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Racial profiling is just racism: A response to Goldberg

Jeffery Goldberg, one of the most well know Jewish American journalists, had an entry in his blog raving about Israeli security procedures at Ben Gurion airport. Ben Gurion (TLV) has no naked-scanning machines and you don’t have to take off your shoes. Instead, security personnel use racial profiling, thoroughly checking Arabs in back rooms while exempting Jewish Israelis and tourists with a few standard security questions. “I find answering a series of questions about my travel less invasive than posing like a mugging victim in a machine that takes pictures of you naked,” Goldberg concludes. A perfect example of self-inflicted blindness: As Mairav Zonszein was quick to note, the reason Goldberg ended up with such a positive experience was that he wasn’t part of the ethnic group that is targeted by racial profiling.

Goldberg got some responses to his post pointing out to this issue, so he posted another piece, which actually made things worse. He would allow racial profiling in Israel (but not in the States), because “Israel is in open conflict with several Muslim terror groups,” Goldberg writes. To an Arab reader he reminds us that today is the 20th anniversary of the bombing of a Jewish community center in Argentina, “so it isn’t the best day to complain about this ‘imaginary threat.'”

If it’s history class we have entered, it is worth remembering that the two most serious terror attacks concerning air travel to Israel – the kidnapping of an Air France flight in 1976 to Entebbe and the attack in Ben Gurion in 1972, which claimed the life of 24 people – were committed by German and Japanese terrorists, respectively. But the important point is that Goldberg avoids the true meaning of the criticism against the use of racial profiling at the Israeli airport. Nobody seriously claims that the security check should be canceled – only that all passengers should go through the same procedure, uncomfortable as it may be.

Just like Goldberg, as an Israeli Jew, I find the check at Ben Gurion much more polite and pleasant than the ones I go through on U.S. domestic flights. However, if you look around at the departure hall, it is hard not to notice the Arab families waiting in a parallel line before being taken to a side room, where they are examined for hours and at times, strip-searched. I would rather we all go through the same system: Be that harsh questioning or naked-scanning. The discomfort and the time loss for the Jewish travelers is a small price to pay for better relations between ethnic groups in this country.

The fact that Goldberg argues against racial profiling in his own country is even more troubling; to his credit I would admit that it’s not the first time I hear American Jews explaining why their U.S.-style liberalism can’t or shouldn’t be implemented in my country.

And there is another point which Goldberg avoids. He writes:

Of course, Israeli airport security doesn’t merely scrutinize Muslim travelers. In fact, based on the profiles in operation at Ben-Gurion, single European and American women traveling alone are most often singled out for special treatment.

I don’t know what made him come to this conclusion (evidence suggests otherwise), but the main point is this: “European and American women traveling alone” are not Israeli citizens. Most Palestinians detained for hours at TLV are. It’s their own country that views them all as potential terrorists. As his initial post revealed, Jeffrey Goldberg, an American, is treated better at the airport because he is a Jew, while citizens of this very country are held for hours and at times, humiliated. The underlying message is that Israel is more his country than it is their country. Unlike Goldbreg, I don’t find this to be something worth celebrating.

Read Also:
Jeffrey Goldberg: Israel airport security should just ask me if I’m Jewish
Regularly confronting discrimination at Ben Gurion Airport
Airport security turns citizens into lumps

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    1. AIG


      I understand your point of view. But the question is whether Arabs are “targeted” in Ben-Gurion because they are Arab or because they pose a greater risk. For example, there were several Israeli Arabs convicted of helping suicide bombers get to their bombing targets and not one Israeli Jew. Is it not therefore more likely that Arab Israelis would be involved in a terror plot against a flight?
      Isn’t more likely that an Arab Israeli could be coerced into participating in such a plot or used unknowingly (someone planting a bomb in his/her luggage without their knowledge)?
      And I think the proof that Arabs are not targeted qua Arabs is the fact that if an Israeli Jew would say that he packed his luggage in Ramallah or Jenin before coming to the airport, he would be checked just as thoroughly and intrusively.

      Reply to Comment
    2. AIG: actually, Goldberg in his post mentions the times he got to the airport from Gaza… doesn’t seem he got checked this way…

      But on moral basis, the fact that a racist practice can be used against the members of the dominant group on specific occasions doesn’t mean it’s not racial.

      Reply to Comment
    3. AIG


      There is racism in Israel but I don’t think what happens in Ben-Gurion is racist. Nobody is questioning Arabs more for the fun of it or to make their lives difficult. It is just playing the odds.

