07 December 2006

Good security, an exercise in rudeness or something completely different?

I have stumbled on the story first on the Engage web site.

I am used to look at Engage as a group of people whom I respect personally and who are friends of Israel, doing an excellent job of fighting anti-Semitic scum and challenging the rot that has set in the British left. They are also critics of Israel when Israel deserves it, which it frequently does, so we must be doubly grateful to them for the work they are doing.

So, when a friend tells you that something is stinking in your house, you better listen. So I listened, and what I hear ain't nice, that much I can tell you for sure.

The story is about (alleged) deliberate humiliation of an academic on her way to a conference abroad (Tunis). The humiliation in question was carried out by our security staff, starting with the nice guy/girl with an Uzi who waves your car in at the main entrance gate at the airport and apparently ending with the last and the lowest member of the security checkers team in the airport security area.

The person who underwent the humiliation - Dr. Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian - besides being, as she defines herself, a Palestinian, is a respected academic, gainfully employed by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, author of a truckload of publications and, by the way, graduate of same university. Dr. Shalhoub-Kevorkian is also a feminist, researching and fighting against the ugly acts of violence against women that are so frequent in Palestinian society (and not unknown in Israel as well). She is also a member of B'Tselem board - an outfit I do not like too much, but that's my personal opinion and does not count in this story.

Meanwhile, the story caused Arab Association for Human Rights and the Center for the Campaign Against Racism to raise again (and by rights) the issue of humiliating treatment by our security. It caused Haaretz to publish an article with a quite sensational-sounding headline Three-hour airport security check: Run of the mill or just plain racist? It gave our "friend" Richard Silverstein a pretext to voice the following opinion:

Her detention seemed merely garden variety humiliation designed to put the uppity Arab nigger in her place - and not based on any particular priinciple or reason.
(Mr. Silverstein probably thinks he is doing the world a favor using that manly blunt language, after all he assigned himself that complex task of Tikkun Olam - mending the world). Well, Mr. Silverstein needs some tikkun too, obviously. In priinciple, that is.

One (of the extra-right) can dismiss the complaints, citing the usual "Arab rubble-rousers and self hating Jews". But we'll dismiss one's crap for a while. Let's look closer at the case Dr. Shalhoub-Kevorkian presents.

First of all, the beginning of her odyssey, including the 40-minutes wait due to car body check, is not out of the ordinary. The reason all passengers (that obviously includes the Jewish ones) asked to come in three hours before the flight includes the possibility of the checks like this one. Is it totally unreasonable to check the car from East Jerusalem, knowing the ease of access to the West Bank?

Re the shoes and the cell phones - let a person who traveled a few times lately in US or Europe and did not experience this raise his/her hand.
Afterward another security agent asked me to bring all my belongings and follow him up for an additional search. Here, something like 3-4 security personnel were checking my one small bag, my computer bag and my carry-on purse.
Nothing out of the ordinary so far. Happened to me in US a few times and once even in Israel (yep, and I do not live in East Jerusalem and can easily prove my Jewish roots).
They also took my cell phones and I was unable to call anyone for help. At one point, the phone was ringing and I asked one of them to give it to me, and he did-by I missed the call; and he took it back.
Cell phone in security area: I am not sure whether I have to respond to this one at all. Try this at any airport in US and see where it leads you. Or your phone, for that matter.

I cannot really relate to the complaint about the disarrayed belongings. I have been there, many of the travelers who undergone the "random" checks have been there, and, unfortunately, this is the downside of security. And it definitely looks to us unfeeling an invasive.
In a short time, the head of the security officers came and told me that I cant take my laptop with me to the plane.
This is the climax point of the story as far as the factual information is concerned. The laptop was not allowed on the plane. This is also what the hasty Haaretz journos reported, omitting the fact that Dr. Shalhoub-Kevorkian herself says further:
At that time, three security people were packing my stuff in such a mess, pulling the computers battery, wrapping the laptop without even getting my approval.
In fact, the intention of the security people was to send the laptop in the hold. So the laptop was not confiscated - as it happened to a few Jewish Israeli citizens for reasons that will be hardly made known to the general public and as it happens routinely in the airports in US (I am not sure about Europe). I can hardly believe that it is unknown to Dr. Shalhoub-Kevorkian, however she prefers to present her case as unique, when in fact the laptop was not even confiscated.

