I sat down on Monday night and tapped out a sixteen-part Tweet storm enumerating what happened to my dad at Ben Gurion Airport as he departed Israel the previous day. Before I knew it, I had caused a storm of my own.
For those who are not on Twitter or have not read the subsequent news article in Ha’aretz covering the story, the abridged version is that after going through the security interview at Ben Gurion, checking his bag, going through the regular security screening, and getting to the gate, my dad was paged and told to return from the gate for another security interview. His checked bag had been opened and searched, and security officers had found a Palestinian tourism pamphlet that he had picked up in Bethlehem while on a four day American Jewish leadership mission to hear Palestinian narratives firsthand in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. After repeated and aggressive questioning, demands to know who else was on the mission and why anyone would want to visit the West Bank, and asking multiple times what he intended to do with the information that he learned, he was finally released and made his plane as the last passenger to board before it took off for New York. After three days of people engaging me nearly non-stop with comments, critiques, and defenses of my Twitter thread, I have some thoughts about what this anecdote tells us and what it doesn’t.
For starters, it is not meant to illustrate that what happened to my dad is somehow worse or more concerning than the far worse and more concerning treatment to which other people are subjected at Ben Gurion. The flood of condescension directed my way this week, as if I don’t realize that questioning a prominent and well-off American Jew barely registers as compared to strip-searching people with Muslim sounding names on their way out of the country (as has happened to Muslim friends and acquaintances of mine), or as if I am a novice when it comes to Israeli-Palestinian issues, has been amusing. I have not and would not suggest an equivalence in treatment here, but dismissing this incident as wholly irrelevant in the face of far more egregious incidents smacks of whataboutism.
The anecdote is also not meant to illustrate that my dad is deserving of special VIP treatment because he has devoted substantial volunteerism and philanthropy to American Jewish causes and Israeli educational and medical institutions. As I will elaborate, what is disturbing to me about this story is that anyone, with or without my dad’s credentials, would be treated this way given the facts at hand.
Lastly, the anecdote is not meant to dismiss Israel’s very real aviation security concerns. There is a long history of terrorism directed at Israelis, Israeli air carriers, and aircraft originating in or flying to Israel. Those who have spent the past three days telling me that Israel security concerns at Ben Gurion are a thinly veiled cover for Israel’s real purpose of discriminating against non-Israelis – and particularly Muslims – with abandon are tragically ignorant. That real discrimination does indeed happen does not mean that security concerns are not real. The first does not negate the second.
So what do I take away from my dad’s story? First, that the expansion of what Israel deems to be a security threat has grown to absurd proportions. It has been years since I have breezed through Ben Gurion without being subject to more-than-usual questioning, both on the way in and on the way out, and it makes perfect sense to me why. I am a 30-something, often inadvertently surly looking male, usually traveling alone and with multiple Turkey stamps in my passport. Security screeners at Ben Gurion are looking for a certain profile, but also for things that don’t quite fit, and it is why I know ahead of time that I will get questions about what I was doing in Turkey and inevitable follow ups asking me specific questions about my doctoral dissertation (which is the primary reason I was spending time there); and questions designed to see whether the American Jewish day school background, Orthodox community, and family in Israel that I am claiming are legitimate or a rehearsed script. Who is the rabbi of my shul? Are my relatives religious or secular based on where I say they live? What subjects were taught at my elementary school? and so on.
Had my dad arrived at the airport, had his bag opened, and then been subjected to a series of repetitive, intrusive, rapid-fire questions as a result of the cognitive dissonance arising from an older observant Jew carrying a Palestinian informational brochure in his suitcase, that would be a textbook example of Ben Gurion security doing precisely what they are supposed to be doing. If the security officers in such a situation were not worried that someone who spent time in the West Bank may have had something placed in his bag unknowingly, or was pretending to be someone he was not, they would be falling down on the job.
But that’s not what happened. Two things are important to keep in mind here. First is the sequencing, which is that all of this happened as a result of security going through an already-checked bag of someone who was now at the gate. They undoubtedly went through the entire contents of the bag unimpeded and knew full well that there was nothing presenting a tangible security threat to an airplane in the bag. The explanation of something not fitting between the image my dad presented and the pamphlet he was carrying is not relevant here, because the people who searched the already-checked bag almost certainly had no way of putting a bag to a face and cross-checking its contents with his security interview conducted by someone else.
Second is the repeated questioning about what my dad was planning on doing with the information he learned in the West Bank after he left the country. In other words, the security threat here was a set of facts and impressions that cannot in any conceivable way impact aviation security. I don’t doubt that the officer who questioned my dad was sincere in her security concerns. In fact, I’d be shocked if the motive was otherwise. But that’s precisely what makes this a concerning vignette. The red flag was not set off by a bomb or a weapon; it was set off by the most rudimentary evidence of basic engagement with Palestinians, and the line of questioning was designed to police information gathered by someone leaving the country as inherently dangerous. However one characterizes this, it is hard to square it with a concern about Israel’s physical security. It makes perfect sense though in a country that increasingly views negative publicity as an existential threat, and does not want to acknowledge that there is more going on here than a problem of messaging. That fact gathering – irrespective of the conclusions one draws from those facts – is cause to be detained and questioned should give everyone who cares about Israel serious pause.
My other takeaway is that this is yet another example in a seemingly never-ending string of the massive problem that Israel is having with American Jews. Israeli Jewish values and American Jewish values increasingly diverge, and for many American Jews, the values of openness, empathy, and non-discrimination are ones that are harder and harder to find in Israel. This does not mean that Israel should conform to what American Jews want, or that American Jews should have a say in the affairs of the Israeli state; I have explicitly written – including as recently as earlier this week – that Israel has to be run by Israelis and according to Israeli dictates. But there are going to be real consequences for this gap between Americans and Israelis. If Israel wants to have American Jews feel like they have a continuing stake in the Zionist project – something that is undoubtedly good for Israel – then it needs to figure out a way to accommodate and respect the things that American Jews value, many of which transcend the denominational and generational divides. My dad’s story has spread far and wide this week, and it has elicited concerns from many quarters, including ones that are inclined to give Israel the benefit of the doubt in nearly every situation. The Israeli government desperately wants to believe that the crisis with American Jewry is about spoiled, non-observant, self-hating Jewish millennials who are assimilating out of Judaism as fast as they can, when the truth is that the storm clouds encompass a far larger and more diverse group. At some point Israel will wake up to the reality of what is going on. I hope that it does before the damage to the inter-Jewish relationship is beyond the point of no return.