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One more response to Goldberg's praise of Israel's airport security

In his response to Jeffrey Goldberg’s enthusiastic description of Ben Gurion Airport’s security procedures, my colleague Noam Sheizaf makes some salient points about historical accuracy and racial profiling. Particularly resonant is the final point – that Jeffrey Goldberg, a Jew born and raised in the United States, is treated far better by Israel’s airport security personnel than Israeli citizens with Arab names.

Over the past few years, there have been several cases of prominent Israeli citizens with Arab names who were subjected at Ben Gurion Airport to humiliating procedures so egregious that they were widely publicized in the media.

Sayed Kashua, a well-known Haaretz columnist, creator of the critical and popular hit television series Arab Labour  and author of three critically acclaimed novels (in Hebrew), has written several times about the onerous security checks to which he has been subjected, including having a member of the security staff escort him not just to the gate, but all the way to his seat on the airplane. In one recent column he writes: “I know I have written about this a million times, and I will probably write about it another million times. Because it’s simply humiliating.” The column is about his journey to Switzerland, where he was to read at a literary event. He was also a dinner guest of the Israeli ambassador and his wife. And yet a 20-year-old woman took it upon herself to take apart his suitcase and humiliate him with intrusive questions at Ben Gurion Airport.

Rania Jubran, the daughter of Israeli Supreme Court justice Salim Jubran, was a 26-year-old Israeli diplomat when she was subjected to humiliating security checks at Ben Gurion Airport, even though she presented her foreign ministry identity card. Ms. Jubran was the first Arab to be accepted to the foreign ministry’s cadet course. When Ms. Jubran resigned three years later for reasons she would only describe as “personal,” Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon described her as “extremely talented,” while another unnamed source in the ministry said that her departure was evidence of their “inability to retain quality personnel” (Hebrew link).

Ibtisam Mara’ana, a prominent, award-winning documentary film maker who lives in Tel Aviv, has represented Israel at many international film festivals. And yet she told me once that she turned down an invitation to one festival because she didn’t have the energy to face the humiliation at the airport.

Yara Mashour, a prominent Nazareth-based magazine editor, switched flights to another carrier after she was profoundly insulted by El Al staff at Milan’s airport. She is now considering suing the airline. In response to this incident, Haaretz decried racial profiling of Arab citizens in its editorial page.

In another case, two Arab brothers did successfully sue El Al after they were separated and humiliated at an airport in New York. The brothers had flown to New York on an organized group trip with their co-workers at an Israeli insurance company.

Few take the trouble to sue, because it is an exhausting and intimidating process. But the humiliation should not be taken lightly – as it is described here by +972 contributor Aziz Abu Sarah. In this post by +972 contributor Dahlia Scheindlin, she quotes her friend Adeeb Awad, a man who describes himself as a “proud Tel Avivian” and a “proud Palestinian,” an Israeli citizen who finds himself separated and described as a “kilo” by Ben Gurion Airport security personnel. And there are many, many similar stories – of Arab professors at Israeli universities traveling to academic conferences forced to fly without their laptops and mobile phones; of Arab actors who have appeared in well-known films taken aside and questioned for hours, forced to miss their flights, and so on.

These are the experiences of prominent Arab citizens of Israel who live fully integrated lives in the midst of the Jewish majority. So imagine what it must be like for those who speak Hebrew with an Arabic accent, who wear keffiyehs and hijabs rather than jeans and t-shirts.

With very rare exception, nearly every Arab citizen of Israel who has flown through Ben Gurion Airport has a story  of humiliation to tell.

One year ago, the Supreme Court demanded that the Shin Bet explain why it discriminates against Arab citizens at the airport, calling the onerous security procedures “unacceptable.” The court’s decision was handed down in response to a petition submitted by ACRI, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. As Dahlia Scheindlin writes, the petition reads like a chronicle of the dark side. The bottom line: No matter what their reason for flying, no matter who they represent or how prominent they are and no matter how early they arrive at the airport, Palestinian-Israelis cannot know if they will make their flights.

