The El Al security checkers abroad are apparently trained to treat anyone who doesn’t come under the category of Jewish (or Christian Zionist) tourist with extreme suspicion. This is the conclusion to be drawn from the treatment meted out to 32-year-old Rebecca and her partner Rafiq, 34, who flew from New York to Tel Aviv on December 23.
Rafiq (a pseudonym, at his request) is the grandson of a Jewish woman from Germany - a refugee who came to Palestine in the 1930s and married a Lebanese Muslim man (a leading figure in the Lebanese Communist Party). His mother, a native of Lebanon, met his father in East Germany when she was studying medicine there. At an early age, Rafiq moved with his parents to the United States.
He had visited Israel a number of times in the past, so was accustomed to the long questioning to which he is subjected because of his Arab name and his job: director of a peace education institute and workshop instructor on coexistence, tolerance and dialogue inspired by the Koran (though he does not define himself as an observer of any of the three religions in his family background).
In addition to the projects he runs in the United States, he frequently conducts education workshops in Muslim countries in Asia and Africa. This time, he was invited by Seeds of Peace for a series of workshops in the West Bank and Israel, including one for Education Ministry inspectors about dealing with violence in schools. The latter workshop, held in Petah Tikva, was financed by USAID, the United States Agency for International Development.
For Rebecca (also not her real name), this was her first visit to Israel. She teaches art at a junior high school in the Boston area. “What church do you attend?” the security checker at the airport in New York asked her.
“I went to a synagogue for my bat mitzvah,” she replied, astonishing her inquisitor. Her biological father is African-American; her biological mother is Jewish and gave her to a Jewish adoption agency. She has never met her biological parents, but her adoptive family is Jewish in every respect and on Passover Rebecca asked the Four Questions, like all the other children.
However, when answering the security checker’s many questions about Jewish holidays, Rebecca did not know that the matza grown-ups hide on Passover is called the afikoman. She says this - and not only her facial features - made him suspicious.
The two hadn’t intended to fly El Al. The Ukrainian airline from which they had purchased their tickets went bankrupt and they were transferred to the El Al flight. In the check-in line, they were separated for questioning: Rafiq for a brief questioning about, among other things, his life story; Rebecca was questioned for about 20 minutes, among other things about Jewish holidays.
When the investigation was complete they received their tickets and were told they could board the plane, but only with their mobile phones. They were required to put their laptops and tablets into their suitcases. When they protested, the security checkers told them: “This is the policy. Fly with a different company if you want.” At the exit gate they realized how uniform the policy was as they watched with jealousy the other passengers, busy with their computers and tablets.
Checking every hair
Even before boarding the plane they were given to understand that they had been marked as dangerous: Under guard, they were accompanied to the departure gate. Near the gate, they were escorted into a separate room for a second round of body searches, rummaging in their things and into the email accounts on their phones. In a side room, without any explanation Rafiq was told to remove his shoes, take off his pants and show the soles of his feet. They prodded him, scanned him with a magnetometer and passed an explosives sensor over the elastic of his underpants. He came out and two women took Rebecca into that same room.
After the rummaging in her hand luggage came the pawing of her body. Rebecca was told to remove her bra, which was passed through the scanner. She says the security checkers “poked their hands in a very intimate way, without saying anything. And then I was told to take off my jeans because something wasn’t right with the button.”
She said she was uncomfortable and relates that “the security checker continued to touch me in a very unpleasant way. I started to cry and said I didn’t want to fly. She said to me, ‘Calm down. I know this isn’t pleasant but there isn’t any alternative, otherwise you won’t be able to fly.’ She checked my hair - each hair. I told her I wanted Rafiq to come into the room. She said he was already on the plane. But that couldn’t be, because his boarding card was with me. And then she again told me to take off my pants, and started checking me in very intimate places.”
After all this, Rebecca was told to change her shoes, bra and pants as a condition for boarding the plane. They subsequently let Rafiq into the room and someone brought her a change of clothing from her suitcase. Even before she started getting dressed, a male security checker also entered the room. Rebecca says she shouted: “’I don’t want men in here!’ and I’m standing in my underpants and crying.” Finally, they relented on the issue of the bra.
When they landed at Ben-Gurion International Airport, and after passport control, Rebecca was questioned again, for about an hour and a half. They repeated most of the questions she had been asked in New York. She was also asked to supply names, telephone numbers and email addresses of friends in Israel. She replied that she did not remember them by heart.
“As a woman I have never been stripped like that,” she said two days after they landed, still upset. “As a woman, as an African-American, I am very aware of the layers of discrimination and snubbing, but I thought that at least here, as a Jew, I was safe.”
When they collected their suitcases, the two found that their clothes and belongings had been mixed up and there was no trace of Rafiq’s computer or his iPad. It was evident that Rebecca’s iPad had been opened and read. The jeans and shoes she had been made to change were lost. Upon their return to the United States on January 1, they did not get their belongings back.
During his time in Israel, Rafiq was supposed to have instructed workshop counselors in two African countries online. This turned out to be very difficult without his computer. For want of the computer, he also missed a deadline for submitting project funding applications. Three weeks after their harsh landing, their belongings have yet to be returned to them.
El Al spokesman Ran Rahav responded that the company “is sorry if the passengers were caused distress. Civil aviation security at the airports, in Israel and abroad, is carried out under the instructions of the official security authorities, and the airline can only act according to instructions. Every decision about the security check process, its extent and nature, is taken solely according to professional parameters and not, heaven forfend, with the aim of infringing on any passenger’s dignity.”
As for the lost belongings, he promised they would be compensated “in accordance with the procedures.”
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