‘Bra-gate’: eyewitness account of humiliation at a media event

Last week Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu – via Israel’s Government Press Office (GPO) – hosted a reception for international correspondents at Jerusalem’s David’s Citadel Hotel.  I attended the event. The media were treated to an assortment of wine and hors d’oeuvres, a musical interlude performed by new immigrants, and then an address by the prime minister. In other words, it was a standard press event. But it ended up becoming an international scandal, dubbed ‘Bragate’ by the Israeli and international press, when several journalists walked out rather than submit to a security check that involved removing all their clothes.

One of of the journalists who walked out of the press event was Najwan Simri, a colleague of mine who works for Al Jazeera’s Arabic-language channel.  As I queued to go through security at the hotel, Najwan, who was pregnant, stood directly behind me.  I chatted with her, with her colleague Sherine, and with Al Jazeera Arabic’s renowned veteran bureau chief, Walid al-Omari.  I passed through the security checks rather quickly, and assumed my colleagues would follow.  But I never saw the women inside.

I only found out why much later in the evening.  They were asked to undress, at one point even in the presence of a male security officer.  Najwan was asked to remove her bra as part of the Shin Bet’s security screening process.  She refused, choosing to leave the event rather than submit to that humiliation.

All of these journalists had been invited by the government to attend the event.  They all hold Israeli government-issued press cards, which were issued only after extensive background screening.  They are subjected to frequent background checks, and the security services monitor their activities constantly.  Sadly, they have become accustomed to all this.  Was it really then necessary to treat them in such a manner?  To compel them to undress completely in order to gain admission to an event for which they had received personal invitations?

The following day I discussed the episode with some Israeli friends.  They were mostly young, secular and self-described liberals.  Yet none of them took issue with the security procedures to which the female Arab reporters had been subjected.  The common response went something like: “Listen, it’s Israel. They are Al Jazeera.  What do you expect?”

What I expect is decent treatment for my colleagues.  What I expect are security measures that balance safety for the high-level officials attending the event with sensible security procedures that honor the rights of guests also attending.  What I expect is an appreciation of human dignity, held in the same regard as an appreciation for security.

For some reason, it is nearly impossible for Israelis to accept that maybe – just maybe – the continued indignation felt by a people could cause them to justifiably resent you.  Most cannot grasp that a teenager who has never had a solid night’s sleep because of drones flying over his house could then turn into a violent adult.  Most fail to understand the larger consequences of repeatedly subjecting individuals to demoralizing security procedures.

Inside the hotel ballroom, Netanyahu was lecturing (yes, lecturing!) the foreign press, asking why they are not covering Israel’s more positive image?  He cited the strong economy, booming tourism, vastly advanced R&D facilities, and the standard bearers of Israeli self-defined success.  All the while, an invasive strip search was taking place on the other side of the door.  Did he really expect Simri to leave the event only to go home and blog about Tel Aviv’s beaches?

Then, when the irony could not top itself, somehow it did.  A journalist from BBC’s Arabic-language service asked the prime minister a pre-screened question about East Jerusalem.  Netanyahu’s response started off calmly, but grew in emotion.  It went something like: “Imagine that a British Jew would be forbidden by the UK government to purchase property in East London and do with it as he wishes?  There would be outrage.  In London.  Or in any other world capital.  Let’s take your country,” he says to the BBC journalist.  “Where are you from?”  The journalist, speaking in Arabic-accented English, responded: “I am from Israel, Mr. Prime Minister.”

Netanyahu stumbled over a few words before recovering.  But suddenly, a reality check for the PM – a reminder that there are Arabs living in Israel, Arab citizens of the State of Israel.  This is their state just as much as it is any other menorah-stamped passport holder.  And they are entitled to the same rights and dignity.

I split most of my life between Israel and the United States. I have witnessed post-9/11 Americans succumbing to some of the same loss of rights – less their own rights, and more those of others – without making much fuss.   And how easily they forget what rights they are entitled to.  They open their bags while getting on the subway simply because a police officer “randomly” asks them to.

Just as I have argued in the United States, I will argue in Israel: The security services do not have some supreme authority to play beyond the rules.  It is not in the interest of anyone to allow them to operate without any oversight or checks on their power.  An advanced society that praises civil rights for its citizens (and residents) should not sit by idly while those very liberties are trampled upon.  And for the record, that Al Jazeera Arabic producer asked to bare it all is an upstanding citizen of Israel.  The loss of her rights is the loss of your rights.