But the Shin Bet, despite assurances that it would examine and change its policies, has done nothing. In Israel, the security establishment is above the law: It can and does ignore with impunity years of official complaints, outraged newspaper editorials, litigation – and yes, even Supreme Court decisions.

And then imagine how an Arab-Palestinian citizen of Israel who was born and raised in the country, who speaks unaccented, fluent Hebrew, must feel upon reading that an American man glides through airport security simply because he is a Jew.

And I seriously doubt that a 20-year-old airport security staffer, who took this first post-army job in order to pay for a trip to India or his university tuition, is able to spot a terrorist based on how he answers a question about where he celebrated his bar mitzvah. The people who spot the terrorists are the armed ex-combat officers who stand above the terminal, behind one-way windows, surrounded by security cameras that monitor every movement below.

For 20 percent of the native-born population of Israel, Jeffrey Goldberg’s sense of privileged belonging is unattainable at Ben Gurion Airport, whether they are just ordinary citizens going on holiday, or prominent citizens traveling to represent the state at an academic conference or arts festival. This, as outgoing Supreme Court head Dorit Beinisch said, is unacceptable.

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  • COMMENTS

    1. Jogortha

      Spot on Lisa. Jeffrey Goldberg’s off the cough remark has the merit of sincerity. He inadvertently asks for Israeli society to confront its realities. I think Israel’s democratic institutions would gain a lot by acknowledging that the current drift to the right is undermining its very foundations.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Ha. I’ll never forget, while taking the classes that would later make me an El Al security guy in Heathrow, someone dared to ask the instructor why he referred to the people that would be subjected to the humiliating security measures as “minorities,” and not “Arabs.”

      His reply was that calling them “Arabs” would offend them.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Bill Pearlman

      Arabs are a security threat, pure and simple. Security on El Al and at Ben Gurion works. Pure and simple. I’m sorry if that offends Lisa but let me ask her this. What would she do differently. And if there is an attack would she be willing to go to the families and explain how SHE was instrumental in killing their family members. Because if she isn’t willing to come up with a different strategy and then take RESPONSIBILITY then this is classic leftist mental masturbation.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Gabby

      Great article Lisa, but just wanted to let you know the second article you tried to hyperlink to [In this post by +972 contributor Dahlia Scheindlin] didn’t work.

      Reply to Comment
    5. Steve

      Israel has to protect itself. This includes the airlines.

      Reply to Comment
    6. jalal

      Looking at the bright side, what is wrong with being racially profiled and receiving “VIP” treatment. Although we’d be delayed, although every single one of us would be strip searched, although they go through even the tiniest pockets in my wallet and mess it all up, although they give us a hard time if we carry any medicine that they aren’t 500% familiar with what it is, although every single item we carry with us (Including clothing) with the ONLY exception of underwears, gets thorough examinations through multiple machines, although we see everyone else just walking by and not being troubled by anyone, although this tedious procedure often takes hours… we after all skip the initial line and enter the boarding area without having to go through long queue. bright side, eh

      Reply to Comment
    7. Steve

      No Steve and Bill, nothing is pure and simple. I am a Jew, but don’t have a last name like Goldberg, Goldman or Pearlman. I have been to Israel more times than I can count, have lived there for that matter. And yet, going through BG Airport is one of the most humiliating experiences I have to undergo. And yes, for Arabs, it is far worse. I am glad this is no big deal for you, and that you feel profiling an entire people is legit. Personally, I find it disgusting.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Ruth

      This is a sad reality for people of arab, muslim or south asian background travelling in Europe and North America. It is not right but post 9/11, they are all suspicious.
      I am curious, what was the official answer to Kashua? I really like his writing.

