Opinion

'Code 43': This Is How I Was Racially Profiled at Israel's Ben-Gurion Airport

I stare at the X-ray machine and at a partition. I don’t want to choose between radiation and being felt up. But I arouse suspicion because I am Arab

Photograph of author Sanaa Ibn Bari.

I’m standing in a crowded line at Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion International Airport en route to a conference in Boston on the 50th anniversary of the Six-Day War. I am scheduled to speak about institutional discrimination against Palestinian citizens of Israel and the occupation. I wait to reach the counter and to be handed a sticker with a number beginning with the digits “43,” signifying that I arouse suspicion due to my Arab ethnic origin.

The attendant explains that I will have to claim my checked luggage in New York prior to my connecting flight, so I decide to carry my suitcase on board with me to save myself the trouble, so I thought, of rechecking it.

I take a deep breath and step up to the security counter. I tell myself, based on past experience, that this time it wouldn’t be so terrible. After all, I had just flown a month before and the experience was tolerable.

This time there is a man in his 40s standing right behind me in line. “Poor guy, I’ve screwed things up for you,” I think to myself. “You’re getting stuck behind an Arab woman. Now you will have to wait too. Maybe Jews also have to pay the price for maintaining such discrimination.”

A few minutes later, we are both asked to step to the side to have our hand luggage checked. He is first and I sense that he is uncomfortable, shifting from one foot to the other, with an embarrassed smile as yet another item in his bag is inspected. I sit down, thinking that perhaps if I sit far enough away, I can tune it out and this nightmare will be over.

The security agent announces that the hand luggage is ready. With my gaze, I indicate that it’s not over yet. There’s still the suitcase. At this guy’s pace, it looks like there is a still a long wait ahead. At this point, two more Arab men, along with a couple who appear to be of Russian origin, join the line at the security counter.

I ask if the suitcase is ready. No, not yet, I am told. The supervisor arrives. “Sanaa Ibn Bari?” Yes, I say. That’s me. “Come with me, please. We have another inspection to carry out.” At this point, it is already after 9 P.M. The security check is taking a long time and I am already tired, mostly from playing the role of suspicious Arab woman.

“This is beyond just a routine inspection,” I say. “Why?” “There’s one Arab man and another Arab man and an Arab woman.” I look at the guy who I had just “turned in.” He closes his eyes despairingly, as if saying: “What can we do? That’s how it is.”

Passengers line up at Ben-Gurion airport.
David Bachar

The supervisor insists that not all of us are Arab. I still have a flight to catch and a lot of battles to fight, so I accompany her to the VIP counter, my bag in hand. For a change, now not all of us are Arabs. This time I get an agent in her 20s. Maybe she’ll get me through quickly?

I sit down again seeking to tune out everything until the security check is over. Maybe I will still have time to grab something at the duty free shop. I deserve that. A Russian man is on my left. I don't understand what he is doing there until I hear the security agent yelling at him, trying to understand why his dad’s name is Salameh.

I hear the word “Arab” uttered twice into a walkie-talkie. The supervisor who had accompanied me lowers her gaze, as if she feels that she has been caught in the act. They have completely emptied the bag and sent all of its contents through a scanner. A bag of toiletries, clothing, underwear. Why do I even bother packing things neatly?

There’s a hierarchy among the supervisors that I haven’t been able to figure out. Who’s the boss? Maybe the blonde woman reciting my name into the phone? And I wonder whom she’s talking to. Maybe the Shin Bet or a senior security officer who, as I wait, is googling my name.

What use was there to the court petition filed by the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, where I work, challenging profiling at the airport? What good were the promises of improvements to the security check and the elimination of discrimination so that at least we don’t feel humiliated?

“Come with me. We need to do a body check,” another agent says. I try to understand what it will involve. I had already undergone a similar trauma before a return flight from abroad a number of years ago. To this day, I remember the sense of forcible intrusion, after which I cried for five hours on the plane.

The agent refuses to tell me what's going to happen to me and my fears return. At her request, I remove my shoes and stare at the X-ray machine and at a partition. Will it be one of them or both? It doesn’t matter. I don’t want either one — I don’t want to choose between radiation and being felt up.

Tears well up. In my mind, I have already decided. I want my things back. I have reached my limit. I can no longer tune it out.

The writer is a lawyer at the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.