A couple of months ago, I toured the IDF Ground Forces Command's substances laboratory, a nondescript cluster of prefabricated huts at the Tel Hashomer army base near Tel Aviv, which serves as Israel's brain-trust for every type of explosive used by armies and terrorists in the Middle East.
The lab's commander, Lt. Col. Eran Tuval, a goateed officer-scientist with a mercurial temperment, ran around the courtyard, which was littered with leftover Qassam rockets and ominously labeled packages, setting off combustions with a cigarette lighter.
One fact he tried to impress upon me was the ease with which basic household items can be adapted into deadly devices. For example two bottles of liquid, one of them containing the hair dye hydrogen peroxide, can blow up a commercial airliner.
So why, I asked, are we still allowed to board airplanes at Ben-Gurion International Airport with bottles and tubes of liquid brought from home, while in Heathrow or JFK they confiscate our face cream and toothpaste?
"Oh, that's simple," he answered matter of factly. "We use racial profiling, they don't."
Only after the visit, rereading my notes, I noticed a curious detail in his answer. While the entire interview had been conducted in Hebrew, he had said those two words, "racial profiling," in English.
To Israelis, the practice of picking people out based on racial stereotypes is so self-evident, there isn't even a Hebrew term for it.In the ongoing international debate over airport security, which has followed the failed attempt by Nigerian student Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab to blow up a plane carrying himself and 289 others near Detroit, much attention has been paid to the methods used to screen passengers at airports.
And though some security experts and commentators, mainly conservative, have advocated adopting racial profiling, the general consensus in the West is that it is unthinkable to subject passengers with certain shades of pigmentation and names germane to a specific part of the world to more rigorous searches.
Some airlines have employed security companies, often run by Israelis, that use similar methods, but on a national level, few Western democracies are prepared to face the storm of criticism they can expect from liberal opinion-makers.
As a substitute, American and other security agencies have decided to pay special attention to citizens of various 'suspect' countries, but they are only a small part of the potential suspects. What about Muslim citizens of other countries who may have been radicalized, like the Fort Hood psychiatrist Nidal Malik Hasan? Neither the American administration nor its counterparts in other Western countries are willing to contemplate a system in which these citizens will be screened differently from their Christian, Jewish or atheist compatriots. In Israel though, there is no question whatsoever. It all happens quite openly. If you have a Hebrew name and 'look Jewish,' the security screening will be swift and painless. If your name is a bit less obviously Israeli, then there are some other key questions.
In my case, they ask how old I was when my family immigrated to Israel and where I served in the Israel Defense Forces, and after that it's easy sailing.
A friend with a similarly foreign name told me that with her, they just hear the Hebrew names of her children and she's okay.
In the case of Jewish tourists, it's usually enough to supply some reliable details on your aunt living in Haifa. We all know why these questions are being asked and we all bear it with good humor.Let's admit it, there is a general acceptance of the fact that non-Jewish, especially Muslim, passengers will get a working-over and have to arrive at the airport three hours earlier than the rest of us.
Of course, they could subject everyone to these inspections, but that would mean we couldn't progress quickly and smoothly from check-in to duty-free, and of course since it would mean hiring hundreds more security agents, ticket prices would go up.
Many Israelis have no problems with this: Let the Muslims suffer for the sins of their brothers. But those of us who like to think of ourselves as liberal humanists find it too easy to ignore the sight of entire families having their luggage rummaged through in front of the entire terminal while we are waved through.
Nor do we ever seem to notice the small enclosure to the right of passport control when we return home, where the less fortunate have to wait for hours while they are being checked out. We are in too much of a rush to get through and grab our luggage off the conveyor belts.While governments and citizens of other democracies are dealing with the question of whether they are prepared to live with the chance that their principles and freedoms could lead to a bomber actually managing to activate their hidden device, in Israel that decision has been made for us long ago.
In airports around the world, passengers may have to accept the fact that boarding a plane will become much more bothersome, as they all have to go through the same lengthy treatment, rather than singling out the potential terrorists according to their religion and ethnicity.
Here we don't have that option, the powers that be have mandated that security and the comfort of the majority must triumph. Every month or so, the Israeli media publishes the case of an Arab-Israeli who missed a flight because of the security checks, and of course all of us have privately heard horror stories of visitors who were put through hell.But the basic premise remains unquestioned and the authorities never apologize. These are simply the procedures ensuring everyone's security, they respond.
Perhaps they are right. Racial profiling seems to work. Since the 1972 Lod Airport massacre, in which 26 people were murdered, there have been no successful attacks on Israeli air-traffic and almost all the attempts that did take place were carried out on foreign soil. (In the Entebbe hijacking, the terrorists boarded the plane with their weapons during a stopover in Athens.)
Does that mean that while the rest of the civilized world, to which we aspire to belong, are agonizing over these questions, we are exempt from any form of public debate?