Also known as: my welcome to Israel
When you say the security policies of your country are for the best, ask yourself whose body you’re inhabiting. Are you occupying a body of privilege that receives nothing more than a friendly wave or the briefest of questions at the airport, in a traffic stop, on the street? If so, I ask what your opinion would be if you were in a different body, one with less privilege, one where you knew your name or accent or story would result in heightened security, full body search, maybe even disregard for your human rights.
I write these questions from a body that is treated mostly with privilege. I look Chinese or Japanese, and carry an American passport. Israeli police perceive me as a tourist and don’t look twice… except for yesterday. Yesterday, I began asking myself these questions anew.
Yesterday, I was interrogated and searched for 2 hours and fifteen minutes by the Israeli security apparatus. In San Francisco, on American soil. They questioned me before I could check in for my flight from San Francisco to Tel Aviv, searched my body and possessions in a separate windowless room, and escorted me directly to the plane for boarding. This is my story.
Initial questioning with man #1
I arrive to the airport at 4:30pm, 3.5 hours early for my 8pm flight. I want to give myself ample time to check-in, relax, and do some consulting work before I board. Israeli security has other plans.
Before the normal check-in counters, El Al has security stations, simple stands for passengers to be interviewed by airline staff and I’m guessing, the Israeli Shin Bet. I approach the first station, showing my two passports and my Israeli work visa. The interrogation begins with man #1, a happy young man with a slight accent.
What do you do in Israel? I’m a teacher.
What do you teach? Computer science.
Where do you teach? The Jerusalem School.
Thank you very much, he said. I’m going to go over there to note that you’ve arrived. He gestured to the inconspicuous security table next to the check-in counters. “Noting that I’ve arrived” is a cover for checking my documents with the security team.
There, security determined that more questions were needed.
Follow-up interrogation with woman #1 and man #2
Woman #1 arrived with long shiny brown hair and a brusque tone.
Do you live in Israel? Yes.
How long? Six months. Since January 21.
What do you do? I’m a teacher.
Where do you teach? Computer science.
Where is your school located? North of Pisgaat Ze’ev (an Israeli settlement in East Jerusalem).
Do you know anyone from Middle Eastern countries? No.
Do you know anyone in the United States from a Middle Eastern country? No.
Woman #1 pages through my passport. She asks for clarification on the Peruvian ones. Every stamp passes inspection except the Egyptian one.
What did you do in Egypt? I went to the Sinai desert and swam in the sea.
Who did you go with? My friend Lisa.
What’s Lisa’s last name? Talesnick.
What’s Lisa’s nationality? Is she Israeli? She’s from Canada and has both Israeli and Canadian passports.
What languages does she speak? Hebrew and English only? Yes. Oh, and French.
What were the names of Lisa’s family members? Ofri, Orr, Michail.
What is their last name? I don’t know.
Why don’t you know their last name? It’s my friend’s family...I can’t remember it.
Have you been to Turkey? No? You have a tag from them... that’s because I flew Turkish Airlines, look it was from LAX to TLV.
Man #2, a scary, blunt, sharp guy with a short haircut arrives to observe.
Why do you have two Israeli visas in your passport? I shrug.
You should know, it’s your passport. I got it from the government, I gave my passport to them and they gave it back with two visas. I have no clue why.
Where do you live? Talpiyot.
What is the name of the person you live with? David.
What’s his last name? Blankman.
So far, all satisfactory answers with non-Arab names.
What are the grades taught in your school? Kindergarten through high school.
What grade do you teach? High school.
What are the names of your students? I pause while I think of all the non-Arab names I can. Ellen, Maria, Anthony (instead of Anton), Michael (instead of Mahd), Thea, Pery.
Do you have any Israeli kids? Amir, Rami. But no, not many Israeli kids. These are mostly international kids.
Where do your students live? Do they live in Pisgaat Ze’ev? I don’t know where they live.
Why not? Do you think teachers should know where their students live? Yes. Well, sorry I don’t know.
Can you show us an email that you have from your school? No.
How about an identity card? No. I have keys to the school...does that work? They laugh dismissively.
Where are your students from? Are they diplomats kids?
Do you teach in Hebrew? Arabic? Just English? It’s an American school and all instruction is in English.
Man #2 says, my sister wants to become a teacher too. What was the process of applying to teach at the school? The principal hired me directly.
What’s the principal’s name? Ross Byars.
