Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Security, Then, Now, Here, There

This one is dedicated to my mother - who reminded me...

When I was 16 years old, two major things happened in my life. My grandfather passed away suddenly, without warning. One day he was there giving me a birthday present and talking about what I learned in Hebrew school; the next he was gone. He'd promised to take me to Israel; it was something we talked about and I assumed in those early days of grief, that my dream and that promise, had died with him.

My mother must have known - certainly understood the depths of what I was feeling, and arranged for me to spend the summer in Israel. It was, for all practical purposes, my first time in Israel. My parents took me to the airport - my mother helped me pack, my father bought me a camera. And as  I was about to approach the check-in counter, I encountered my first experience with Israeli security.

The young man...how shocking now to think that two of my sons are older than that young man was then - questioned me. I was completely, entirely, totally intimidated.

Did anyone hand you anything? No, I said, after carefully thinking through what I had in my suitcase.

Did you pack your bag yourself? Well, my mother helped, I answered slowly again.

Were your bags with you the whole time? I had to think - where had I been with them, what had I done. I was so nervous...Think...think...no, they were with me, I answered.

My mother called me as I was waiting to check in a few days ago at Ben Gurion on my way through Rome to London to Manchester on a business trip. She said she always remembers that first security guard and how cute he was and his blue eyes and Israeli accent. He had blue eyes? I didn't remember that. All I remember was being terrified that perhaps I wouldn't answer correctly and they wouldn't let me on the plane.

This time, so many years later, I waited in line before the large machines. The women in front of me were Russians, a mother and daughter. One was traveling back to Russia; the other was going to Germany. The security officer asked them questions that took a few minutes.

When my turn came, she took my Israeli passport; asked me where I was going and when I'd be back - and passed me through. Everyone else had loaded their luggage into the machine to have them x-rayed. I can't lift my bags - my doctor and my husband warned me. Ask for help, they told me. DO NOT LIFT YOUR SUITCASE!

I looked around and another security officer came over and said - go over there. Over there, was through the doors without having my bags checked. Over there?

Yes, said the man in Hebrew - you're done.

Really? I asked.

Yup - pays to be an Israeli in Israel, I thought. Pays not to be suspicious and yes, ethnic profiling works. No one seriously thinks I would be blowing up a plane and so I don't have to be searched - good for me and good for all the people behind me.

Ethnic profiling is alive and well - and logical - in Israel. It lets security concentrate on the real dangers instead of wasting time on those who pose no threat. I accept it in my life and yes, I'm grateful for it.

And then I got to Rome and as we came off the plane - wanted just to make my connection to London, I had to pass through security. The check was similar to the one in Israel (except in Rome they didn't ask me to open my laptop computer).  The Israelis on the line coming off the plane were stoic but I have to admit I was confused. Could you tell me what exactly I was supposed to have picked up that could pose a security threat from the time I passed Israeli security, boarded the plane, got off the plane and walked here? It makes no sense...but never mind.

And then I got to England - go on, tell me they don't do ethnic profiling here in England. It's a lie. They do. I arrived and walked along the path following "All other passports." I am neither UK or EU - and so I took myself into the line with hundreds of Indian passengers, Korean passengers and a mixture of Muslim passengers from unknown countries (identified only by their dress).

I watched as each passenger was processed by passport control. I listened as the line wrapped around. I was about 20 people out, slowly moving forward. The woman in front of my was Indian - by dress, skin coloring and passport. How long are you staying here? Do you have any family here? When are you leaving? (She's just getting here.) He continued to question her and finally called over a supervisor.

By now, my turn had come. I have my Israeli passport and my American passport with me. I decided that I didn't care which passport I use and so I pulled out one when I completed the paperwork. It was the American one. I seemed to be the only American in line.

I handed over my passport - and yes, the man spoke to me in a more polite, less condescending way than his previous "client." Why are you here? I'm attending a conference. How long are you staying? Eight days. Stamp, stamp - clear.

Total time for processing - about 25 seconds.

That is ethnic profiling and according to this person's criteria, I passed. I found myself a bit offended on behalf of the other dozen or more people in line. I can understand why people are against ethnic profiling. I was identified as someone who was going to visit the UK, spend tourist dollars, and leave. I was okay - by my skin color, by my way of dressing, and by my passport.

What hypocrisy that Israel is ridiculed and condemned for practicing ethnic profiling to stop bombs from exploding on our buses while others regularly practice ethnic profiling for economic reasons. That man checking this small Indian woman knows she'll never blow anything up. His greatest fear, and the fear of those who trained him, is that she may take someone's job or become financially dependent on Britain to take care of her.

For money, they are allowed, but for our lives, we are not. That, my friends, is wrong.

4 comments:

Leora Hyman said...

Thanks Paula, this post is great. I too have been waved right through at Ben Gurion. On the other hand, leaving Boston, my younger brother and I were singled out for an extra security check. It's the only time I had bought my ticket in Israel as opposed to on line. My older brother told me when he travels on business, he often uses his Israeli passport as opposed to the American one. The people who who process the passports say the Israeli one is more efficient to work with!
Have a safe trip home. I believe Israel misses us when we leave, as much as we miss her...

Batya said...

Paula, I also just traveled. Last winter I suffered pat-downs, but this time I was asked to submit. Also it was so nice to be on El al and not hidden away in american airports, like on Delta, US Air etc.

jan said...

Funny, I too have been "excused" from all the security in Israel, and ushered right through. When they have asked why I was there, I honestly answered because I LOVE ISRAEL. Plain and simple, and apparently written all over my face, as it is always such a letdown to return to the USA....

Cindy said...

Wow. Great post. Sad, but great.

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