What it means to go to Ben Gurion airport with an Arab friend

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I’m too distracted to fall asleep. Everyone is quietly snoring. The sun rises ever so slowly and the wings of the plane rudely cut through the calmness of the clouds. It’s hard to believe that the intensity of the sun repeats itself with this beauty every day. That it’s not for this special day that led me to be on this flight, on my way to Barcelona. I guess my mind makes it negligible just to maintain every-day continuity. Can’t comprehend all of chaos theory at once. 

So how did I get on this flight? Around 9 p.m. last night I found out that The Real News got an in-kind donation to send me to Barcelona to cover the Russell Tribunal on Palestine. By midnight I was packed up and by 2 am I was at the airport. Someone thought this tribunal was so important and had the kind of faith in my reporting that frankly makes me terrified.

Last month I took international friends to the airport. When internationals fly alone out of Israel, they get a “6” or a “5”. This number is a sticker you get on your passport and bags that helps the Israeli airport security evaluate your level of Zionism. “1” is awesome, “6” is you’re fucked. 1 is reserved for white Jewish Israelis, 2 is for white Jewish non-Israelis and friendly internationals, 3 is a suspicious Israeli or international, 4 is sometimes given to non-white Israelis, 5 is for Arab Israelis or questionable internationals, and 6 is for Palestinians, Muslims, and hostile internationals. Hostile is defined as not Zionist or suspected of questioning Zionism. Anything above a 3 means interrogation. Of course these are my definitions based on the people I’ve talked to who’ve gotten one of the six. I don’t know what the official language they use says.

In most airports they ask you the benign questions of “did you pack your own bag?” In Israel they try to find out how Zionist you are. If you’re an international who’s been here you’ve experienced the invasive questions about your love of Israel so you know it’s always better to bring along an Israeli for protection. My presence with them meant I answered all the questions for them and the fact that I grew up in a settlement landed them a 2- the best grade they could get as non citizens. We rehearsed for hours.

So I enter the line confident and on cloud number nine from excitement. After all, I’m going to Barcelona! To cover the Russell Tribunal! My Israeli-Palestinian roommate tells me he’ll wait while I answer the security lady’s questions. She sees I speak Hebrew, she asks if I packed my own bags and she gives me a “1” as expected. I’m white and I’m an Israeli, therefore I’m probably a Zionist. High from excitement and privilege I ask if my friend can come with me to the check-in. She says of course and asks for his ID. Her face changes.

Where it says the Jewish birthdate the line in his ID is blank. i.e. not Jewish. I.e. Palestinian. 

–"you know this man?”

– “yes”

– “how?” 

– “he’s my roommate”

– “where?”

– “Jaffa” (a mixed Israeli-Palestinian city) 

– “wait here.”

She looks at his last name. It’s Christian, i.e. Arab. She disappears with our passports. The roommate looks at me and we both know what’s going to happen. When she comes back her smile is gone. She tears the “1” off my bags and angrily puts on a “3” as though to say “you didn’t tell me you have an Arab friend!” Her face says “don’t you see you’re fucking it all up for us?!”

She sends me to the “other” line where people get their bags carefully checked. All the black people are in this line, all the Arab-looking people and the non-Zionist internationals. At least they’re not pretending their racial profiling is random. As I wait in line the security manager looks me up and down. He looks confused. Everyone else is a person of colour. So he approaches me.

– “Where did you come from?”

– “Excuse me?”

– “To the airport, where did you come from? Where do you live?”

– “Tel Aviv – Jaffa”

– “And where did you grow up? When did you come to Israel?”

– “I grew up in Ariel [a West Bank settlement], I came to Israel in ’90/‘91”

– “OH! You’re from Ariel!” 

He looks at the “3” sticker on my bag and shrugs. He motions the security lady and whispers something in her ear. The roommate – who was told he’s not allowed to come in after he was discovered as an Arab– looks on from a distance.

– “So you speak Hebrew?” the bag lady asks as she symbolically opens my bag and closes it with disinterest. The Nigerian lady beside me is having her bag checked with special sticks. Every item is laid out and questioned by three security “experts”.

– “I have family in Ariel,” the bag-checking lady tells me with a smile as she motions me to the next line.

– “You see what it means to have an Arab friend?” my roommate says and apologizes for the interrogation that’ll probably follow. I yell at him to never apologize for that again. This week is Israeli Apartheid Week. 40 Cities this year. The only analytical article in Ha’aretz was about a South African (white) anti-Apartheid activist who argued Israel’s bad but not apartheid-bad. For some reason all the white South African activists say it’s not so bad. All the black ones say its worse than they had ever imagined.

Update. Tarachansky responds to Avi, commenting:

Thanks so much for bringing this up.  Although my roommate wasn’t traveling with me this time, and therefore wasn’t checked, he has a long history of being harassed and labelled all kinds of numbers at the Ben Gurion Airport.  

Thankfully, he has an Israeli ID because he’s a Palestinian from the 1948 borders.  There are many horrific accounts of Palestinians from the 1967 occupied territories that really paint a clear picture of the difference between the treatment I received and the one they do.
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