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What Jerusalem Can Learn from Coney Island

By Yaffa Fredrick

Two months ago, I witnessed  one of my students die during gang initiation week. I stood silently as the police officers flocked to the McDonald’s across from Mermaid Avenue, stringing “Caution” tape around the remnants of a bloody knife fight. And I listened in horror as one of the locals murmured, “What do you expect—it’s Coney Island.” As disturbing as the scene was, it was also uncomfortably routine for a community plagued by daily violence.

Yesterday, as I read that the bodies of three kidnapped Israeli boys had been discovered, I experienced a similar sensation—that of complete horror and helplessness. This was a tragedy, not only because three young men’s lives had been brutally curtailed, but because this story had already been told time and time again.

During the class I held following the Coney Island stabbing, I listened to my students bemoan the state of their community. They raged against the gang leaders, the police, even God—who had brought them into a world marred by hate and fear. They wanted justice, but didn’t quite know what that meant. Was it an eye for an eye? Or, “would that make the whole damn world blind,” one of my students quipped.

And though my students live thousands of miles away from the epicenter of Middle Eastern violence, they are not alone in their frustrations.
They are struggling with the very same issue Israelis and Palestinians continuously grapple with—how to end a cycle of violence that precedes the lives of most living it.

As Israelis mourn the loss of these young men, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will convene his Cabinet to determine the appropriate course of retaliation. And if Netanyahu’s actions during the 18-day search for the missing boys are indicative of future steps he may take, Palestinians can expect quite a blow.

In the last two and a half weeks, Israeli soldiers have rounded up over 400 suspected terrorists. And with the killers still on the loose, further arrests are expected. But will more arrests ensure the safety and security of Israel?

In the film my Coney Island students directed, they explored how stop-and-frisk did not actually deter crime. In fact, 97 percent of searches did not result in criminal convictions. However, the policy did an excellent job in fueling animosity between police officers and young African American men. It was, as one Gawker reporter hailed it, “a black guy harassment program.”

Netanyahu should take a cue from the New York Police Department’s failures. Arresting hundreds of Palestinians is not a sustainable long-term solution. While it may eliminate a few budding terrorists, it will also enrage those on the outside—and may even encourage them to pick up where their cuffed brothers left off.

Of course, mass arrests—be they in New York or Ramallah—are quite appealing in contrast to their alternative, a peace-building initiative that would span several generations before having a tangible effect.

As David Ignatius wrote in a Washington Post op-ed in May, “Sometimes things have to get worse before they get better.” And the last three days certainly sustain that claim. This past weekend a 10-year-old in Coney Island was killed, likely in gang crossfire, just blocks from the McDonald’s on Mermaid Ave where I stood paralyzed two months prior. While yesterday Israeli soldiers discovered the bodies of Gilad Shaar, Naftali Frenkel, and Eyal Yifrah in Beit Kahil near Hebron.

Both incidents are tragic, and though the human response is to retaliate, the most effective long-term strategy involves some degree of restraint. In Coney Island, I am holding a public screening of my students’ film, which both draws attention to a disturbing phenomenon, but also proffers some long-term solutions. Perhaps I will send a copy to Jerusalem as well.

*****

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Yaffa Fredrick is managing editor of World Policy Journal. She is also a film crew mentor at the Coney Island Generation Gap, an organization that seeks to empower inner city youth through media training.

[Photo courtesy of ibtimes.co.uk]

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