Does Israel's Security Service Deem Lesbian Tourists a Threat to National Security?

Two women undergo humiliating security check after refusing to respond to airport authority's inquiry into whether they were romantically involved.

On the afternoon of June 4, 2011, attorney Edna Heruti and her brother Dr. Rafi Heruti reached the departure terminal of Ben-Gurion airport. They were accompanying their cousin Carolyn Callaghan and Keira O'Sullivan, who were to return to London. Callaghan, 46, is a school principal; O'Sullivan is a teacher and a member of an Irish women's football team. The two had arrived four days earlier for a family visit and to tour Israel. It appears there is no limit to the humiliation inflicted on foreigners, and which is reported in the media from time to time.

In a letter sent to Israel Airports Authority director Kobi Mor and Yoram Cohen, the head of the Shin Bet security service, attorney Heruti describes what happened in the line to the security check: "The guests were asked to show their passports, and I, as someone accompanying them, showed my identification. After this, the guests were asked questions about the purpose of their visit to Israel, where they stayed (in my home) and so on." The familiar ritual was conducted as usual up to this point. The well-known questions were asked and answered.

Ben-Gurion International Airport.
Dan Keinan

But the next question from the security person on duty, Shani Goldfarb, was, "Are you two romantically involved?" Heruti, her brother and especially Callaghan and O'Sullivan, a devout Catholic, were taken aback. "I told [Goldfarb] that I did not consider the question justified by security interests," Heruti told Haaretz, "and that to my mind it was a rude question that violated the right to privacy," and so she wrote in her letter.

Instead of an apology, the Herutis and their humiliated guests were treated to a demonstration of belligerence by security personnel, many of whom behave as though they are the lords of the airport whose role is to show contempt for and humiliate their subjects.

"The security worker did not bother to answer but walked away somewhere, with the passports and identity cards in her hand, returning only after some time had passed, along with her supervisor. The latter asked me to accompany her to the side for a few questions. I told her immediately that I believed that the question my guests were asked was rude, and that these kinds of questions do damage to the country, adding that I felt they should apologize to my guests.

"She did not see fit to respond to what I said, she did not ask any more questions, but signaled to Ms. Goldfarb to put the suitcases through the x-ray machine. After they came through, the two security workers ordered my guests to bring their suitcases for a manual check. I approached with them, and saw that the older employee asked for a particularly thorough security check, which took a long time, longer than the others being conducted. The opening of the suitcases and the search in them was done in public, in full view of the people waiting in the line for their security check, causing yet another invasion of privacy," Heruti said in her letter.

Heruti admitted that "when I read about complaints of humiliation undergone by tourists at the airport, I didn't believe it, or considered the checks justified. Now I see that I was wrong."

When such words come out of Heruti's mouth, they should set off red lights at the Shin Bet and the Airports Authority. Although her political beliefs are irrelevant, her remarks are especially intriguing coming as they do from the daughter of attorney Jacob Heruti, a member of Lehi, a right-wing pre-state militia group also known as the Stern Gang, and a believer in Greater Eretz Israel. She herself has served as a legal adviser to the right-wing Moledet movement, headed by the late Rehavam (Gandhi) Ze'evi.

The Airports Authority and the Shin Bet replied to her letters a few weeks apart.

Attorney Tamar Turjeman of the Airports Authority emphasizes in her letter: "The question is unacceptable to us, and in particular security workers are expected to know not to ask such questions." She adds that it has been made clear to the rest of the workforce that such a question is not to be asked "even if they believe it will be useful to the security check." The letter also says that "the matter was treated as a disciplinary one and not a professional issue." Nonetheless, "we did not conclude that the employee was negligent and that harsher steps against her should be taken."

The response by the Shin Bet is particularly disturbing. It places the blame for the incident on Edna Heruti who, it says, "chose not to cooperate in the matter of making the relationship between the travelers clear." The letter appears to find a question about the romantic connection between two women relevant to the security of the State of Israel, and says it was intended to "clarify the relations between [female] travelers who present themselves for a flight."

In any event, both organizations ignored attorney Heruti's request to know "how you intend to apologize to my guests and to compensate for the distress caused them. I will allow myself to suggest that aside from a letter of apology it would be proper that the Airports Authority invite the two women for an additional visit to Israel at its expense."

The rebellion that wasn't

A while back, the union leadership at the Israel Institute for Biological Research in Nes Tziona gathered up its courage and decided to rebel against director Dr. Avigdor Shafferman, who has been in complete control of the institute for 15 years. In protest against the way he ignores its demands, the 300-member union called on employees not to attend the traditional toast at Rosh Hashanah.

Shafferman - whose name has been linked to the grave incident of experiments conducted on soldiers without their permission, in order to develop a vaccine against anthrax - saw the union's call as a challenge to his leadership. With the help of his second in command, Col. (res.) Natan Rosenbaum, the personnel director, he applied pressure on union leaders, in particular those who usually carried out his demands, and circulated broad hints to the employees.

As in the past, union leaders and employees felt threatened and showed up for the ceremony. Shafferman, arrogant due to yet another surrender by the union leadership, announced that all rumors about him were incorrect; in this way he hinted that he has no intention of retiring soon or taking a sabbatical, and that the institute will continue its momentum, including hastening the construction of new buildings for tens of millions of shekels.