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Airport security turns citizens into lumps

The following op ed in Haaretz [Hebrew only] revisits the theme of how unpleasant it can be for an Arab citizen, native-born in Israel, to use his or her national airport to travel freely. Many people have heard this theme before; my colleague Aziz Abu Sarah has written about it thoughtfully, and I reported on a potentially positive Supreme Court ruling a year ago.  At the time, I quoted my friend Adeeb Awad and a few others about their experiences. In his op ed this week, Adeeb expands his thoughts about an experience not often discussed: That of an Arab citizen who lives his life as the model integrated Israeli, a picture of excellent relations based on multiple identities that cut across the traditional, tired divisions of Israeli life.

 

…I live in the heart of Tel Aviv, on the lovely Mazeh Street. The municipality collects the garbage in my building just like it does for all the other buildings nearby, and without checking I know that I pay the same municipal taxes as my neighbors, I buy the same products in the same supermarket for the same prices, because we are all equal members of one more unnecessary price club. The chef at the Brasserie [trendy Tel Aviv eatery – ds] doesn’t purposely mess up my food and at Arcaffe [trendy Tel Aviv café – ds] they don’t add cardamom to my espresso. At my bank they deal with me according to the balance in my daily checking account. The specialty shop never refuses to sell me the occasional chopped liver or fish balls.

Yes, I’m a proud Tel Avivian. Just as I am a proud Arab. Just as I am a proud Palestinian. Just as I am a proud Israeli. I feel the same sense of belonging in Tel Aviv, where I live, as I do in Haifa where I was born, or in Sakhnin where I sometimes work.  That’s my blend of identities and I’ve even learned to enjoy it. In the modern world I like to think I live in, multiple identities don’t have to mean an identity crisis; I’ve even encountered cases more complicated than mine.

 

“Proud” in Hebrew connotes gay – especially when paired with “Tel Aviv.” Adeeb’s cross-cutting identities run in many directions. But it’s as if the tired, traditional divisions can’t stand being neglected, and they reach out to wrench him back into their jaws, which probably creates a feeling that any semblance of the good life for Arab citizens, of which the bourgeois Israeli dream is perhaps one example, is just a mirage.

 

…I’m used to being judged by my taste in clothing or art, by my culinary sophistication or by the sort of wine I like, the brands I wear, and on occasion, by my level of intelligence. But to find myself judged based on one thing only – being Arab – and to dare to call it “profiling” – is truly insulting.

 

In my university course, I teach students that grouping a person according to a characteristic that you choose, but which may not be the characteristic that individual views as his or her primary identity, is an element of racism. In the airport, not only has Adeeb been reduced to one single identity that ignores all the other parts of who he is, but he’s been turned into something else altogether: a lump.

 

…only at Ben Gurion airport, a full human being with a well-rounded personality with a rich array of identities, suddenly becomes a “kilo” – the code word for Arab citizens used by security people at the airport security checks. If you’re a “kilo” they take your passport, and demonstratively take you aside behind a partition screen, examine you and your belongings, item after item, with the methodical determination Israel Beitenu uses to pass its racist laws.

 

I’ve been in Israel for fourteen years and I hold no illusions about the good, bad and the ugly of Israeli life, including the difficulties of its most marginalized citizens. But I never knew that one in five of our citizens is called “kilo” at the airport. In my mind, a vision of formless flesh weighing one kilo floats up. It’s pinkish-colored, for some reason, and of course it has no eyes, ears, nose or mouth, no limbs at all and probably no nervous system either:

 

…I tried to wise up: one time I was an indifferent kilo, another time an impatient kilo. I also tried to be an irreverent kilo, an offended kilo, or a resigned kilo. Nothing helped. The feeling was and remains that of being a humiliated kilo, blended with one kilo of sadness, and two more kilos of despair.

