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A Passage to Israel (or: a Paki in Palestine)

My trip last week to “Jerusalem”—to Arab East Jerusalem and the West Bank—was a life-changing experience. In the interests of processing my own experiences, and offering readers some food for thought, I thought I’d blog my experiences there, one day at a time. When I’m done with that, I’ll go back and address the issues I promised to raise in my June 13 post. I’ll try to give uninitiated readers some factual background on the issues, and comment a bit on the implications for Objectivism of what I learned. The trip arose as a follow-up to the Reason Papers symposium on Sari Nusseibeh’s 2011 book, What Is a Palestinian State Worth? I describe in the symposium itself how that arose; once the symposium was published, Nusseibeh invited me to give three lectures at Al Quds University in the West Bank town of Abu Dis. I received no remuneration for the lectures, but the University put me up for the duration of my stay at the Jerusalem Hotel, paid for my meals, and took me on a series of politically-charged ‘sightseeing tours’ of Israel and the West Bank at their own expense. My college paid my airfare.

Abu Dis

Abu Dis

One hundred percent of the week that I spent “there”—call it Israel, Palestine, the Occupied Territories, or the Disputed Territories—was spent in the company of Arabs, listening to their side of the dispute. By “Arabs,” I mean either Arab citizens of Israel, Arab residents of Jerusalem, or West Bank Palestinians without formal legal status. (They themselves prefer the term “Palestinian” for all three categories.) By “listening to their side of the dispute,” I mean that I listened both to what I was explicitly told in English, and what I overheard in Arabic. My Arabic is very weak—good enough to gather the basic gist of a conversation, but not good enough to participate in one. I don’t speak or understand any Hebrew at all (besides “Shalom”). Border guards and soldiers aside, I didn’t exchange words with a single Israeli Jew (or Jew of any other nationality) while I was there, and didn’t have a conversation with a single Israeli Jew until a few hours before I landed at JFK on my way home (my seatmate was an Israeli businessman, but we both slept through most of the flight).

For whatever it’s worth, I’ve tried in the past to visit Israel under pro-Israeli auspices, but have been rejected at the interview stage of the application process. It’s worth adding that the pro-Israel trips have basically  the same format as the pro-Palestinian ones: a pro-Israeli group pays your expenses, and then immerses you in one side of the dispute.

Most people know that Israel faces a difficult security situation, and that its security procedures are very tight. I flew to Tel Aviv on Alitalia from New York via Rome, so my first encounter with Israeli security was bound to be in Israel itself. Many of the seasoned travelers I consulted tried to scare the crap out of me on the subject of Israeli security, but all agreed that, as an American citizen, I was much better off traveling to the West Bank via Israel than via Jordan. They were almost certainly right. For all the complaints that might be made of travel into Israel, travel into Jordan is by all accounts worse.

A bit of ethno-linguistic background is helpful here. I was born in the US, but of Pakistani parents who raised me in the Islamic faith. Described in identity-conscious terms, I’m a Pakistani-American of Muslim background. My full name is “Irfan Ahmad Khawaja.” “Ahmad” is a common name among Arabs and Muslims, and one that marks its bearer out as a person of Islamic background; “Irfan” and “Khawaja” are Arabic words, and common Pakistani names, but apparently not common names among Arabs. Though Pakistanis tend to think of “Irfan Khawaja” as an obviously Muslim name, Arabs do not. I carry an American passport, but one with the visa stamps of countries like “the Islamic Republic of Pakistan,” which lack diplomatic relations with Israel. My destination—in the West Bank rather than in Israel proper—also marks me out, in some sense, as an “Arab.” In Israel, both “Arab” and “Muslim” imply “potential security threat,” so I went into the country assuming (correctly) that I would be treated as one. I resolved from the outset to tell the absolute truth to the security people, but not to volunteer more than was asked in an given question. I took the (in my case, highly advisable) precaution of leaving my laptop at home. I had my cell phone, but it didn’t work in Israel.  I’ll first describe what the security check entailed in purely descriptive terms, then comment in a more evaluative way.

On disembarking at the airport in Tel Aviv—Ben Gurion International Airport—I made a point of hurrying as quickly as I could to the border control area. It was large and well-organized, so that when I got there, there were plenty of openings. I made a beeline for the most innocuous-looking border control agent I could find (an attractive young woman, naturally), plopped my passport on the counter with as non-threatening a demeanor as I could muster after a sleepless 11 hour flight, and said “Hi.” I wouldn’t say that our attractive border guard was very much impressed by this display of jauntiness. After a few excruciatingly silent moments of scrutiny, both of me and of my passport, she asked, “How long were you in Pakistan?

“Two weeks.”

Pause.

“What were you doing there?”

“Visiting friends and relatives.”

Pause.

“What is your father’s name?”

