Reza Aslan Tells Haaretz His Interrogation Was Political; Israel Denies, Says He 'Behaved Suspiciously'

Reza Aslan says he was asked about his views of Netanyahu by Israeli interrogator; Shin Bet denies the Iranian-born author was threatened

Iranian-American author and scholar Reza Aslan
Wikimedia commons

Reza Aslan, the Iranian-American author and former CNN host, told Haaretz Wednesday that his questioning at the Israeli-Jordanian border two weeks ago was different from any other security interrogation he had gone through previously in Israel.

In response to his claims, the Shin Bet security service told Haaretz that Aslan was "a foreign national who was born in Iran" and whose behavior at the border crossing "raised suspicions." The security organization, however, denied threatening him or even asking Aslan about his political positions.

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Aslan's interrogation at the Israeli border made headlines on Tuesday after he tweeted about his experience following news that Jewish American author Peter Beinart was also questioned on entering the country for a family visit.

In a conversation with Haaretz, Aslan said that while in the past, he had been questioned by Israeli security officials, he always felt that those interrogations were purely focused on security questions. This time, he said, the interrogation was totally different, centering almost exclusively on political issues.  

"Every time I've visited Israel before, I was pulled aside, asked some security questions, or asked to open my suitcase. Once I was even strip-searched. But I always understood why it happened. Whether it's fair or not, the fact that I was born in Iran, that I'm Muslim, that I usually travel alone – I get that Israel has some security concerns that this relates to. I fit a certain profile. I have never complained about this 'extra treatment' in the past. I even wrote that this is actually somewhat justified. 

"But the interrogation I experienced two weeks ago was something different. This was clearly focused on my politics. I've never had anything like it before in Israel.

It was all about my political views, my articles, my activism. The woman who interviewed me knew all about my op-eds and my history with CNN.” [Aslan worked for the news network and was fired because of a vulgar tweet about President Trump.]

“She asked me about my views of Trump and Netanyahu,” Aslan said. “The fact that I don't like Netanyahu seemed to be a threat in her eyes."

The Shin Bet denied the claim, telling Haaretz that Aslan was "interrogated at the border crossing with Israel by the Shin Bet after his behavior raised suspicions. After he was shortly questioned Aslan was released as suspicions were dispelled.

"Claims regarding any threats made against Aslan during the talk as well as claims regarding his being asked political questions of any kind were examined by the Shin Bet in wake of [Haaretz's] question and were found to be completely baseless."

Aslan arrived in Israel with his wife, children and in-laws, as part of a multi-country family trip. He told Haaretz that when they landed at Ben-Gurion Airport, they experienced no difficulties entering the country. After a few days in Israel, they went to Jordan for 48 hours to visit Petra. When they came back to the border crossing in Eilat, the entire family was allowed re-enter Israel, except for Aslan himself, who was ordered to step aside for security questioning.  

"The whole thing lasted close to four hours," he told Haaretz. "The interrogation itself was about an hour, and the rest was just waiting time. I've never experienced something like this in Israel before. Never had explicit threats and warnings about what I can do and where I should go. Never been asked to write down names of journalists that I know and Palestinians that I support. Usually I get asked questions like why did you come here, what's the purpose of your visit – legitimate questions. This was different." 

Aslan told Haaretz that "my initial instinct was not to make a big deal out of it. Not to tell anyone. I come to Israel fairly regularly for work – writing, filming, other things I do. I didn't want that to be taken away from me." What motivated him to make the incident public, he explained, was the article published on Monday by Peter Beinart about his own interrogation at Ben-Gurion Airport. "That's what pushed me to write about it on Twitter," he said. 

During his interrogation, Aslan told Haaretz, he was asked by the security official, "Why do you hate Israel?" He said his reply was: "I love Israel, that's why I come here so often, that's why I came here with my family." He also said the interrogation included references to his articles and social media posts. 

Aslan has been a vocal critic of Israel's policies over the years, on issues such as the settlements, the situation in Gaza and the Iran nuclear deal. In 2014, Aslan wrote on Twitter that he supports boycotts against companies and individuals "profiting from the occupation," but opposes "sanctions on Israel" in general. He also wrote: "I'm not BDS but I admit I enjoy the sheer terror it unleashes among America's Liberal Zionists."

All about politics

Aslan told Haaretz that "I've been asked questions like this before in countries like Egypt and Iran, not in Israel. It felt like I was in a police state. It was all about my politics. I was asked which organizations I donate to. It felt like my politics were seen as a security threat. What do I think, how do I view the United States and Israel, that was the focus. Not security. Politics." 

The interrogator, he said, kept accusing him of lying. "It was absurd. She kept telling me, ‘You're lying’." At some point, he said, the interrogator asked him why he had not visited Iran since 2005. He answered that he cannot visit Iran because of his past criticism of the Iranian regime, specifically over its violent reaction to the 2009 "Green Movement" protests. 

At the end of the interrogation, he said, the security official lectured him about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, describing it as "complicated" and telling him: "You're not as smart as you think you are." 

Aslan said that when he was reunited with his family, he could see that both his son – who has recently expressed interest in Judaism and attended Jewish holiday celebrations at a synagogue near their home – and his in-laws, whom he described as "white Evangelical Christians who support Israel," were troubled by the incident. "It was an eye-opener for them," he said.  

Despite the incident, Aslan told Haaretz he has "every intention" of returning to Israel in the future. "I love and respect many Israelis. I enjoy being in Israel, I love the history and the landscape. That's why I debated from the beginning whether or not to make this incident public." 

In response to the report, the Shin Bet said that their activities at the border "during the past year have prevented attempts at terror and spying activities by foreign nationals in Israel." The Shin Bet further stressed that all of its actions "are undertaken in accordance with the law and with the sole intention of protecting Israeli security."

When asked by Haaretz if documentation of Aslan's interrogation could be seen to verify their claims that he was not threatened or asked political questions, the organization said such a documentation does exist, but is classified material that cannot be published."