      Reply to Comment
    9. Sinjim

      There is something in your analysis and Noam’s that just misses the mark by a hair. Ironically, I think the pro-racial profiling commenters who’ve taken umbrage at the supposed naivete of your objections have a better handle on the situation.
      .
      Ultimately, this isn’t about citizenship. The fact that the Palestinians who face this humiliation are citizens of the state has nothing to do with this story. It’s the fact that they are Palestinians that matters. The truth is the Palestinians who aren’t citizens face exactly the same treatment.
      .
      My American cousin had items he had bought during a stay with his family in the West Bank broken by the luggage inspectors. A friend of mine, a small and quiet 20 year old woman in college, was strip searched before flying out of the country.
      .
      In the eyes of the state, Palestinians with citizenship are just as dangerous as Palestinians without it, so they are treated the same way. When you make appeals to citizenship, I have to stop and ask, well what about the Palestinians who aren’t citizens? Should they continue to be treated in this racist manner?
      .
      I know that’s not the intended effect, but the appeals to citizenship carry the implication that the plight of Palestinians inside Israel is somehow a completely different issue from the plight of Palestinians living a half-hour away. It is no accident that all Palestinians are treated the same way at the borders of Israel’s control.

      Reply to Comment
    10. Thanks Gabby – I fixed the link and added a bit more info as well.

      Reply to Comment
    11. Sinjim – I agree with you. But for the purpose of this article, bringing in the issue of the approximately 4 million (!) Palestinians under Israeli rule who do not have citizenship would have made it impossible to stay on point.

      Reply to Comment
    12. Kolumn9

      Sinjim, according to Israeli law and all current frameworks for finding a solution, the plight of the Palestinians living in Israel (Israeli Arabs) is a completely different issue from the plight of the Palestinians living a half-hour away.

      In the eyes of the state and a large percentage of its Jewish population, all Arabs are dangerous because there is a correlation with going boom. This is an unfortunate, but not entirely unexpected outcome of suicide bombings and terrorism against Israelis by those that identify themselves as Palestinians.

      What exactly is the complaint here? That Goldberg is treated better than Arabs by El Al? What does ‘better’ mean? That he is considered a less likely threat? Isn’t that just common sense?

      btw, a couple of years ago I was questioned for three hours by El Al before a flight to Tel Aviv. It sucks, but I have a hard time arguing that it isn’t a legitimate security procedure.

      Reply to Comment
    13. Steve

      Israel faces massive security threats, so Israel’s main airline is extremely careful.
      That’s how it goes.
      Hopefully someday there’s permanent peace and no more crazed threats against Israel from some of the psycho neighbors, and some aspects of security can be lowered.

      Reply to Comment
    14. Aaron the Fascist Troll

      Sinjim, I think citizenship is exactly the point. No one is *seriously* arguing that ethnic profiling is ineffective. People such as Noam are arguing, not that Arabs should be treated as if they were Jews, but that Jews should be treated as if they were Arabs. (As I’ve said, their argument is strong, even though I think it’s incorrect.) The only basis for that is solidarity, and Israeli Jews owe no solidarity to non-Israeli Palestinians, any more than to, say, Irishmen.
      *
      What if Israel were at war with another state? Should Israeli security view the enemy state’s citizens the same as Israeli citizens? Well, Israel is at war with the Palestinians (or if you prefer, with Palestine).
      *
      And should Palestinian security view Jewish settlers the same as Fatah members? Is it racist for them to relate to Jews differently?

      Reply to Comment
    15. Sinjim

      @Lisa: Point taken. I guess my point is about the way this topic is discussed in general rather than your or Noam’s specific article. Thanks all the same!
      .
      @Aaron the etc.: It wasn’t the first time or even the fifth or twentieth time, but by the 100th time that you went on record in support of institutionalized bigotry, it had stopped being interesting or worth responding to. We get it, you have no problem with ethnic and racial discrimination even if it means that Jews are affected in other situations, too. Congratulations!