What are the names of the teachers that work at the school? Lisa, Francis, Amy. What’s Francis’ last name? I don’t know.
Why did you decide to come to Israel to live? My friend invited me to visit her in the summer, and I just really liked it.
Did you come to Israel with the intention of moving here? How did you decide to work at your school? No, I didn't. I just liked it here, and my friend was already teaching at this school.
Where did you meet your friend? A Buddhist monastery in France.
What were you doing there? What were you doing before this? I was a software engineer.
So you were a software engineer working while at the monastery? No, I was taking a break from work.
Man #2 and woman #1 confer in Hebrew in front of me.
Can you google your school’s website? I hesitate because I’m not sure if the website contains words the Shin Bet will find alarming. Words like “Palestinian” or “Arab”.
They get impatient waiting for me to load the website, so they look it up on their smartphones instead. They seem satisfied that the school exists, and don’t seem to register that the school is for Palestinian kids, just that it’s in East Jerusalem.
Do your students live in East Jerusalem? Some kids from the school live in East Jerusalem, I’m not sure where my kids live. As I said.
Do you know anyone from East Jerusalem? Sure. Mike… George… What are their last names? I don’t know, I didn’t say I knew they well.
For our understanding, can you explain again, why did you come to Israel to live? As I said before, my friend invited me and I liked it there.
They stood waiting, clearly not caring for this answer. I continued.
I’m a spiritual person, I’m a Buddhist, and I spent time studying different religions. Jerusalem felt like a holy place.
Man #2: I live in Israel, I don’t feel like it’s a holy place. Why is Jerusalem holy? I explain that Jesus was crucified and resurrected there, and that he lived many of his days teaching there. (How strange, this Israeli man is questioning if Jerusalem is holy...)
Why did you get time off before the school let out for the summer? It was my cousin’s wedding, the principal let me have the time.
Why didn’t you wait until the school ended? Don’t Israeli schools end on June 1? Sure they do. They principal said I could leave. It was my cousin’s wedding. I don’t know what else to tell you...
Tell me the truth.
What is summer to you? You’re asking me to define summer? Summer is when school is out.
Did you book your own tickets? Yes.
When did you book your tickets? I can’t remember, it was a while ago…
Try to remember. Okay, maybe January or February?
Were tickets even for sale in January? Sorry, I’m estimating. I can’t exactly remember when I bought my tickets.
How much did they cost?
The two go off again to have a mystery conversation, carrying my passports. They return.
Are these your bags? Yes.
Why do you have so much stuff? I do not justify this with an answer.
Take this note, you have to get more screening after you finish TSA.
And you have to check all of your bags. What, why?
We want to run them through additional security. Okay, well I want to take my computer with me.
It needs to go through the security check. I don’t want it to get broken in my backpack.
I look at my watch. An hour has passed. It’s 5:30pm.
...at the check-in counter, finally...
we negotiate what I can carry-on with me. An epipen is widely debated but finally allowed.
I bring three of Thay’s books, my cell phone, a mindfulness bell, and some papers, including my Camino de Santiago credentials and my Five Mindfulness Trainings certificate.
I consent to checking in my computer. Man #3 asks what the password to unlock my computer is. Nobody knows my password, I say.
Tell me the password, man #2 says. I refuse. No, I’m a software engineer and I don’t want to give you access to my computer. If you’d like me to show you something, I will.
Okay, he says, open your computer up. I do it while sitting on the ground, quickly closing open windows. I’m nervous that photos of Palestinian friends will be on the screen. Someone wheels their luggage over my skirt.
Why are you on the ground? He says. Come up to the counter. I do.
(Unspoken: I’m on the ground because I don’t want you to see things you won’t like…)
Show me something that makes sound. Okay. I connect to free airport WiFi. I show Man #2 focus@will, online music I use for focusing. He doesn’t like it, it's too quiet. He wants to see something else. I google YouTube, and play the first video that comes up. Okay, that’s more like it, he says.
Show me what you use to teach. I open up Terminal and full screen it. I’m in my domain now, using bash commands on a computer terminal. I navigate to the lab directory, open it up, show him syllabus from one of the days. In my head, I’m high-fiving myself for this brilliance. A terminal window is a mostly black screen with computer commands...he can’t see the rest of my desktop from here, nor does he know what he's looking at.
Where are your notes? How do you teach? Do you have any videos?