This seemed to me a rather abrupt change of subject, and not the most clearly-phrased question, either. What’s my father’s which name? One part of me wanted to point out that if a question is a request for information, the request must be phrased so as to elicit the relevant information, and this question didn’t satisfy that criterion. But I thought the better of this and told her my father’s first name, “Aftab,” which she typed in.

“So your name is Irfan Aftab?”

“No, my name is Irfan Khawaja.”

“But you said your father’s name is ‘Aftab.’”

“Yes. That’s his first name.”

What followed this was a confused conversation about nomenclature the details of which I no longer remember. Without meaning to have an argument, I found myself involved in a labyrinthine argument about names. It occurred to me that the Arab naming system is different from the American or Pakistani, and that the guard was assuming that I was an Arab. But there was little discursive space in this bureaucratic context to make this astute anthropological point, so eventually we came to a stalemate about my father’s name. And then we got to the next question.

“What is your grandfather’s name?”

At this point, I involuntarily burst out laughing. “I have no idea,” I said, thinking that my paroxysms of laughter would somehow be infectious, take hold of the border guard, and facilitate my expeditious entry into the State of Israel.

That didn’t happen. The guard looked at me with the distinct air of someone who wanted to say, “Stop fucking around. This isn’t a joke, it’s the border of a sovereign nation, and I have the power to deny you entry.” This look—analogues of which I have also seen on the faces of various women I’ve dated or married—sobered me up, and so with remarkable meekness I qualified my laughter with the proviso that my grandfather had died long before my birth. (It seemed obvious that “grandfather” referred to father’s father, but the answer was the same in both cases.) No sooner did I utter this statement but it occurred to me that it was in fact wrong. My grandfather actually died a few years after I was born, not that this made any material difference to the questioning. I hesitated a moment, and contemplated the idea of telling the guard this, but then realized that if I did, my very desire for precision would make me look like a liar. So I just sat there, looking and feeling like an idiot, the perception of imbecility being preferable in this context to that of prevarication.

“Please go to the green room,” she said, gesturing at it. Though there was nothing particularly dramatic or sinister about the Green Room, a part of me desperately wanted the Green Room to resemble Room 101 in Orwell’s 1984. I had to resist a ludicrously powerful urge to ask, “What is in the Green Room?” in the hopes that she would play along and say, “The thing that is in the Green Room is the worst thing of all.”

The thing that was in the Green Room was a TV playing American college basketball. I hate spectator sports, so in a sense the Green Room really was like something out of 1984. Anyway, I sat down in the Green Room alongside about 30 Arabs. (All but one of them spoke Arabic, so I inferred that they were Arabs.) I counted them. They fell into a few clear categories. About half were sullen and angry. A quarter were used to the routine. Another quarter, like me (but Arab), were wondering what would happen next. My favorite of these was a muttering Arab teenager with his Italian girlfriend, obviously here for some fun in the Tel Aviv sun, but simply unable to comprehend how he had managed to get dragged into the security dragnet, given the sheer adorableness of his girlfriend, obviously too gorgeous to be associated with a security risk. He was trying very hard to negotiate the boundary between outrage and anxiety.

I sat there for an hour. Eventually, someone—a different guard—called my name.

“What is your father’s name? What is your grandfather’s name?”

Oh God, the same routine. But this guard was more amenable to essay-type answers, which I gave, and which he took in with a thoughtful stroke of his chin. He then took out a piece of paper and asked for a complete genealogy of my family, which I was prepared to give (doing it also gave me something to do, and thereby relieved the boredom of sitting around), along with their various job descriptions, which I also gave. Asked how many siblings I had, I (truthfully) said “one,” but he clearly thought I was lying.

“One brother? Just one?”

“Yes.”

“No sisters?”

“No.”

“Not even one?”

I never actually saw this sign, but never mind.

I never actually saw this sign, but never mind.

The sheer skepticism of this question forced me to reconsider the matter and think things through, Cartesian-style. What if I had a sister but had never been told about her? It happened to Luke Skywalker, after all. Would Luke Skywalker have been able to pass this security check? Perhaps I should use the Force. Surely, though, the question concerned known sisters. Ought to answer implies can answer. So the answer must be “no.”

“No,” I said, with great firmness. Not even one sister.

“Good,” he said, as though I’d given him an answer he’d been hoping to hear. He then instructed me to sit down in (yes) the Green Room.

I waited another hour. Eventually, another guard arrived, asked me some of the same questions, and then added a few more. I answered them. He told me to wait in the Green Room.

Another hour went by. Finally, I was called from the Green Room into an office. I sat down across the desk from a young officer surrounded by two older officers. The young officer was seated in front of a computer.

“What is your name?” he asked.

My name? This was the first question in the whole episode that annoyed me. What the hell kind of question was that? At this point, I practically felt like family to these border guards, and they were acting as though they didn’t know who I was. I was insulted.  Come on. I’m Irfan. I mean my paternal grandfather is one thing, but surely by now you know me. But I swallowed my pride and told them my name.