      Reply to Comment
    16. Dhalgren

      @Aaron the Fascist Troll
      “I think citizenship is exactly the point. No one is *seriously* arguing that ethnic profiling is ineffective.”
      .
      Actually everyone who is being honest and rational argues precisely that, including Israeli airport security officials. Read some of the articles I posted in the comments to Sheizaf’s post. Here’s one that details the superiority of Israeli security procedures and technologies:
      http://www.dailymail.co.uk/home/moslive/article-1336571/Terrorism-Can-really-stop-bomber-asking-Are-terrorist.html
      .
      It includes this quote: “In America, anger over body scanners and intimate, genital searches for those who decline to pass through them has led to calls for ethnic profiling. But the automated Israeli method isn’t profiling: it homes in on individuals, not ethnic or religious groups.”
      .
      The security procedures at Ben-Gurion are far more sophisticated than you give them credit for. The crude, ethnic profiling that people are describing here is a perversion of the process in order to intimidate.

      Reply to Comment
    17. joe

      I’m not an Arab, I don’t look Arab. Once traveling from Jordan to Israel I was held by security for 6 hours, another time I was escorted at Ben Gurion to my seat on the plane (not El Al).

      Another time I walked through security at Ben Gurion with a middle-aged woman co-traveller and was not delayed at all.

      It strikes me that these are such stupid types of profiling that even if they are effective (which, honestly, I doubt) they are easy to circumvent. Travel with a middle-aged woman and/or don’t be Arab.

      Reply to Comment
    18. Indeed, if you treat every single Arab as a security threat regardless of credentials, there is a greater chance that more of them will be such. I would.

      If having a father on the Supreme Court and having gone through the security clearance required to get a job with the diplomatic corps doesn’t exempt one from “we gotta defend ourselves” – welcome to hell neverending.

      Reply to Comment
    19. joe

      One time I was crossing at the Sheikh Hussain bridge in the north. From the look of everyone there, I was the only person crossing that morning.

      After the usual nonsense questions, I was asked to stand behind a door whilst an officer took my picture. I’m not sure what was so special about the door, but anyway he said his camera didn’t work so I offered him mine. He declined. Given all the trouble I’ve had traveling to and from Israel, it was almost comic.

      Reply to Comment
    20. joe

      Another time I’m sure I got into trouble because I couldn’t tell the security officers where my paternal Grandfather was born. Several times in the next few hours they asked the same question, but I still didn’t know – he died in 1960, I never met him.

      Reply to Comment
    21. Aaron the Fascist Troll

      Dhalgren, are you saying that ethnicity is not used at all as a factor by Ben Gurion security? All I mean by “ethnic profiling” is using ethnicity as one factor in profiling. Obviously, no one suggests using it as the *only* factor, and no one suggests using it if it’s not effective.
      *
      Joe, I don’t know whether the procedures are smart, but I know that some of the people applying them are. The Israeli El Al employee who screened me on my first flight to Israel was an undergraduate mathematics major at UCLA, working part-time as a screener. Which I guess is one reason the Israeli method couldn’t work in the US.
      *
      Rehavia, if you read the original post by Jeffrey Goldberg, you’ll see that he wrote that he knows some Arabs who “glide through” the process and others who are caught up in it for hours.

      Reply to Comment
    22. joe

      Being an undergraduate does not make you smart. The procedures are stupid and the people who run them are stupid. And they’re usually young, short and appear to be around 12 years old. I know they are not, but it is hard to take anyone seriously who is that short and that young.

      One time I was given the ‘first class’ treatment simply because I answered the first question I was asked when arriving at Ben Gurion honestly. They asked where I had been, I said Bethlehem. If I had said Tel Aviv like all the other people did who arrived with me, I would not have been the questioning, checks for explosives (or whatever the hell they are doing with those wands with bits of cotton wool on the end) and everything else.

      But that is fine, I don’t mind. I’ve done nothing wrong or illegal or hidden. If you want to waste your time wasting my time, go right ahead. But don’t pretend it is making Israel any safer.

      Reply to Comment
    23. Anyone who isn't Jewish or Israeli

      I’m a 20-something european-looking US. citizen and I was subject to the same humiliating experiences at Ben Gurion. I was given a 5 on the 0-6 “terrorist scale” as I like to call it, and I was escorted the entire way through the airport security. I even got to my gate for a few minutes and then was escorted back to do all of the security checks twice over. Apparently having Armenian pottery means I have a bomb.

