In conversation with Felice Friedson, The Media Line News Agency
Just-released “TERRORIST COP” is the true story of one of New York’s Finest’s finest. The content reads like a novel, but the story is real. Between the years 2003 and 2007, the New York Police Department (NYPD), posted a detective in Israel as part of its foreign liaison program. The Second Intifada was well under way. For most of this time, Mordy Dzikansky’s presence in Israel remained under the radar. The Media Line’s Felice Friedson spoke with Detective Dzikansky this week…
TML: How does a religious Jewish cop—one of only three observant Jewish officers on a force of 40,000 policemen – and the son of a Brooklyn rabbi, rise through the ranks, finally being promoted to detective first grade by legendary police commissioner, Ray Kelly?
Dzikansky: When I joined the NYPD in 1983, I was the third Orthodox Jew to become a part of the force. There are about 40 now. I started out in uniform like any other cop, although I was wearing my kippah. They started me out in Crown Heights which was interesting in that it was both Hasidic and a very varied community. After 6 months, I was transferred to Bedford-Stuyvesant, one of the best moves I ever made. Initially they wanted to send me to a Jewish enclave, Borough Park. But I didn’t feel that it would be to my advantage to start learning about police work if I primarily worked in a Jewish area. I really wanted to work in a varied area, and that’s how it worked out. The next 25 years were a whirlwind. I started out in uniform with a yarmulke, and retired as a first grade detective.
TML: You seemed to have a knack for being at the right place at the right time. You stepped into the Rabbi Meir Kahane murder as a young detective and immediately told the chief of the Manhattan detectives that the case has all the earmarks of an Islamic hit. How did you come to this assessment?
Dzikansky: Well, back then, Rabbi Kahane was known to the NYPD, but his activities were based on [his activities with his organization] the Jewish Defense League. I didn’t know if most policemen were following his politics: that he had moved to Israel; had joined the Knesset [Israel’s parliament]; and had founded the Koch party. So I saw that to the NYPD he was a function of the JDL, which was the soviet Jewry issue, and different protests, but not what was going on in the Middle East. I had been following what he had done in Israel. I always kept up with Israeli politics, so I had knew what was going on and who the players were. So to me it only made sense that this would have been an Islamic hit.
TML: You speak Hebrew—has that been an advantage throughout your career in police work?
Dzikansky: Well, actually, that was my stepping stone to becoming a detective. I’m one of the few people to actually say, “thank God for Israeli drug dealers.” In 1985, I was brought in by the Drug Enforcement Administration –the DEA—which had a task force investigating Israeli drug dealers, and from that day on, I never wore a uniform again. It was never my intention to leave uniform services, but I got on the escalator and I just never got off.
TML: Because of the Hebrew?
Dzikansky: Yes. They needed somebody to do field work. We always had translators for different languages who could listen to wiretaps or listen to tapes, but they weren’t able to go into the field because you might have to take some sort of police action. So, in my case, they used me both to listen to conversations in the field, and as a member of the team to make sure that what our informants were telling us and what our sources were telling us, was actually factual. So, once the Hebrew started, I got a reputation as being a good investigator and someone who spoke the language. And because of the Rabbi Kahane case, one who also knew the people.
TML: In February 1991, you volunteered for the Israeli defense forces through a program called Sar-El, that integrated you into an Israeli army base. In retrospect, what did that experience bring to your future position as the NYPD representative in Israel?
Dzikansky: I never liked being on the sidelines. I always felt a need to be involved, and when I saw what was happening here in Israel with the Scuds, I couldn’t stay back. I had to be here. That was 1991. Well, after 9/11, I felt compelled to do something in terms of terror. I wanted to have some sort of impact within the NYPD, and this turned out to be the perfect opportunity.
TML: One of the most high-profile thefts in New York City was the case of the stolen Torahs, sacred Jewish scrolls on which the Old Testament is hand-written, which began on Manhattan’s Upper West Side in 1992. It took several years, but through good police work and some luck, you broke the case, were decorated, and The New York Times called your Torah-theft- task-force a “little known but highly effective squad.” How did you break this case, and how did it prepare you for your move to the homicide division?
Dzikansky: Well, back then I was known as “the Hebrew speaking Jewish detective.” When there was a rash of Torah thefts, and it caught the attention of the higher ups within the police department, we decided to really focus and I would concentrate for six months only on investigating these cases. Our first goal was to stop the thefts. Then, secondly, to actually catch the people responsible. And by some miracle of God—and I truly saw his hand—I was interviewing a suspect in a completely unrelated crime, who basically confessed to me that he was the thief I had been looking for for years. So it really was the hand of God that played a big role in this case.