      The Gaza example is not valid because you know that the checks at Erez are about 100 times more stringent than those at Ben-Gurion. The question is what happens if you arrive in Ben-Gurion from a Palestinian area without passing a thorough check.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Steve

      I would assume that when war/terrorism against Israel from sections of the Arab/Muslim world ends and peace is given to Israel, racial profiling against Arabs/Muslims will probably start to disappear.
      Just using worldly logic, there.

      Reply to Comment
    5. aristeides

      “Nobody is questioning Arabs more for the fun of it or to make their lives difficult. ”

      Oh, no? AIG obviously doesn’t believe in the sadism of petty tyranny. When an Israeli forces an Arab woman to remove her sanitary pad and refuses to let her get another, I’d say it was solely to make her life difficult.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Bill Pearlman

      Ok, Noam, I’ll bite. So what would be your plan for airport security that would be different then what is done now. Please enlighten us.

      Reply to Comment
    7. Aaron the Fascist Troll

      Of all the posts that I’ve read on this topic at +972, this is the only one that’s reasonable and well-argued. (It was also unfair to Goldberg, but that’s a separate issue.) Noam’s argument is strong: Unlike other arguments, it doesn’t deny the common-sense fact that ethnicity is one useful feature in profiling. The argument is based not on the question of technical effectiveness, but on a higher good: better relations between Arabs and Jews.
      Here’s why he’s wrong. First of all, he doesn’t go far enough. Of all the reasons, good and bad, many documented on this site, that Arabs have to hate or resent Jews, I think airport security is pretty far down on the list. I mean, the theft and continued occupation of their homeland; the refusal to let the refugees return; and intrusive security at Ben Gurion airport. Which one of those seems out of place among the top three? As long as serious grievances remain, any goodwill gesture of this sort will be quickly forgotten. If there’s any justification for Noam’s proposal, it’s because as an act of solidarity it’s the RIGHT THING TO DO, not because it will have good social consequences.
      I’m still against it, though. I believe in relating to Arabs as adults. That means assuming that they can understand the obvious fact that ethnic profiling is rationally based and is not intended as a racist insult. No matter how embarrassing or unpleasant the procedure is, it’s not intended to humiliate, any more than those obnoxious TSA procedures are. Many Arabs—being human—either cannot or will not understand that. But that shouldn’t determine policy.
      By the way, here’s a thought experiment. What if there were a wave of terrorism committed by American-born Jews, and as a result they were profiled just as Arabs are today. Would we complain, or demand that everyone else be searched just like us? I hope not. I hope that I’d have the integrity to stand by what I wrote above. I’m not sure I would, though.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Aaron the Fascist Troll

      I forgot to add: the The underlying message is not “that Israel is more [Goldberg’s] country than it is their country.” The underlying message is that
      Jewish-Americans are less likely than Arab Israelis to blow up an airplane.

      Reply to Comment
    9. Dhalgren

      Isn’t the real question why racial profiling is occurring when it is not even, officially, supposed to? I read all of these articles about how Ben-Gurion airport security is superior BECAUSE it doesn’t rely on racial profiling. Here are a couple examples.
      Former director of security at Ben Gurion, Raphael Ron:
      “Speaking from a security point of view, it would be professionally stupid to divert attention from non-Arab people. For example, the worst attack on Ben Gurion was carried out by Japanese in 1972. If we focus on ethnic groups, we will miss what the enemy already understands: using a non-Arab person to carry out an attack might succeed.” [securitysolutions.com/news/security_exposing_hostile_intent/]
      Nir Ran, former head of aviation security at the Shin Bet who also directed security operations at El Al:
      “The passenger himself, arriving to the flight with a bomb in his suitcase will not necessarily be a Muslim, will not necessarily be a young man, or the terrorist himself. On the contrary, in most of the cases, past experience teaches us that the people carrying the bomb to the plane were non-Muslim young women.” [www.voanews.com/english/news/Foiled-Detroit-Airport-Attack-Highlights-Israels-Security-Success-81037377.html]
      How are we supposed to reconcile the facts at the airport with official disavowal of racial profiling?

      Reply to Comment
    10. Sara

      Good article, and very true. Also people working for the international community gets quite a harsh treatment at the airport. Last time flying out I knew everyone that had the bags thoroughly checked at the same place as I, we were all working for different international organisations, and we all got body searched.
      The racial profiling also goes for entering the country, where there are plenty of examples of people with foreign passports (Western European – countries whose citizens normally would be allowed entry) but with Palestinian background/Arab names that are denied entry.

