Friday, November 06, 2009

Ben Gurion airport, or "Who's your grand-daddy?"

So, I fly into Tel Aviv from Prague at 4:30am, having slept about three hours out of the previous 48, stagger off the plane and over to passport control, and wait for an agent. I haven't had any problems getting into Israel for the past two or three years, even though I've been very open about the purposes for my visit: "volunteering as a human rights observer in the West Bank", and things to that effect. This is counter to the standard activist primer advice, but it's served me in good stead, and I greatly prefer it for reasons I'll get into shortly. Anyway, the agent refers me to a security guy (or gal), the security guy asks me if I'm Jewish, how often I attend synagogue, or whatever, and either just lets me through or actually wishes me luck. I'm particularly unconcerned about getting in this year, because most of the stuff I'm doing is (or should be) well within the permissible area, even by Israeli security standards. My first few days I'm planning to take measurements and photographs of Lifta, a Palestinian village just west of Jerusalem that was ethnically cleansed in 1948, but of which many of the buildings were atypically left standing. After that, I'm traveling with Menachem Daum, an observant Jewish documentary filmmaker (who made an Emmy-nominated film related to the Holocaust, for crying out loud), to the West Bank, where I'll introduce him to some Palestinians, international volunteers working on the olive harvest campaign, and the like. I'll be helping out with olive harvest, myself, for a few days, but that's probably the activist work that's least frowned upon by the Israeli government, and basically involves accompanying Palestinian farmers to their lands so they hopefully won't be attacked by settlers (or attacked as frequently, or as fiercely, anyway) while they gather in their olive crops. No problem.
I lay this out briefly for the agent, who asks me a few of the usual questions. From here on, however, I will just try to give you the dialogue as best I remember it. Nothing is intentionally misrepresented or exaggerated, and there should be no substantive inaccuracies; if I really didn't remember much of something, I left it out.
Agent: What's your father's name?
Me: Joel, as in Yoel.
Agent: And his father?
Me: Huh? Err...grandpa [My paternal grandfather died 37 years ago, when I was 2.5 years old]. Oh, right, Herbert...sorry, it's been a long flight.
Agent: [Some more questions, then] OK, go sit over there and someone will talk to you.
Intel1: [Very young woman shows up maybe half an hour later, and asks all the same questions as the agent, except for my grandfather's name, and then] OK, sit here.
Intel2: [Half an hour later, a marginally less young woman shows up and leads me into her tiny office, where she asks many of the same questions, and then] Are you Jewish?
Me: Sure am; Jewish name, see?
Intel2: Aaron can be many kinds of name.
Me: Err, Aaron Jacob Levitt, as in Aharon Yakov ha'Levi? OK, whatever.
Intel2: Where have you been in the West Bank?
Me: [Long list]
Intel2: What groups have you worked with in the West Bank?
Me: [Give list of Israeli and international groups I've worked with.]
Intel2: Write down your address, your email address, your phone number.
Me: [Done] This is my US phone number; my Israeli cell is in my checked baggage and I'd need to get the number from it.
Intel2: Suuure it is.
Me: Yes, it is. If you let me at my baggage, I'll be happy to give you the number.
Intel2: Oh, suuure you'll give me the number.
Me: It doesn't matter to me. You seem nice enough; you can call me any time. [A hint of sarcasm, perhaps, but only a hint]
Intel2: Have you engaged in illegal activities in Israel or the occupied territories?
Me: No.
Intel2: Are you sure?
Me: Yes.
Intel2: Reeaaallly.
Me: Yes, really.
Intel2: Do you have friends in Israel?
Me: Not many [mention a personal friend], Arik Ascherman with Rabbis for Human Rights, Jeff Halper, a couple of other political folks like that.
Intel2: Don't tell me about *rabbis* [voice practically dripping with scorn]; who are your friends?
Me: Well, some are rabbis. Like I said, I don't have a lot of personal friends in the country.
Intel2: What about in the West Bank? You've been there six times, you must have lots of friends there, right?
Me: I know very few people there well enough to really call them "friends". They're extraordinary folks; I'm just not there that long.
Intel2: So they're not friends, huh? So what do you call them?
Me: I don't know, "colleagues", I guess.
Intel2: Colleagues! So, they're colleagues! What do you mean, colleagues?
Me: Nothing much; they're activists, I'm an activist..."colleagues".
Intel2: What do you mean, they're "activists" [practically sneering]. What do they do?
Me: Um, organize, speak, demonstrate. You know, activist stuff. They're non-violent activists.
Intel2: So, who are these colleagues of yours? What are their names?
Me: Sorry, I'm afraid I can't give you the names of any Palestinians.
Intel2: [Menacing, I think was the idea] You're not going to tell me who they are?
Me: No.
Intel2: Why wouldn't you do that?
Me: Because I know that Israel often targets non-violent Palestinian activists, and I'm not going to help you to do that.
Intel2: So, you're an "activist"!
Me: Yes, like I said...mostly observing, trying to dissuade settlers, and sometimes soldiers, from attacking Palestinians.
Intel2: Have you ever been to Bil'in [or maybe Ni'lin] on Friday?
Me: What?
Intel2: Have you been to Bil'in on Friday?
Me: [Tired and getting a bit irritated] What? I'm not much on dates. What?
Intel2: I'm asking if you've been to Bil'in on Friday.
Me: [The lightbulb comes on: Bil'in has scheduled, weekly protest demonstrations; I think they're on Fridays, though I really didn't remember.] I've been to a demonstration in Bil'in, if that's what you're asking. As an observer, like I said.