      The point of this is that the policy at Ben Gurion and in the rest of the country is racist and highly political. It is racist not only against Arabs, but against anyone who isn’t Israeli or Jewish, or who isn’t a complete and total supporter of the State of Israel. Perhaps next time I should wear an I heart Israel t-shirt. Or maybe racism, discrimination, and political maneuvering at the airport should be stopped at all levels.

      Thanks State of Israel for your “democracy.”

      Reply to Comment
    24. Aaron the Fascist Troll

      Maybe I have a lenient idea of what “smart” is, but I don’t think you should call someone dumb if they can handle abstract algebra, topology, and real analysis, even at the undergraduate level, as this El Al screener could. How many TSA employees could get a degree in math from UCLA?
      *
      Given the low opinion of Israeli competence expressed by all the security experts commenting here, it’s amazing that Israeli flights aren’t blowing up every day. Why haven’t there been any such successful attacks since the security methods went into place? Did the terrorists suddenly just lose interest in Israeli targets?

      Reply to Comment
    25. joe

      Aaron, yes I’m afraid the simplest solution is that those armed groups who were blowing up planes changed their tactics. In the same way, whilst checkpoints have had an impact on bombings, almost every Palestinian knows how to get around them. If you think these are the only thing stopping the bombings, you’re kidding yourself.
      As to the intelligence of screeners, one asked me what I had degrees in but could not understand the answer I gave. OK, fair enough it was in English so not her first language, but it wasn’t an unusual word. What do you want me to do, act it out?

      Reply to Comment
    26. Dhalgren

      @Aaron
      “Are you saying that ethnicity is not used at all as a factor by Ben Gurion security? All I mean by ‘ethnic profiling’ is using ethnicity as one factor in profiling.”
      .
      That would not necessarily be ethnic profiling. It is when the ethnic factor becomes disproportionate in the profiling process that the usage of the term makes sense. Personally, I do doubt the usage of ethnicity or national origin at all in profiling, as security will just be playing catch-up with the latest terrorist group (e.g. unwitting, single European women after the Hindawi affair). It makes the most sense, to me, to focus on behavioral profiling and to combine that with some level of uniformly-applied scanning technology (and I don’t mean the insane levels of scanning we have here in the US).

      Reply to Comment
    27. zayzafuna

      the comments above are why you should travel thru Amman

      Reply to Comment
    28. joe

      zayzafuna – as I stated above, flying via Amman doesn’t help as the Allenby crossing is worse than Ben Gurion.

      Reply to Comment
    29. Arieh Zimmerman

      The poor 20 year old, largely ignorant, willfully or not, of the wider, significance of her actions is not allowed no exercise her common sense, but must follow ‘one size fits all’ regulations, or lose her job.
      Times are tough and jobs are scarce, but I would feed more confident of the strength our democracy if more security personal preferred other employment.

      Reply to Comment
    30. sh

      Interesting how, with that one-size-fits-all profiling that sees Palestinian Israelis subjected to the lengthiest airport humiliations of all, those 20-year-olds let a Mohamed Merah from Toulouse both into the country and out a couple of years ago, without, apparently, raising an eyebrow. A deafening national security apparatus silence ensues. Well?

      Reply to Comment
    31. Alex

      It’s not only Arab Israelis who are subjected to the humiliating process. It’s also great numbers of non-Jewish (and non-Muslim, for that matter!) foreign tourists. Which makes it kind of ironical when Israel is supposedly trying to lure tourists at the moment. There is a limit indeed to the understanding and tolerance that can be expected from outsiders. After being subjected to a three-hour intimidation and wait at Ben Gurion, I really would not prioritise Israel as a holiday destination again, despite my loving the place, the language and having many friends there. It is tedious, humiliating and the security personnel is often simply intimidating and RUDE (worth here to note that politeness is NOT the national asset in Israel, but at Ben Gurion rudeness really exceeds any imaginable limits…)

      Reply to Comment
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