      Reply to Comment
    11. James North

      An excellent post by Noam. Here’s my question: why do they interrogate you much more vigorously when you are leaving Ben-Gurion than when you arrive?

      Reply to Comment
    12. Shlomo Krol

      Agree. It’s better to have inconvenience being questioined and monitored more thouroughly than to feel a “privileged” one and see how other “underprivileged” ones are treated in a different way than you are.

      Reply to Comment
    13. Noam W

      Good piece Noam. I would like to add one point.
      Racial profiling, for the kind conducted at airports (as opposed to police officers picking off black youths in white neighborhoods) is done in the name of efficiency.
      The argument is that it would be too costly and inconvenient to check everybody and so they target only those “most likely” to cause problems.
      But racial discrimination is so inimical to democracy, that any efficiency argument in its favor is apriori flawed. Preserving rights costs money – a judicial system costs money, health care costs money, elections cost a lot of money.
      Making part of our citizens not feel alienated, perceived as an enemy writ large, and demeaned also costs money. It does not matter at all whether there is a statistically better chance that Palestinian Israelis would attack an airplane. I do not suggest that they should not be checked, but if I and other Israelis have to stand in line longer and suffer the indignities of having our baggage rifled through as well. It is a small price to pay for, at least the semblance of, solidarity.

      Reply to Comment
    14. Jeremy Rose

      The last time I went through Ben Gurion Airport I was held up for an hour or so because I had a Beirut airport stamp in passport. Fair enough I suppose. The line of questioning amused me. “You’re a Jew?” Yes. “So why did you want to to an Arab country?” To be fair I wouldn’t have got in Lebanon with an Israeli stamp in my passport.

      When I explained I would be staying with a relative in Tel Aviv the young man said I could go.

      But what I did find disturbing was the old man from Jerusalem I was sitting next to. He had been waiting an hour before I got there. A Jerusalem resident for his entire life he was scared – yes scared – that he might not be allowed back into the country. He had left to visit family abroad. He had been interviewed once already and was waiting for the second interview. He said it was the first time he had left Jerusalem and he wouldn’t be doing it again. The hard wooden bench was far from comfortable. It felt and looked like low level harassment.

      Reply to Comment
    15. Sharon Benheim

      The way the security checks are handled at Ben Gurion is a horrid truth. I do not think any of us Jewish or Arab, think the profiling is the problem – we expect that. But the attitudes and the irrational results!

      Imagine my horror when a group of 25 of us were traveling as part of a peacebuilding program, only to have the Arab participants (from Israel, Palestine and Jordan) separated out. I wasn’t (though the Jewish Israeli coordinator of the group) allowed to intervene or help – the most I could do is refuse to leave the area and await my fellow passengers. The epitome – especially for all you fellow commenters who talk about LOGIC – was this: after being searched and checked, one of the Arab women with me was told she could not take her small back pack on board – but would have to check it. She had in this small bag a wallet, a passport folder with her tickets, a music device, a bottle of water, and a book. Never mind that I was allowed a rolling suitcase with 300 items in it… She was told to pick just 2 items and check the rest. Then, I went ballistic. If any of the items was safe for her to take, than all of them were safe. This “offer” was pure spite and completely illogical and unnecessary. The two of us spent the next few hours – having be driven in a mad dash to the plane just before the doors were closed – in each other’s arms crying from sheer frustration – and humiliation. In her case, she was humiliated by the treatment she received. In my case, I was humiliated by the illogical, unreasonable, and nasty behaviour of my country.

      Reply to Comment
    16. Dhalgren

      Here’s a good article to read on airport security in general, comparing Israeli security to the rest of the world:
      One interesting 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.”
      It seems that in touting the superiority of Israeli airport security (which I think is superior to our insane process in the US), the intimidation of Arabs at Ben-Gurion is revealed for being exactly that: intimidation. Every indication is given that Israeli profiling is sophisticated enough to distinguish between individuals based on far more than mere ethnicity. There is no need for experiences like those described here. These are obvious intimidation practices.