TML: You and your wife, Merrill, were both intimately involved in 9/11. Tell us about it.
Dzikansky: I was off that day. It was my regularly scheduled day off and I stayed home. But my wife had gone to work. She worked at the now-defunct Lehman Brothers, in their offices in the World Financial Center, which was directly across the street from the World Trade Center. On that morning, she was in a tenth floor conference room, looking out the window and she actually saw the first plane go into the north tower. She realized what was going on; she knew she had to get out of the building. She basically got everyone in her office to leave, and she barely made it out herself before the buildings collapsed. She had called the house to let me know what was going on. I had my son who was 2 years old at the time at home with me, and I didn’t want to leave him with anyone knowing what peril my wife was in. But my position was to be in New York at that stage – I had to get into the city. This was an attack not only on my city, but also on my area within the city. I got there about noon that day. All the homicide detectives who were off went in there as a team, trying to assist as much as we could.
TML: Can you describe “ground zero” and tent city where you worked?
Dzikansky: I try to remember that day because I’ve had a unique opportunity to share with people both the horror of what’s occurred in Israel, and the horror of New York, because I was present for both. And when I talk about 9/11, it’s actually more difficult, because it was just so big. There were fire trucks that were crushed, literally like Tonka-toys. The smoke, the eeriness. And the worst part was in the evening, because there was no natural lighting. I always say Steven Spielberg couldn’t have made a movie with this much horror and destruction. And the tent city—we were fabulous post 9/11 with recovery and rescue. The stories of NYPD policemen and firemen were unbelievably heroic, and also very methodical. But what we didn’t have then was the prevention. We just weren’t built that way, and that’s what really changed after 9/11.
TML: 9/11 also brought about a sea change in NYPD policy when police commissioner Ray Kelly added counterterrorism to the force’s assignments. It also brought you to Israel as the first NYPD foreign liaison. What did you hope to accomplish?
Dzikansky: First and foremost, Israel had become the laboratory for urban terrorism. It wasn’t a military zone, it was a place where people were living their lives day-in and day-out with some sense of normalcy, yet in a constant state of terror. So I was to learn from the best—from the Israelis, who had learned to interact with it; to handle it; and most importantly, how to prevent it. The whole idea was not to recover from a terror act and it was not to rescue people—it was to prevent terror. And the Israelis were very good at it. That was my mission, and I wasn’t exactly sure form the beginning how best to bring that about. But as things started to flow, the Israelis were very cooperative, and I like to think that I brought the best practices back to New York City.
TML: In Israel, you were working undercover and at times were even at odds with other American officers stationed there, Describe your personal experience.
Dzikansky: Listen, it was a very unique approach for a New York City policeman to be anywhere but New York City. People didn’t understand why our presence was needed throughout the world. I was just put to the side at first.
TML: Reading the accounts of the 21 suicide bombings in Israel that you personally visited, one senses a methodical mapping of events. Was this your intent?
Dzikansky: Each and every event I saw through a different eye, but my first questions would always be, “Why this location?” “Why there were more casualties at one location versus another location?” “Was there any nexus to New York?” When I was looking at the location, to me there was a big difference between three people being killed and thirty being killed. And why was a bomber stopped? Was there information that he was heading to the location that they could actually do something with in order to prevent it from happening? So every single time I think I got more intimate with the location and new questions would come up in each case. Why a bus and why not a restaurant? Did the bomber have a history at this specific location? Was he familiar with it because he had worked there; or had family that worked there, or just had some sort of inside information? So you never just accept the fact that only the bomber dies, or that 25 people were killed. What made this different this time? Was he using a different sort of device? Were his prior actions different? So I would look for different nuance to add to New York’s arsenal, so that we would have as much information as far as suicide bombings were concerned.
TML: How has the immediate transfer of information after each suicide attack altered the way that the NYPD operates today?
Dzikansky: I like to think that the most important part is that it made the event real. Unfortunately, we have very short term memories, especially if it doesn’t happen at your location. But I like to think that when they were watching on Fox or CNN, knowing that Mordy was on the scene giving them the full facts and doing it from an investigative point of view, I think it made much more of an impact than if they got a report three weeks later, just stating the facts. This is what happened now, live…this is what’s going on. So I think the immediacy—terrorism is something that has to be dealt with immediately—is not something that can be put on the shelf; it’s not something that can be planned; it’s something that you have to react to right now.
TML: What are the common denominators you found during those daunting visits to the scenes of terror?
