Just a Few Routine Security Questions, Sir

Israel wouldn't mess up and let its airport security people welcome President Obama to the country, would it?

Nicolas Pelham
Nicolas Pelham
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Nicolas Pelham
Nicolas Pelham

Israeli officials are more than a little nervous ahead of Barack Obama's first visit as a sitting president. His previous encounters with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu turned into sparring matches. But salvation might be at hand from Israel’s ever-vigilant immigration authorities.

The president enters the terminal. A smiling young woman approaches, security tag hanging from her neck like a second necklace.

Sir, we need to ask you routine security questions.

PBO: Sure. It's good to be here. Shalom.

(She opens his passport.) What is your name?

PBO: Barack Obama.

Barack Obama. What kind of a name is that?

PBO: My parents shared an abiding faith that in a tolerant world your name is no barrier to success. Barack means blessed...

(Interrupting) I see. Do you have any middle names?

PBO: Um...

The security officer waits.

PBO: That’s my name.

And what are the names of your grandparents?

PBO: Hussein and Habiba Obama.

What community did they belong to?

PBO: They were Kenyan Muslims...

Step aside please. (PBO is directed to an isolated corner of the arrivals hall. After some time, another security agent appears.) I need to ask you a few questions. You understand that this is for your own security. What are the names of your grandparents?

PBO: As I've said, Hussein and Habiba.

Do you feel more African or more American?

PBO: Thank you for your interest, but, well, this is a question I think we should all consider carefully before asking. I have a ... a ... a vision in which everybody's treated with respect and dignity irrespective of race, faith, gender or sexual orientation.

I need you to answer the question.

PBO: In my country an immigration officer couldn't ask an American Jew if he felt more Jewish or American. Could I ask your name?

I'm the one asking the questions. Do you belong to a community?

PBO: As I've said, I'm Christian. But there's a rule at the heart of every religion: Do unto others as we would have them do unto us. It's a belief that pulsed in the cradle of civilization.

Did anyone give you anything to take to Israel? You need to understand that it happens people are given something that looks innocent but is a bomb.

PBO (relieved to be back on solid ground): Well, of course, I fully understand the security considerations.

Did your father raise you as a Muslim?

PBO: My father passed on his name, not his religion. And besides, he left when I was young. Maybe 3.

You weren't raised by your father? Where were you brought up?

PBO: Indonesia. I first went there when my mother married an Indonesian named Lolo Soetoro, and the people of Indonesia made me feel at home. My Indonesian friends and I used to run in fields with water buffalo and goats, running along the paddy fields and catching dragonflies. And because Indonesia is made up of thousands of islands, hundreds of languages and people from scores of ethnic groups, my time here helped me appreciate the common humanity of all people...

(Interrupting.) And did your stepfather belong to a community?

Hey, I'm not sure these questions are really necessary.

These questions are part of the entry requirements for the State of Israel.

PBO: I am fully committed to Israel’s security. My government gives it $3 billion every year.

Please wait here. (She confers with her supervisor, then returns). I have a few more questions. You understand that this is for your own security.

PBO: Yes...

Where will you be staying?

PBO: The King David Hotel.

Do you have a reservation?

PBO: Yes.

Can I see it?

PBO: My people have it.

Who made your reservation?

PBO: Well, these matters are normally handled by protocol.

Do you have a return ticket?

PBO: Look...

Answer the question.

PBO: After Israel we're going to the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan.

You have a second passport, don’t you?

PBO: What?

Don’t you have an African passport?

PBO: No.

Why not?

PBO: Because I was born in Hawaii. Is there something wrong with my passport?

I just need you to answer a few questions. Do you have any other form of ID? A business card? (A huffy silence follows.) Has any member of your family been convicted of a criminal offense?

PBO: No. Hold on a minute. Do you think we could speak to someone at the American Embassy?

When we're done. Are you sure? Any relatives, alive or deceased?

PBO: My grandfather was once in prison.

For what?

PBO: It’s not clear. He was tortured by the British, and scarred for life.

Sir, please follow me. (She leads PBO to a side room. Two security officers are there. The new woman picks up the questioning.) Did you pack your bags yourself? Have they been out of your sight?

PBO: They were packed by my staff.

(The male security officer dons latex gloves and begins to examine PBO’s luggage.) Did anyone give you anything to give to someone?

PBO: No.

Have you or anyone close to you taken part in any solidarity activity for Palestine?

PBO: What are you trying to say?

I’m only asking a question.

PBO: Look, America’s bond with Israel is unbreakable. It is based on recognition that the aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied. On the other hand, it is also undeniable that the Palestinian people have suffered in pursuit of a homeland.

I understand. And what do you want to do about it? Will you be meeting with Palestinians?

PBO: Yeah, with leaders, including President Abu Mazen. But first of all, I’m not sure this is all strictly necessary. You know, we all have some discretion in terms of how we apply law.

If you want to enter Israel, you will need to cooperate with the security check. You've been here before. Why are you coming back? You could go to Mexico, to Canada. It's closer to Washington and cheaper.

PBO: Could you get me the American Embassy, please.

You need to complete the procedures first. (The woman types www.gmail.com on her computer and turns the keyboard toward PBO.) Log in.

PBO: Is that even legal? Do you have a search warrant that entitles you to see such things? I am the president of the United States.

If you don't comply, you know what that would mean, right?

PBO: OK, I want a lawyer. And I want to call the American Embassy. Now.

I doubt it would help. Most of the people who work there are Israeli nationals employed because they speak Hebrew. I doubt they voted for you.

PBO: This incident suggests that law enforcement in this country is blocking people disproportionately based on race and religion.

Sir, I will need to ask you to stay calm. You may call whomever you want, after you have completed the procedures. As of now, you are denied entry. You will have the right to remain in a facility pending your departure from Israel. In the meantime, if you could please sit in front of the camera ... Thank you. And now if you could place your right thumb on this ink pad, and now the left one. Thank you.

Air Force One leaves. Prime Minister Netanyahu breathes a sigh of relief. He returns to his desk, and surveys his maps depicting contours for fresh settlement expansion.

Please hand over the suitcase. Now open it. Thank you. Now that bag. Thank you.Credit: AP
Just routine security, sir. Now drop 'em.Credit: Bloomberg

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