No, I say, aware that pulling up videos on Photos is risky.
This is how I teach. I teach computer science! This is the computer's terminal.
I open a lecture on collaborative workflow using vim. I read aloud to him. He looks unimpressed; clearly I’m not winning teacher of the year here. He lets it go. Finally. My computer is put back into the suitcase, no password provided.
I finish checking I have all of the things I need for the flight. They refuse me contact lenses and a charger for my phone.
I give my three bags to the woman staffing the El Al check-in counter. She gives me a sympathetic smile. There are no fees for the third bag. Man #3 puts clear plastic tags with red stickers on all of my bags, signaling to the security backstage that my bags need a thorough search. I bid my computer goodbye for the time being.
Securing my devices in between TSA screening and another Israeli search
I head straight for normal airport security, TSA. Israelis make TSA look tame. I make it through security by 6:05pm, and head to the bathroom. They don’t have security cameras in the bathroom, at least I doubt it, and I spend the next ten minutes deleting 95% of my photos relating to my time in Bethlehem, Haifa, Jerusalem… anything with a friend wearing a hijab, looking even remotely Arab. I am in the bathroom stall for so long that someone asks if I’m okay. I delete messages and contacts until I feel secure showing Israeli security my phone, as I’m guessing they’ll request to search it.
I buy some snacks for the plane. Now I’m carrying a tiny backpack instead of my normal one, a brown paper bag full of snacks, my passport and boarding pass, along with the notice that I’m to report to El Al security at 6:30pm. It’s 6:20.
I spend the next ten minutes trying to find the El Al security room somewhere between the men’s bathroom and Gate A3. It’s one of those non-descript doors that I’ve passed by hundreds of times in airports and barely registered. Designed not to cause alarm or to be noticed.
I knock on the door at 6:30pm. Woman #1 is there with a new woman wearing a neon security jacket. I’ll call her woman #2. I have no clue what’s happening inside but I decide to sing Avalokiteshvara while waiting. I get out Thay’s book “Be free where you are”, and start reading, humming, reading. It is calming.
I stand outside for 20 minutes, two men who arrive after me are called in, but I’m still waiting. I see man #2 going into the men’s restroom, and he asks if they know I’m there. They do. By now, I’m unsure if they intend me to miss my flight, which boards at 7:15. At 6:55pm I’m called into the room.
Inside the security room: Property and full body search
The room is small and windowless, roughly 10 feet x 10 feet. On one side, there’s a waiting area and they invite me to sit down. Then they demand all of my things, including my phone and Thay’s book. I hand them over.
For the next 20 minutes, there's the constant beeping of machines and chatter in Hebrew. I assume they're scanning everything, but I'm not exactly sure because they are hidden from my view by a ceiling-to-floor curtain. I wait.
Woman #1 asks me for the password to my phone. I refuse. She demands it. I refuse. She asks what I’m hiding that I don’t want her to see. I tell her that I’m happy to unlock my phone and to do as she requests. She agrees. I’m glad I’ve just spent my bathroom time deleting photos of Arab friends.
Show me a photo. I do, it’s a photo of the turnip cake my grandma cooked last holiday. It makes me smile inside.
Play me some music. I open Spotify and play her my favorite deep relaxation music. She frowns. Is that it? It’s so quiet.
I have barely any loud music. I can’t remember what I eventually play, but it’s loud enough for her and she lets me stop showing her things on the phone.
Now give the phone to me, she says. I ask why. Are you going to scan it? Man #2 returns and simply demands the phone. No questions. I make sure it requires a password and hand it to him.
Man #2 offers me water. It’s holy...shipped in from Jerusalem, he says. He laughs at his joke. Man leaves.
Woman #2 says that I should undress. Like, really?
I ask for clarification. You want me to take off all of my clothes? She says, no. Only down to your last clothing layer.
Okay. I strip down, taking off my watch, scarf, shoes, everything except a thin tank top and yoga pants. Woman #1 scans me with a handheld metal detector. Oh yeah, then she frisks me over my entire body. Back and front. The places she can’t touch with hands for decency purposes she uses a tool to touch. Oh, she forgets to turn the machine on. Frisking starts again. I’m tired, amused, wondering how much longer this can continue. Hoping to get all of my belongings back in one piece. Be free where you are. Thay’s writing anchors me and gives me hope. I resolve to persist.