 

Many of the readers’ comments were too awful to repeat here (and this is on the Haaretz website). But the immediate argument that has and always will appear is security, which is not to be trivialized. The logic is that Arabs are the group with the greatest interest in committing an attack, and sure it’s unpleasant for poor espresso-drinking Adeeb, but all things considered his life isn’t so bad and it’s a small price to pay. Which is intolerably outdated and generally unacceptable thinking. Surely the great scientific minds of this country can fathom that some people just have other things on their minds than playing Achmed the Dead Terrorist, and are capable of devising appropriate security strategies. Unless they prefer that repeated suggestion puts those thoughts there.

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    COMMENTS

    1. Palestinian

      a proud Israeli ? so if his grandparents were among those who were expelled or butchered he wouldnt be a proud Israeli!!Palestinians in Israel shouldnt be proud they hold the Israeli passports as long as its Israel the Jewish state.But at the end its the Palestinian in Israel who decides his/her identity and loyalty ,which cant be separated from personal interests.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Aaron the Fascist Troll

      What’s the solution, then? Anyone? If you don’t take into account a person’s ethnicity as one factor (of course I don’t believe the author’s ridiculous claim that security views him *only* as Arab), then the alternative is to treat Arabs and Jews exactly the same. Similarly with old people and young people, etc. Logically, there’s no other alternative.
      *
      There are two questions: (1) Is ethnicity a useful factor in security screening? (2) Should ethnicity be used as a factor in security screening? For some reason, very few people answer yes to (1) and no to (2), though that’s a reasonable position.
      *
      On the “unacceptable and outdated” thinking: First of all, it’s obviously not outdated, because it’s currently still in use, and no more effective technique has been discovered. It’s not like flights departing Ben Gurion have suddenly started being blown up. “Unacceptable” means, for one thing, “unacceptable to Dahlia Scheindlin.” What else does it mean? “Argument closed” is all I can guess: if you disagree, you’re a bad person.

      Reply to Comment
    3. @Aaron – so the fact that a policy is still in use means it is regularly and diligently updated, re-thought and revised according to new technologies, values, threats, etc? You haven’t had much experience with life in Israel (or with bureaucracies in general)?

      Reply to Comment
    4. Aaron the Fascist Troll

      Dahlia, of course I’m not suggesting that. I think that if there were new facts that rendered ethnic profiling technically ineffective, then I’d have read about them – but I’d be happy to read about them here! What are they?
      *
      And why didn’t you describe those new facts in your article? If profiling has become technically obsolete—an answer to what I called question (1) above—then *everyone* would agree that it should be stopped. There would no need even to mention lumps and identities and proud Israelis.

      Reply to Comment
    5. sh

      Aaron, if it’s all so logical and normal, why do they call people of a certain ethnicity kilo? In normal airports baggage is defined by kilo. In normal airports you don’t refer to passengers by demeaning code words in front of them.
      .
      The solution is for the bookshops at the airport to sell Arab newspapers as well as Romanian or Russian ones, books in Arabic as well as French, for Palestinian citizens of Israel to be treated in a way that recognizes they exist and offers them what they have a right to. A fifth or more of our population is treated worse there – much, much worse – than tourists from countries whose citizens have brought bombs in their shoes or shot up the airport. There was one brief period during which newspapers in Arabic were on sale there and given out on planes: a few weeks before Rabin was murdered. When I see newspapers there – or do you see them as a security risk too? – I’ll know journey’s begun.

      Reply to Comment
    6. POLTERGEIST

      How about we stop pursuing the leftist utopia of hopelessly incompatible groups living together as one? Why force the Jewish population to pay an enormous price in lives and security as well as bear a tremendous financial burden for the sake of that utopia? Aziz can drink his espresso in Cairo or Damascus. It may not be as pleasant as drinking espresso in Tel Aviv, but hey, forward thinking individuals like Aziz can surely persuade their coreligionists to mend their ways. Right?

      Reply to Comment
    7. sh

      The Jewish population is already paying an enormous price in lives and security pursuing the rightist utopia, Poltergeist. The financial burden for that utopia (for Jews only of course) is borne by the Israeli taxpayer including the Palestinians who travel from Ben Gurion airport.

