The Airport Debacle
Updated: Mar 9, 2021
Sitting in the middle of the desert in Jordan, I am finally able to reflect on what I’ve experienced these past ten days in Israel/Palestine. Although this was my fifth trip to Israel, I feel as if I visited an entirely new country. For the first time, I was not in Israel on a pro-Israel advocacy trip, to visit family and friends, or as a tourist. I was there to see Israel from every angle – imperfections and all. Being exposed to Israel from so many different viewpoints was eye-opening, confusing, and occasionally stress-inducing. The narratives I grew up believing in were confounded and some of the people I once regarded as heroes were presented in a very different light. Despite all of this, though (or perhaps by virtue of it all), I left Israel and Palestine inspired to return one day and work towards a negotiated solution for both peoples.
Throughout the Israel/Palestine portion of the trip, the theme of “two Israels” was perpetually present for me. With every speaker, conversation, and presentation, I began to learn more about the Israel I would like to see in the future and the Israel I would like to remain in the past. Part of the latter is what our group experienced shortly after landing at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel-Aviv.
As our group went through customs, it soon became apparent that some of us were not making it through so seamlessly. Those of us who made it to luggage collection soon realized that every Muslim or Arab student was taken to “the room” for further questioning. It was not until 3 hours later that they walked through security accompanied by claps and cheers from those of us already on the other side.
The case for racial profiling is, I believe, complex, but the effects on its victims are obvious. Despite the profiled-students’ “detained selfies” and jokes, the protracted ordeal clearly engendered resentment towards Israel among some of the students – and rightfully so. They were presumed to be dangerous for aspects of their being beyond their control.
Although I sympathized with these students, during their time with Israeli security, my mind was elsewhere. I couldn’t help but wonder if this is how American tourists are treated on their way into Israel, how must Palestinian citizens of Israel be treated on their way in? I imagined quite a few scenarios and none were positive. In fact, later on in Tel-Aviv, my suspicions were confirmed when we met with Khader, a gay Palestinian Activist who, when asked why he doesn’t identify as Israeli despite his citizenship responded, “I’ll call myself Israeli when I’m treated like one at the airport.” Again, I don’t have enough information to say whether or not Israel must perform racial profiling (although I recognize that the ends do not always justify the means). However, what I am certain of is that when people are treated as “less-than,” they are more likely to conform to that role. Israel cannot expect its Palestinian citizens to be complacent with their place in society if they are treated like terrorists whenever they step out of their front door.
In the past, when I discussed racial profiling in Israel, frankly, I was callous – never taking into account how this policy seriously degrades its victims. For me, and for many other Jewish people, if Israel needed to do something for its security, the action was justified – case closed. Furthermore, this justification (for me at least) led to a lack of empathy for the other, namely, the Palestinian. From this experience at the airport, though, I came to many realizations which changed my outlook on this issue.
One of the reasons why our group was so angry about being profiled was the woman who chose to send them to the room. According to Professor Rosenblum (who is leading this trip), when he explained our group’s purpose to her and who each of the students are, she scoffed and revealed herself to be a right-wing bigot. This shocked me! Why would Israel have people like this at their front doors? If profiling is truly essential, the very least it can do is ensure that racists are not the ones performing this task.
I also realized that my way of thinking about Israeli security was flawed. When Israel justifies a policy based on security, the case should not be closed. We should probe and question the policy. If the security policy is truly vital but is also race-based, we should constantly look for race-blind alternatives to that policy. Furthermore, if a racist policy is not absolutely essential but is nonetheless being implemented, it is incumbent on all morally conscious individuals to fight for reform. Most important though, we should have genuine compassion for those who are the targets of the policy.
When our group discussed the profiling incident a few days later, Professor Rosenblum was almost brought to tears as he spoke about his regret that this happened to five of our students. Throughout the rest of the trip he brought up the incident to almost every speaker we met with. Many of us rolled our eyes and laughed after the 7th or 8th time he spoke about the “airport debacle” and said he was being compulsive. I thought, though, it displayed the mentality with which all Israelis should have when it comes to their own security – sadness and consternation that “being safe” often comes at the expense of the dignity of the Palestinian.
This question of security versus human dignity is one that defines the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. All those who care about both peoples and both countries should grapple with it, as it underlies the struggle of Israelis and Palestinians. In my ideal “future Israel,” Israel will not have to choose between the devil and the deep blue sea. It will be able to protect its citizens while treating all with dignity and respect. When this time comes (however long that might be), Israel will not only be a home for the Jewish people; it will be light unto the nations.
Jacob Kessler is a member of the 2015 Ibrahim cohort.