Finally, my clothes are returned. I dress slowly, savoring having my clothes back. Then my stuff comes back. It is clear they have examined everything, all is neatly rearranged. I confirm that I have both passports, my wallet, and my phone. I prepare to leave the small, windowless room.
Man #2 returns as woman #2 prepares to escort me to the plane. The man does it instead, quickly, at times smirking, always just a few feet away. We skip the line of passengers waiting to board. He tears my ticket, gives me the stub, and escorts me down the runway, all the way to the door of the plane. So this is what it feels like to have a police escort!
Now here I am on the plane, seat 55C. I wonder what things will be like when I land. Will my computer be returned safely? Will I be subjected to additional searches and interrogation?
I’m looking forward to touching Jerusalem soil and resting at home.
Update from Jerusalem upon arriving home
There was no issue passing through passport control at Ben Gurion upon arrival. I was quite nervous and was singing Avalokiteshvara to calm my body. The line was long, but I didn’t see many people getting turned aside. As I waited, I examined my belongings.
I had one backpack, labeled with a security tag marked with a “T”. Both of my passports had red stickers attached to their backs with “T 05/06 SFO” written on them by hand. Inside my current passport, I had a sticky note with a yellow box, “T” was circled, and “93” was written in a white rectangle. I briefly considered removing the red tags, because they seemed ominous, but I could think of no excuse to give a security person if they asked. The red tags stayed.
After twenty minutes, it was my turn. I approached the security booth smiling. The man took my passport and asked me why I was in Israel. I work part-time at a school, I said. He frowned. I have a work visa in this passport, I said.
So you have two passports? He asked.
He glanced at the work visa, read it carefully, and handed it back.
He printed off an entry visa for me.
Welcome to Israel.
After 2 hours and fifteen minutes of security checks in San Francisco, I cleared this round of security in less than five minutes.
Welcome to Israel, indeed.
I refuse to normalize this security experience
What has been unwritten so far is the underlying assumption that the Shin Bet would not take kindly to my reality. Living in Bethlehem, teaching coding to Palestinian kids, befriending Palestinians or Arab-Israelis, even knowing people with Arab-sounding names: being forthcoming about these details would result in more questions, possible detainment, and most extreme, a ten-year ban on my entering Israel.
I hold sorrow for the necessity of deleting my Palestinian friends on Facebook, removing our text messages, deleting their photos from my phone. I can't imagine what it is like to be them, to be told (kindly and by a friend) that they are being deleted for security purposes. What is it like to know that a simple affiliation with oneself can cause another to be detained? Let's be clear: my Palestinian friends cannot even make it to the airport in Tel Aviv. They fly through Amman, Jordan, paying $100+ to cross the border and a premium on flights. The simple fact that I can pass through Tel Aviv is already a privilege.
I do not tell this story to normalize the things I must do to pass through security unscathed. It is not normal to delete Facebook friends, to be aware of and to avoid any mention of Arab names, to remove photos of Arab friends on my phone, to be wary of suggesting that my students live in East Jerusalem. It is not normal to fear mentioning Palestine. There is nothing normal about the state of fear that has resulted in this security situation, and I do not condone it. I will not.
No, I tell this story to bring to light the difficulties that so many are already facing, to share what might be happening to a less privileged body just a few feet away at an airline check-in counter. Enough with the rationale that this security is for our own good. Enough using fear to justify exclusion. Enough with this anti-Arab sentiment.
My friends, I will be clear. My encounter with the Israeli security apparatus has not scared me away. No, my time with them only strengthens my resolve. I vow to use my own power as an American, as a woman, and as a person with economic privilege, to give voice to what's happening.
Final takeaways from an evening of interrogation
- I will never again fly El Al; they allow the Israeli security to check passenger information in advance and to interrogate passengers before check-in at the departure airport.
- I will clarify my story: “I’m a software engineer and I work part-time at a school.” Rather than “I work at a school”. It’s more accurate and provides a better explanation for why I don’t have a school email account / know all of my colleagues / know where my kids live. Also, Israelis are very proud of their startup scene and love software engineers. Which is perfect for me because it’s a safe topic unrelated to my work in Bethlehem.
- I can refuse to give passwords for my computer and phone, and they will accept my offer to navigate my devices for them.
- Freedom is a state of mind and heart. Even during the full body search, when I was asked to take my clothes off, I could control my breathing, my sense of autonomy, and my mind. I can practice freedom even when the external conditions are not entirely in my control.