      Reply to Comment
    8. POLTERGEIST

      Pursuing the rightist utopia? Since when? If such a “utopia” had ever been pursued (for Jews only indeed), the “Palestinians” would not be allowed anywhere near the Ben Gurion airport (or any other Jewish institution or community) thus sparing lives, strengthening security and saving the dough.

      Reply to Comment
    9. POLTERGEIST

      And as an added benefit, Aziz Abu Sarah would be spared the horrors of thorough security checks

      Reply to Comment
    10. Rob Stein

      Dahlia, why don’t you translate the entire article and grant your readers a more complete picture of what Mr. Awad is saying? His first paragraph starts, “I admit it. I’m not used to discrimination.” In the fourth paragraph, he states that he isn’t used to being treated any differently due to his Arab identity, and in the fifth, he states that he only feels as though he’s being discriminated against at the airport. What he experiences at the airport, he makes very clear, is an aberration and not representative of his experiences as an Arab citizen of Israel. It would be helpful, I think, and certainly fairer to the society of which Mr. Awad seems to very much consider himself a part, if you presented the full context of his complaints.

      Reply to Comment
    11. sh

      The rightist utopia is being pursued as we speak, P. Those you wish to keep away from Ben Gurion airport and any other Jewish institution or community if it is achieved are paying for it. As if that wasn’t enough, the Jews of the world will be paying for it not only by funding it whether wittingly or un, but also by the erosion of their values and reputation. By that time you won’t be needing Ben Gurion airport much because no self-respecting country will allow you to visit.

      Reply to Comment
    12. Rob, my only complaint about the article was that it wasn’t written for +972. I would have absolutely loved to translate the entire thing and publish it, but the full text belongs to Haaretz. So I selected what I thought were the best parts, and I personally thought the point you make got through quite clearly, and I also tried to portray this point in my own comments – consider the first paragraph in which I introduce the article. But in case there was any misunderstanding, thanks for your comment.

      Reply to Comment
    13. Leen

      Frankly Aaron, I think either everyone should be stopped and searched or not at all. This kind of treatment does not go down in European airports anymore, post 9/11 yes, but not anymore. Plus bags do get searched, people do get searched through the standard security checks.

      Furthermore, till this day it boggles my mind why does Ben Gurion feel the need to search people coming off the plane? I mean they’ve already had the damn security checks, it’s not like they are going to construct a bomb in the bathroom of the aircraft.

      Reply to Comment
    14. Dhalgren

      Aaron asks about alternatives to ethnic profiling. In fact, he need not leave Ben Gurion to find those alternatives. From Prof. Bernard Harcourt at the University of Chicago Law School (writing in an op-ed piece for the New York Times):

      “The success of the Israeli security force at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion airport is also often chalked to behavioral profiling, but that too is naïve. The remarkable success of the Israelis—no hijacking out of Ben Gurion, ever—is the product of 30 years of intensive security practice, mandatory full searches of every passenger, and a sky marshal program that started in the early 1970s. As Raphael Ron, former head of security at Ben Gurion airport, explains, 100 percent of departing passengers are interviewed and subjected to a one-on-one forensic search, resulting in an average time spent of 57 minutes per person. The amount of checking reaches what Ron calls ‘a forensic level.’ Moreover, public awareness has played a tremendous role, with over 80 percent of terrorist bomb plots discovered by the public.”

      The full piece (actually about proposals for behavioral profiling at US airports) is at http://www.nytimes.com/2006/08/25/opinion/25harcourt.html

      Prof. Harcourt also has several papers on the ineffectiveness of racial/ethnic profiling at bernardharcourt.com/papers.html

      Plus, I myself have always found arguments for ethnic profiling to be based on the false premise that the percent ethnicity of offenders of a specific crime indicates a basis for profiling that ethnic group. Actually, it would be the percent of a specific ethnic group that offends which would indicate a basis for profiling that ethnic group. If a small minority of an ethnic group commits a certain crime, profiling that group for that crime will be ineffective (certainly far less effective than other methods).

      This, of course, is in addition to the serious ethical and societal implications of racial/ethnic profiling.

      Reply to Comment