“What is your purpose in Israel?”

“I’m giving lectures at Al Quds University.”

“Lectures. How many lectures? One, five, ten?”

It seemed a gratuitously hostile way of putting the question. I’d have told him if he’d asked how many. But he didn’t. I made a mental note at the time to write the Israeli authorities  to give their officers better instruction in the future in the art of erotetics—of question-asking. On reflection, however,  this seems a really stupid idea.

“Three,” I said. “Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday,” I added, violating my own resolution not to offer more information than was asked in a given question.

He wrote this down. “Do you have a letter of invitation?”

“I do,” I said, pulling it out and handing it to him.

He looked it over. “Sari Nusseibeh,” he intoned slowly, glancing at his superior officer. He looked me directly in the eyes. “You know this man?”

“I’ve emailed with him.” I congratulated myself on the cool precision of my answer. I had also edited Sari Nusseibeh, but I wasn’t about to let that out until they hauled out the thumbscrews.*

“I see,” he said. “Where are you staying?”

“I don’t know exactly, but the university has arranged it, so it must be near their campus.”

“I see,” he responded. “Do you have a contact number?”

“It’s the one on the letter,” I said, with some impatience.

“There is no contact number on the letter,” he said.

Come on, I thought. Let’s not play games here, Mr. Border Security Man. Then he handed it to me. He was right. There was no contact number on the letter.

I was astounded. I also looked like a complete idiot. “I’m sure I have the number of my contact with me.”

“Please give it to me.”

I did.

My cousin Saad Rafiq. Troublemaker.

My cousin Saad Rafiq. Troublemaker.

Then came the “political” questions.

“Have you ever been in trouble with the law?” It seemed to me a poorly phrased question, but I was getting tired, so with my own mental reservations, I construed it as asking whether I had ever been convicted of a serious crime and said “No.” In fact, I had pleaded guilty to a parking offense just last week.

“Have any members of your family ever been in trouble with the law?” This was a tricky question.

My cousin Saad Rafiq was arrested in Pakistan.”

“For what?”

“For fomenting a riot.”

“Was he convicted?”

“There was no trial.”

“Was he imprisoned?”

“Yes, for six months. This was under Musharraf. It was a context of military rule.”

“Could you spell his name, please?”

I did.

“Please wait in the Green Room.”

By this time most of the people in the Green Room had cleared out. I was one of the last ones there. I felt a certain pride in this. A new planeload of passengers sauntered into the border control area. One guy, wearing an Atlas Shrugged T shirt, walked right past me, walked directly up to a border control booth, and got through within approximately two minutes. I wanted to hit him. This was the only violent thought that occurred to me during the whole episode.

As I marinated in resentment over the Atlas Shrugged guy, yet another border security guy came out, handed me my passport and my visa, and instructed me to proceed to the next gate. I had expected the Israeli authorities to stamp my passport, but they didn’t. The visa was in fact a small wallet-sized card. I have to say that I was somewhat taken aback by the sheer considerateness of this gesture. An Israeli visa stamp in my passport would have made it impossible to travel to Pakistan—the Pakistanis, in their wisdom, refusing diplomatic relations with Israel, and refusing entry to anyone with an Israeli visa stamp. Acknowledging this, the Israelis got me off the hook by not stamping the passport, leaving no indication in my passport that I had set foot in Israel. I can’t imagine the Pakistanis or any other Islamic country showing any similar solicitude for a desire to visit Israel. In fact, arguably, it was precisely my Pakistani visa stamp that had caused the delay.

Expedited entry visa into Israel.

Expedited entry visa into Israel.

I looked at my watch. The whole thing had taken four hours. Customs and baggage claim took all of fifteen minutes. The baggage people very considerately left my baggage next to the carousel. Finally, I walked out into the taxi area where my driver was waiting with a sign bearing the name “Dr. Irfan Khawaja.”

I walked up to him. “Asalamo alaikum. Ismi Irfan Khawaja.”

“Aaaaaaagh!” came the response (a cry of dismay, not a word). “Asalamo alakum wa rahmatullahi wa barkat, ya ad-doctor Khawaaaga. Four hawers late you ahhr! Yalla, yalla, we go Jerusalem, Jerusalem.”

And off we went.

So what do I think about all this? The truth is that I expected it, and didn’t really mind it (except for the Atlas Shrugged guy, which somehow did annoy me). Many things in and about Israel deserve criticism, but not, I think, their security procedures. I’ve spent a lifetime being questioned by police officers of one variety or another, and have—starting at the age of six—falsely been accused of (and questioned by the police about) crimes ranging from simple assault to drug dealing to terrorism. I haven’t been imprisoned, but I’ve been frisked, and have been in some touchy, weaponized situations. I’ve also had to call the police at least three times to report violent crimes in progress, two of them involving weapons—a knife in one case, a gun in the other (so I have reason for gratitude to the police as well). I don’t travel a great deal, but have gotten my share of hassles at international borders. I’m no stranger to the law enforcement/border control drill.