      Reply to Comment
    17. Helge

      last week – tuesday – I was the first time nearly unchecked when leaving. Single traveller, european.
      Every other time i had at least a medium interest check including camera eq. unpacking, laptop startup and taking out batterie and such.
      This time nothing… after xrayin’ my bag (not my backpack), I asked where to stop by next and got reply “go to check in”…

      I never before had 45 minutes free time til boarding time on Ben Gurion. Led to buying stupid souvenirs.

      On all the other visits I had in addition to my usual luggage my bike with me – but THIS was never an interest in the security checks. May be they’ve checked detailed after I left it at the elevator where u leave the large stuff. But really … even the worse checking was always in a as friendly as possible way, I’d call it – “professional”.

      Had much worse experiences with german security sometimes that didn’t leave the impression of “professionality” at all.

      Reply to Comment
    18. @Aaron TFT:
      “Unlike other arguments, it doesn’t deny the common-sense fact that ethnicity is one useful feature in profiling.”
      Ethnicity is a useful feature in ethnic profiling?
      Isn’t that kind of tautological?

      And “common-sense” is such a loose, and more importantly non-empiric, non-rational word. Whose common-sense exactly?

      I don’t see how taking a family with children into a separate room for hours is good profiling. That doesn’t really compute with my own personal common sense.

      “I’m still against it, though. I believe in relating to Arabs as adults.”
      Wouldn’t relating to ANYONE as an adult entail that you assume they have the common-sense and responsibility not to blow up their means of transportation?

      “That means assuming that they can understand the obvious fact that ethnic profiling is rationally based and is not intended as a racist insult”

      Once again, obvious to whom? To Aaron the Jew, or Mahmud the profiled?
      “Common-sense” is very much the opposite of “rationally based”.
      And whether of not something is INTENDED as an insult has little to do with how humiliating it is. Intent is simply not a factor (people can rationalize anything to themselves) – results are. And the result is systematic humiliation of people of all ages based on their ethnicity. ie. based on something they have absolutely no control over.

      Reply to Comment
    19. Canadian

      I agree with most of your points except one, you said: “Nobody seriously claims that the security check should be canceled – only that all passengers should go through the same procedure, uncomfortable as it may be.”

      What you are saying here is that if one specific group is victim of gratuitously abusive bureaucratic procedures than everyone else should be made equally victim.
      There is no need for the majority of these procedures, less than 20 years ago, you could travel anywhere across North America without any hassle or wait; you get to the airport 15 minutes before takeoff, and just go, without sacrificing hours of your life waiting and being harassed.
      Think about this: If some crazy lunatic wants to commit suicide, and is determined, nothing will stop him; you can have all the procedures in the world, what if the lunatic blows himself up in the lineup? or in the city bus? or at the supermarket? or at the zoo, etc…
      You cannot ruin everyones life just to try and stop potential isolated incidents made by lunatics that couldn’t be stopped anyways.

      So instead of making everyone a victim, why don’t we just bring back HUMANITY instead. Thanks.

      Reply to Comment
    20. Piotr Berman

      “No matter how embarrassing or unpleasant the procedure is, it’s not intended to humiliate, any more than those obnoxious TSA procedures are.”

      I beg to disagree. One can check what are the “obnoxious TSA procedures”. They may be idiotic at times, but as a rule, they are (a) impartial (b) fast (c) TSA actually responds with some humility and tries to correct most idiotic behavior.

      TSA handles at least 50 times more passengers than Israeli security, and they have to do it within some payroll limit and legal limits. Nobody gives a damn if travelers are nice or naughty, only if they have weapons or explosives. Idiocies come from some controversial determinations about potential weapons and explosives. And there exists infamous “no fly list”.

      Slightly amusing is variable status of smoking aids. Smokers travels with some amount of either sulphur (matches) or inflammable liquids (lighters) and usually one of the two, but rarely both, are verboten. Once I thought that lighters are not allowed so I got a 10-pack of matchboxes and to get to the plane to USA I got through two control screens and matchboxes were duly confiscated at each. I was down to three.

      Folks with metal parts in their bodies suffer anti-metal prejudice etc. Liquid rules are probably cretinous, but objective. Very importantly, those indignities in the name of security are heaped upon citizens who do not have cult of inerrant benevolent state, like Israelis do, so there is some healthy feedback.

      Even though 1% of any population is deranged, and one in million in any population is dangerous, billions are screened in North America and Europe pretty fast and effectively.

      The extra time and humiliations meted by Israeli security are product of paranoid bureaucracy and paranoid citizenry that “feels safer” as the result. Especially if indignities are heaped on “bad people”.

      Reply to Comment
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