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.