Opinion |

We’re Just Lucky There Wasn’t an Arab With Us

Ilana Hammerman
Ilana Hammerman
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Palestinians at the Qaladiyah West Bank checkpoint.
Palestinians at the Qaladiyah West Bank checkpoint on their way into Israel.Credit: Emil Salman
Ilana Hammerman
Ilana Hammerman

“Are you traveling alone?” — “Yes.” “Where are you coming from?” — “A hotel.” “Did you pack your backpack yourself?” — “Yes.” “Was it with you the whole time?” — “Yes.” “Did anyone give you anything to take, to give as a gift?” — “No.” “You know why we’re asking, because … “ — “Yes, I know.”

Now the security officer looks at my passport. A graceful young woman, with straight black hair spilling to her shoulders and large, dark eyes. Had they not been somewhat dulled by the ennui and lethargy of the routine of this summer morning’s work in the Berlin airport they would probably shine with the spark of young life. It’s not a string of beads that dangles from her neck onto her long-sleeved white shirt, but rather a blue and red lanyard with a name tag on the bottom.

“What’s the origin of your name?” she asks. “My name is Ilana Hammerman Nieraad. What do you mean what’s the origin of the name?” —“What’s the origin of your surname?” she asks again. “What do you mean?” I reply with a question: “What exactly do you want to know?”

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“If I were asked about the origin of my name, for example, I would say that my parents came from Libya, and that’s the origin of my name,” she explains to me politely. “Ah, I understand,” I tell her. “So you want me to tell you that my parents are from Poland? Is it important to you to know my ethnic origins? And what about the melting pot, my child?” — “I really am still a child,” she confirms willingly. “But I took a course lasting an entire month before starting this job. Do you want me to tell you what I learned? That’s impossible, but it was security matters.” She regrets that she can’t let me board the plane, she says at this point. She has to show the passport to her superior.

Her superior is older. “What’s the origin of your name?” she asks me with a stern expression. This isn’t a child, I say to myself, and I decide: In that case, I’ll be stern with her too: “I refuse to answer illogical questions,” I say. “So you’re not boarding the plane!” she informs me. “And what’s your name?” I ask her, “because I want to complain.” — “Please, complain, I’m Anastasia.” — “But what’s your surname?” — “Anastasia from Boris’ team, I’m not allowed to tell you any more,” she says, turning aside and whispering something into her two-way radio. “I’ve called Boris, he’ll come and check you out,” she threatens, turning her back and refusing to talk to me.

'Hammerman means hammer man'

Now I’m getting a little nervous. All the passengers have already gone through passport control. The German border police station is about to close. A flight attendant comes out and informs us that the doors of the plane are also about to close. The borders of a foreign country threaten to imprison me inside them. I gave in and said to Anastasia’s back: “Hammerman means “hammer man.” — “And what’s the meaning of Nieraad?” she asked. “I really don’t know,” I said, offering a possible translation, which she didn’t accept. “If you don’t answer me, you’re not boarding the plane. Boris will decide.”

But Boris was delayed. The young security officer gave me surprised looks, and the older one didn’t look at me at all. From the windows of passport control the angry eyes of people who wanted to finish their work stared out at me. I felt that they really didn’t like me here. It was unpleasant. I got scared: Maybe I really would miss my flight home.

And then Boris arrived. A handsome, smiling middle-aged man. He took my passport from Anastasia, invited me pleasantly to speak to him privately in the corridor, and immediately told me that it would be OK. “You have to understand that they’re under pressure,” he apologized. “Don’t be angry with them, responsibility for security is a heavy burden for them.”

“What’s does security have to do with my surname, that I’m always detained because of it at the Israeli inspection points in the airports?” I asked. — “Such a long surname arouses doubts,” he explained to me. “You have to understand, we’re safeguarding your personal security here, and you’re not allowed to know everything. And now, have a good flight.”

Fortunate there isn't an Arab here

“All right,” I dared to say to him in farewell, now that the passport was already in my hands. “So what I do know now is that we’re four Israelis here: a Polish woman, a Libyan girl, a Russian man and woman. How fortunate that there isn’t an Arab here with us too.”

Really, it’s fortunate. Because all my Israeli Arab acquaintances receive entirely different treatment both here and in Israel. They are placed in a special security room, interrogated at length and are often required to strip as well. And none of them does what I do: I call for civil disobedience, I call for violating the boycott law, I smuggle Palestinian women and children from the West Bank to the beach, I visit Palestinian friends in communities where it says “No Israelis allowed.”

In short, I’m a citizen who has chosen to be free in her country: free to see and comment and make friends and be politically active, and in order to do so I violate many illegal laws. But I’m not detained for that at the border crossings. I’m detained only because of the name left to me by my late husband. True, for now I’m fortunate: For Jews in Israel there’s still democracy, although it is steadily shrinking nowadays.

An elderly Jewish Israeli criminal like me

It’s true that recently I was detained briefly at a checkpoint, the tunnel checkpoint, which also impersonates a border crossing. I was returning from a visit to one of the Palestinian villages. I was surprised: Such a thing had never happened to me, a elderly Jewish Israeli criminal like me. And in truth, I still don’t know why the soldier signaled me to stop and why she allowed me to continue.

“How are you, Ilana?” she asked me. “Walla!” I replied in astonishment, “how do you know my name is Ilana?”— “We know everything about you here,” she replied, almost fondly. “And now, drive carefully.” Before continuing I still managed to see the regular sight at the checkpoint: At the side stood detained buses and private cars whose passengers and drivers were Israeli Arabs. Some were sent to the back, and most were allowed to pass after searches and interrogations that planted additional dangerous handfuls of seeds of humiliation and bitterness and fury.

So what, do they know everything or don’t they, members of the defense establishment in the airport in Berlin and at the checkpoints throughout the West Bank? What’s certain is that they unfortunately refuse to know the most important thing, like most Israelis today. They refuse to know that they are spending their days and nights in foolish and pointless investigations, because the violent and belligerent policy of the State of Israel is endangering everyone here, both Jews and Arabs.

But worse than them are those thousands of Jewish Israelis who are well aware of that — after all, never have these things been as clear as in recent years —and don’t pluck up the courage to rise up and carry out acts of rebellion. Despite the fact that doing so, at least for the moment, doesn’t require a major act of heroism.

The next time they question me politely at an airport, maybe I’ll tell them that the origin of the name Nieraad is Iranian. Will I or won’t I dare to throw another wrench into the gears of this racist machine?

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