My own view of Israel’s border control procedures is that they’re essentially justified. They certainly involve a form of racial profiling. The point isn’t that being an Arab or Muslim (or associated with same) is necessary or sufficient for extra security scrutiny, but it does probabilize scrutiny. They involve long delays. They involve what seem like silly questions asked in a repetitive fashion. (The questions could be improved to accommodate the fact that not everyone with an Arabic name is an Arab.) But in my case, at least, the questioning was courteous and professional. Frankly, I preferred being questioned by Israel’s border security services than I do by officers of the Essex County Sheriff’s Office (who enforce the so-called “curfew” at our local parks, but that’s another topic). The Israelis were tough, but unlike a lot of local cops I’ve dealt with, they weren’t louts. I’ve had worse experiences getting into and out of Montreal than I did in Tel Aviv.

Granted, Israel has a propaganda interest in treating American citizens well, but it deserves some credit for thinking that way, even for propaganda purposes. I’ve been treated like crap in the Pakistani consulate here in New York—and like crap everywhere I went in Saudi Arabia—so evidently the Israelis know what the Pakistanis and Saudis don’t. I don’t mean that the Israelis necessarily treat everyone as well as they treated me, but if the way they treated me was the norm, there wouldn’t be a great deal of room for complaint about ill-treatment.

A nation has the right to make sure that the people entering its borders from abroad are not there to kill or otherwise harm its citizens. Personally, I would prefer that the authorities allay their suspicions about me at the border so that I can breathe freely once I cross it, and do as I please without suspicion for the time I spend within the country (as, with remarkable latitude, I did).

The contrast with Pakistan is instructive: First they fail to control their borders, then they wonder why terrorists are destroying the country. Meanwhile, everyone lives in dread of being blown up by people who have entered the country from abroad. I somehow doubt that the Pakistanis would look to the Israelis for advice, but they might give it a try. The two countries face similar threats from similar sources, but the truth is, Jerusalem felt safer than Lahore, and Gaza aside, nothing in and around Israel is as unsafe as northwestern Pakistan. Frankly, for sheer professionalism, I think the TSA has something to learn from the Israelis. At some level, I felt better treated in Israel than I sometimes do in Newark. The Israelis seemed hyper-conscious that the world was watching them. The resulting dynamic isn’t a bad thing.

With all due respect, then, I have to confess to some skepticism when I encounter an item like this:

The American-financed Alhurra network said Thursday that one of its cameramen was interrogated and strip-searched by Israeli security officers while covering a Fourth of July party at the American ambassador’s residence near Tel Aviv. The Arab satellite channel had coordinated with the prime minister’s office to cover the event on behalf of the international news media. Ambassador Daniel B. Shapiro, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other officials were in attendance. But when the cameraman, Samer Jallad, arrived, he said he was detained for questioning, ordered to remove his shoes and sit in the sun for more than half an hour, and then taken to a room where he was forced to remove his pants for a body inspection.

He said he was held for more than 90 minutes before he was permitted to enter. The embassy and Mr. Netanyahu’s office had no immediate comment.

I’m not sure why this is news. I was interrogated and strip searched by Israeli security officers on my exit from Tel Aviv (which I’ll describe in a later post). Does it really matter that the event was coordinated with the prime minister’s office? That fact alone doesn’t guarantee that the cameraman doesn’t have a bomb. If he might have a bomb, he has to be searched. It’s tendentious to describe the cameraman as “detained for questioning.” Detention implies arrest. He wasn’t “detained” any more than I was. The search was merely a condition of entry. He was ordered to remove his shoes because one can hide a bomb there. It seems problematic that he was ordered to “sit in the sun for more than half an hour,” but I’m skeptical he was. The phrase “sit in the sun” is a literary one, and derives from the Palestinian author Ghassan Kanafani’s short story “Men in the Sun.” Absent more evidence than what’s given in the news item, I suspect that the insertion of the phrase is someone’s idea of cleverness, not a literal description of what actually happened. On my exit from Israel, I was taken to a room and forced to remove my pants for a body inspection, as well. I was held for two hours. My story didn’t make The New York Times (and won’t). So I don’t see why Samer Jallad’s story should. And if we’re going to have stories of this kind, why not have stories of the various subterfuges people employ to deceive border security and get away with crimes?

If you want to criticize Israel, forget about the border and the security procedures associated with it. You have to cross the border to see the real problem.

Irfan

*In an earlier version of this post, I accidentally wrote “corkscrews” instead of “thumbscrews,” which I think conveys exactly the wrong meaning.

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