Dzikansky: Casualties, casualties, casualties. The main purpose of the terrorist is to kill as many people as possible. We used to think – here in NY at least—that it was the location; that it was symbolic; that it had different issues. But the terrorists wanted the numbers and if they couldn’t go to one place they would go somewhere else—they wanted to kill as many people as possible.
TML: Mordy, how are the U.S. and Israel connected by these attacks?
Dzikansky: 9/11; and suicide bombings; and terrorist attacks that have happened here. We are facing the same enemy: it’s radical Islam. I think the whole western world is facing this evil demon, and it’s definitely a bond that we share: to learn from each other and to protect each other; to cooperate and work as closely as we can when it comes to these issues.
TML: In your book, Terrorist Cop, you mention the t-shirt with the American army emblem on it, and you mention how a bomb went off by a banner with an American flag. Was the terrorist sending a message through these different visuals?
Dzikansky: Absolutely. The note that was found in Haifa on a suicide bombing on a bus made reference to 9/11. Listen, you would think this is the bombers, this is the most important day of his entire life. Though it’s his last day, it’s his most important day. So he is going to put much thought into what he wears, what he does, and where he does it. It’s the same exact hate they share whether they killed five Americans or five Israelis. It’s five dead and that’s what they want.
TML: In the last several years, to what do you attribute the decline in suicide attacks?
Dzikansky: In Israel, three main things: first and foremost, the fence. There has to be that barrier. Then it is the army’s incursion into the hot beads of terrorism and developing good intelligence. After the Passover bombing in March 2002, they did Operation Defensive Shield where the Israeli army actually went into the territories and wiped out the cell at the bomb factory, not waiting for it to come to them. If you took one of those elements out, I believe you would see the same exact level of suicide bombings today, if not more. You needed the fence; the military taking the fight to them and not waiting for it to come to you; and great intelligence.
TML: Some ask whether there is a need for the vast amount of fence and wall that exists today. Do you feel that some of that can come down?
Dzikansky: No. I think absolutely not. It is 97% fence and 3% wall. I was living 12 kilometers from what I used to describe as a hot bed of terrorism and knowing that the fence was up made me sleep a lot better at night. I always described it as playing football: if you are playing free safety and trying to catch the person it is much more difficult than getting on the line where he is.
TML: Throughout your book you write about you colleague Gil Kleiman, who was the English-language spokesperson for Israel’s National Police Force. How did he change your life?
Dzikansky: Police work is a partnership. There are very few times when a policeman should ever use the word “I”—it’s “WE.” Gil was my support. Gil basically vouched for me, which gave me credibility with the Israeli police, without which and without his cooperation I could not have done half my job. He provided friendship, which I would say that is even more important, someone I could relate to, I could talk to. You know, I came in as a homicide detective and after a big investigation you need to decompress and you need a person that can speak the same language. I am not talking Hebrew to English, but the experience. We spoke exactly the same language; we understood the same ironies of life, the same hypocrisy of life. It was a tremendous comfort and a great asset. To this day we are dear friends.
TML: You both also succumbed to post traumatic stress disorder—PTSD. When did you realize that the endless sights of decapitated suicide bombers, body parts and blown apart strollers had taken its toll?
Dzikansky: I was very fortunate that I had tremendous support from Commissioner Kelly and that really helped me get through the whole issue of PTSD in terms of just feeling good about what I was doing but knowing that it was still affecting me. I just couldn’t disengage. I was too wrapped up in terror. I know as a homicide detective, you had to be professional like a surgeon: go to work but when you are home you are home. It might take an hour or two hours but at one point the day ends… for five years my day never ended. The scenes didn’t compare to 9/11, but the amazing thing was that there was so much destruction on 9/11 but so little in the way of body parts and remains that you could visually see. You saw the destruction of the event, but you did not see the human toll until you worked in the morgues and worked in the landfill. At the suicide bombing scenes there were body part everywhere. An explosive is horrific. With suicide bombings it could be anyone, anytime and mentally that was the hardest thing to come to grips with—to understand why this was occurring.
TML: What will the face of terror look like in the next ten years?
Dzikansky: I don’t think it is going anywhere; I think it is remaining the same. Unfortunately, they have seen it as an effective tool to change people’s lives and I think that is the clear message they send—they are trying to change our day-to-day lives and the second they do, we lose.
TML: “Terrorist Cop: the NYPD Jewish Cop who Traveled the World to Stop Terrorists” is written by Mordecai Dzikansky and Robert Slater; and is and published by Baracade Books.