On being a security risk (Israel: Part 3)

Tank Green/ September 12, 2006/ Palestine and Israel

Someone said my emails don’t make him want to go to Israel any time soon. That’s not what I mean to be doing here. I want you to go because your experience will no doubt be different from ours and that’s kind of the point here. These dichotomous viewpoints that might one day be reconcilable. So go, go and see what you might find.

J sent me a long email yesterday about the leftist peace movement in Israel. She’s afraid I won’t mention it. She’s afraid that my melodramatic, self-indulgent, Jerusalem-inspired intro will preclude me from talking about Tel Aviv or Haifa or even how much fun we had at the Dead Sea. She’s afraid I’ll paint my experience as the only experience to be had, and forget to mention that lady at the Western (Wailing) wall who said she was glad to see Muslims come watch people pray.

It is, then, important that I reiterate that I want you to go and have an entirely different experience, but in doing so, I want you to remember mine. For this is the thing, you see, from the moment we landed at Ben Gurion airport (certainly the nicest airport I’ve ever seen), until the moment I fell into my bed, exhausted, late this Friday night, all I could think about was how differently people perceive and experience the world, and how might this be retained without the violence?

For one thing, I know my experience would have been radically different if I was, a) not travelling with Muslims and, b) not tattooed. When we got to passport control the woman asked me what the purpose of my visit was? ‘I’m a tourist,’ I said, and in response to her flat, stern look I continued, ‘I’m studying religions.’ She continued looking flat, stern, as if I had not uttered a word, and so my voice trailed off into, ‘I want to see really, really old things…’ And then my brand new passport was stamped, rendering it completely useless for a trip to any other country in the Middle East.

J whipped out her Jew Card and was also Insta-Free, but L, H, X, and S had their passports confiscated, and so the wait began. They were interrogated individually for about half an hour each, and then we had a four hour wait after that. We landed at 2.45pm and caught a shuttle bus to Jerusalem well after 9pm. The airport was shut; planes hadn’t landed for hours. It was Shabbat.

We weren’t the only ones waiting, with us were two British (with South Asian heritage) teachers, about five Palestinians, and one American woman. We were the dangerous and the insane, the criminals of the world. I was pissed off.

According to the woman from the Ministry of Defence that finally came down to talk to J, there was a team of forty working on L, H, X, and S’ cases. I’d love to know what is in those files, and since our they were all asked to name every single member of their family, I’m sure the MoD performed background checks on every single one of them.

Our friends were allowed in, the MoD woman informed J, merely because she is Jewish. The responsibility for our friends’ behaviour now fell entirely into J’s hands. This is a heavy enough responsibility when you have loved and known someone for years, but to be asked to assume responsibility for people you have only taught for a year, and for most of them to be under 21, all because it is assumed you have a greater allegiance to your Jewish-ness than to them, is a heavy thing. So heavy that when I first saw her face, I assumed they had not gotten in.

My notepad says, ‘We are sat by a window and watched the sunset earlier. The sun is behind clouds with beams fingering the horizon. Telegraph poles inked out; everything so far away. We laughed that we felt like prisoners, and then I imagined myself walking out to the other side of the glass and watching them, touching the window pane, feeling the last few rays of the setting sun on my back. I could not imagine walking away, only watching them through the window that allows me my passport, but takes theirs: religion.’ So little love, so many people.

To their credit, the woman interrogating our friends was apparently quite nice, as was the man that finally gave them back their passports. You also cannot blame the authorities I suppose: the last two suicide bombers in Israel have been British Muslims. Just, only, one can’t help also being insulted for one’s friends: the racism, assumptions, and judgement. That and I’ve got a stubborn, wilful temper sometimes.

All of that was just getting into the country; getting out was equally torturous. For starters our shuttle bus was stopped before we had even gotten as far as the airport. There is a checkpoint about 5 to 10 minutes drive from it, and the soldier took our passports, performed some kind of check on us, and then asked all kinds of questions regarding what we had being doing, why we went, how we knew each other, and so on and so forth. Next, after we had been dropped off, but before we could enter the airport, they stopped us again and asked the same round of questions, this time only taking the passports belonging to the Muslims with South Asian heritage. It was now an obvious case of racial profiling, since not a single whitey going into the airport was stopped. It was just us, them. I was pissed off.

Finally we got into the airport and queued up for bag scanning only to be taken out of line and asked questions again. I was questioned first: I had forgotten to cover my ink and was the recipient of eyes and hearts full of hatred. H was pissed off. Next S was questioned, then J. They let our bags get scanned and after that, we all had to unpack; they swabbed everything from the shoes we were wearing, to our dirty underwear, to cameras and battery packs. The scanning equipment is obviously a military invention: it’s far beyond anything I have ever seen before. Everyone gets barcoded, but we also got stickered. It was bright yellow and had numbers and letters ringed. L (a nurse) said, ‘In the hospital, yellow means the most infectious.’ She grinned. She always grins; she’s never pissed off.

Next, under escort, we were marched to check-in, then marched through the airport (we were not allowed to stop at shops or use the loo) to arrive at the final security checkpoint with yet more xrays and metal detectors. On the upside, our little escort meant we jumped queues; even when it came time to board the plane, we were ushered through ahead of those waiting in line. On the downside, I recently took a spill on my bike and ripped a hole in my favourite jeans; I saw a Diesel store in the airport which I bet was infinitely cheaper than the London shops. The price one has to pay for being a clumsy, tattooed heathen who consorts with evil Muslims.

In general though, security in Jerusalem is through the roof. There are walk-through, airport-style metal detectors and bag searches to get into bus stations, malls, and religious places. Most shops and restaurants have a security guy with a hand-held metal detector who checks your bags. Something I particularly liked was the fact that even the soldiers have to go through the same screening as the rest of us. ‘If you’re going to do it, do it properly,’ says the schoolmarm in me. (It’s funny how standards and expectations change with contexts.) In every direction you look, there are soldiers in their green uniforms which have to be the flyest in the universe. The women all have low rise jeans and fitted shirts: I guess they need to make the compulsory draft sexy somehow. All the soldiers have machine guns. So do the police. So do the wacked out religiously fanatical Israeli teenagers that roam the streets of Jerusalem.

Before I went my Mum said to me, ‘Don’t give anyone the look.’ ‘What look?!’ I exclaimed. ‘That look,’ she said, ‘you do when you find what someone has said to be stupid.’ I’ve still no idea what look she means, but I did try extra hard to fix my face because staring down the wrong end of a gun seemed like an incredibly likely thing if I let my feelings show. H kept getting stopped every five paces or so (especially when getting into bus stations) and asked for her passport. I was pissed off. I tried not to show it and only to stand with her as they asked their relentlessly boring and repetitive questions. She always remained kind and patient, and sometimes she would smile and read their names to them in Hebrew. Sometimes they would soften. Sometimes.

And so Jerusalem (in particular) is tense because of all those guns. Because you spend your time feeling like a criminal. Because you spend all your time watching your tongue and feeling uptight. Because there is such a disproportionate amount of hatred. Because the people there are some of the most violently ugly and repulsive I have ever encountered. Yet it is tempered, somehow, by my sudden remembrance of the Coptic monk X fell in love with, and whom was obviously taken with her. So I’m suddenly left with a little bit of hope by a sweetly innocent girl with a penchant for men over eighty who have excessive facial hair. And you thought she was a violent extremist. Shame on you.