Intel2: I didn't ask that, I just asked if you were there on Friday. So, you were at a demonstration!
Me: I certainly was.
Intel2: And you were "observing", were you?
Me: Yup, that's about it.
Intel2: [Probably a few other questions, and then] You know, I know what you've really been doing.
Me: I've told you what I've really been doing.
Intel2: We know everything, you know. We have all the information about you. And I'm sorry, but everything we know, we pass to your government and *they* know it too. [In a tone clearly meant to bring home my great peril]
Me: [Trying not to laugh] Well, I'm fine with my government knowing about anything I do, but thanks for the warning, anyway.
Intel2: I know you're lying.
Me: [A bit heated] I'm not much for lying, and if I were inclined to lie, believe me, I would have started much earlier, and we wouldn't be having this conversation. On top of which, if you really know everything I've been doing, then you know I'm telling the truth, don't you?
Intel2: Well, I'm not sure about that.
Me: Then you don't know what you're talking about.
After this charming interlude, I was returned to sit in the same waiting area for another hour or two. After that, I was brought to a different waiting area, all of 75 feet away, and waited *there* for around an hour. At this point, I was finally informed by a representative of the Ministry of the Interior that I had been determined to be a security risk, and would only be allowed into Israel under three conditions: first, I would have to sign a pledge not to enter the occupied territories; second, I would have to give a $1350 cash deposit that would be forfeit if I violated that pledge; third, I would only be given a ten-day visa. I had ridiculous phone troubles, and the Ministry of the Interior people were very sympathetic, both to my purpose and my immediate difficulties. They offered me water, took time to chat occasionally, and let me use their phone to make a number of in-country calls. I'm pretty sure they would have let me call the U.S., as well, but the phone was incapable.
After an hour or so of trying to reach and then consulting with other activists, and trying to contact an Israeli attorney, the security people pressed the Interior people, and the Interior people pressed me, saying that if I didn't make a decision, it would be made for me, and I would be put back on a plan to the U.S. I told them they'd have to carry me to the plane, that I knew perfectly well no captain would let me on board if I told him I would disrupt the flight, which I would most certainly do, and that they could either wait until I was sure of my decision, or they could transfer me to the deportation jail and eat the horrible PR that would result, which I had half a mind to do anyway. As expected, that ended the pressure, and I sat tight until I heard back from a friendly Israeli attorney who advised me to agree to the entry conditions and fight them, if desired, once I was in the country. It was 8.5 hours, in all, before I was allowed to leave the airport; nearing the end of a *very* long day.
So, I am now (still) writing to you from Jerusalem, as I no doubt deserve, representing as I do the curious type of security threat who poses a terrible risk if he is allowed *near* Israel for seventeen days, but is harmless as a teddy bear if he is actually *inside* Israel for 10 days. You'll understand, I hope, if I'm a tad skeptical.
You may wonder whether, as several of my fellow activists have pointed out, it would really be that hard to get to the West Bank and back without being detected or forfeiting my deposit. The answer is no: I'm not a security threat, and neither are any of the other activists working in Palestine, and the Israelis know that perfectly well, and pay little attention to any of us unless we happen to get arrested at a (perfectly legal!) demonstration. The odds of getting "caught" are extremely low away from the demonstrations. I have, however, what seem to me compelling reasons not to do this. First, I haven't signed my name to anything in bad faith since before I was seventeen (and I'm not sure about before then); it's not a practice I intend to start now. Second, the great majority of the Jewish community would be delighted (if I, or any of this, ever came to their attention) to have even a slim reason to believe that I am lying about what happens over here, which would make it that much easier for them to get back to vigorously lying to themselves, instead. I just saw a terrific penmanship exercise from the (Jewish-taught) children's school at Terezin concentration camp with a practice phrase something like: "Whoever once lies is not believed". When you're working in support of Palestinian human rights, that goes double, and four times on Shabbat! The other, equally important, issue is that some of this appears to be deliberate manipulation by Israeli security. By making people sign non-entry statements on arrival, they can deport any internationals they pick up at a perfectly legal demonstration simply *because they lied on the statement*. At one time, at least, this appeared to be standard operating procedure, and I am entirely uninterested in giving Israel an (additional) way to cloak the State's illegal activities. Finally, I just turned 40, and I fully expect to be engaged in this work for the next 40 years. If this trip was compromised, I can live with that, but deportation includes a ten-year ban on entry into Israel, and that would be a serious obstacle to discharging my responsibilities here.


Blogger Barry said...

Wow. Welcome to Israel, indeed! I'm on the board of RHR; Arik was out of the country, I'm not sure if he's back yet. If you need assistance, let me know, you can email me. rebbarry, the rest of the email is yeladim dot org.

11:37 AM  

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