All in all, I am (almost completely) sure that the claims Dr. Shalhoub-Kevorkian makes regarding the security procedures per se could be safely dismissed. I am, however, taking very seriously her claims about the behavior of the security personnel:
  • ...she replied ( with so much vulgarity) that I could find the pages and organize them later on.
  • His friend on the other side was picking up my underwear one after the other and joking about my bras to his friends in Hebrew- thinking that I don't speak the language.
  • ...a security officer screamed at me that I cant touch the purse.
  • ...ridiculing me while dropping my tooth brush on the floor...
  • ...He was so disrespectful, so rude and abrasive.
  • Tal Vardi with such a humiliating and sarcastic manner replied...
  • Their talks, their methods of poking fun at me, and their disrespect...
All of the above, even if only partly true, could not and should not be dismissed. The Ben-Gurion airport security is the face we present to the world, and if its members behave like what Dr. Shalhoub-Kevorkian describes, it is quite an ugly mug. And it needs a facelift, even if a painful one. Especially if, as it is claimed, the behavior was a selective treatment of a Palestinian woman.

But, saying this, I cannot pass over a few points from the letter that cause me some doubts:

... everything was scattered.with all my belongings in such a disrespectful manner...

How exactly does one scatter the belongings in a disrespectful manner?

I saw another security man ... emptying my purse in such a humiliating manner.

Same question here: how would you go about humiliating a purse?

I am standing mesmerized captivated by their inhumanity...

Inhumanity... Strange choice of term. Unfeeling, rude, vulgar - I would accept these, but that "inhuman" keep repeating itself:

I then started yelling while trying to explain but this time with so much anger and told them that their way of treating people is not human, that I allowed them to check everything in my luggage, that I cooperated, but they treated me with such a rude and inhumane manner.

Inhuman. Strange choice of adjective, and I do not believe that Dr. Shalhoub-Kevorkian's English is inferior to mine. And that reference to "allowing them to check everything" - how exactly should it count as a good deed? And, by the way, in many airports in the world yelling at security staff is a sure way to earn some quality time in the nick.

All in all: I do not totally disbelieve Dr. Shalhoub-Kevorkian, and the behavior of our security teams in the airport has a lot of room for improvement and sensitivity training.

Nor do I fully believe the lady as well. He motives in painting the picture as she did in that open letter are not just righteous rage at humiliation by that "inhuman" treatment. Far from it. Right, Dr. Shalhoub-Kevorkian?

Now my two pennies of a personal angle. I have read the letter several times carefully. I can believe the parts of it where the author describes her humiliation and the inexcusable behavior of the security people. While it is only Dr. Shalhoub-Kevorkian's word against the security team's, it could have happened. Although - I have seen more than once some "extra" security checks being carried out in cases of Arab passengers, and I have not noticed any special signs of disrespect, rudeness, etc. But these are my personal observations and could be easily discounted.

Re Dr. Shalhoub-Kevorkian herself - I have happened to see her a few times on TV (her English, by the way, is outstanding). I have great respect for the obviously high level of intellect she displays. However - I have even more respect, even admiration of the quality of spin she succeeds to put in any statement where Israel and Israelis are concerned.

In short - this letter is an artful mix of truths, half-truths and omissions that should be taken with a grain of salt. And it goes without saying that the rude, insulting and humiliating behavior of the security staff should be severely punished and prevented in the future.

As a side remark: what worries me a bit are the comments to the letter by the Engage folks. It seems that almost all of them accepted the letter completely and readily, without doubting a word of it. Why?