouin.
The fictional image of its police officers that Israel presents to the world is a complex one. Beginning as a figure of fun, that tradition continues but it has been blended with a more nuanced, morally complex view, one that is beginning to match the cinematic and televisual representation of their fictional counterparts in Israel’s other security services. Some of these cops are corrupt and bad; others are honest and upright. Some are inept; others are fearsomely effective. And, as the social reality is increasingly reflected in film television, the full range of Israeli society – Ashkenazi, Mizrahim, Jews, Arabs, Bedouin, both male and female – are increasingly being represented in contrast to the almost uniformly Ashkenazi Jewish police officer in the Diaspora. However, there is a long way to go before the Israeli police officer can push aside their IDF or Mossad counterparts as the emblematic televisual-cinematic synecdoche for the Israeli security forces.