Thursday, January 28, 2016

So you want to survive an Israeli interrogation...

Going through airport security is pretty similar in most countries... but not in Israel. For obvious reasons, they take security very seriously and the security checks are much more thorough. Since it’s SO different from the U.S., I thought I would document a little bit of what the process is like. I’ve flown out of Ben Gurion airport over 10 times now, so I count myself as an expert :)

First of all, you have to get there 3 hours before your flight (if you’re a foreigner). I’m guessing Israelis don’t need to get there quite as early. It usually doesn’t take the full 3 hours, but it does take much longer than getting through security in other countries, so it’s smart to leave a cushion.

The first step when you get to the airport is being questioned, before you even go to the check-in counter. They usually ask me the exact same questions. Besides the normal things like finding out what you were doing in Israel, they try to find out in a roundabout way whether you’re Jewish or not. Their policy is to racially profile and give non-Jews extra screening later on. That seems odd from an American standpoint, but remember that Israel is not America. Israel is officially a Jewish state with only one official religion. It’s also pretty easy to see that most Muslims get a lottttttttt more screening than others. That would be considered illegal discrimination in the U.S., but Israel takes a more practical (and definitely not PC) standpoint considering their situation. People from the West Bank and Gaza aren’t even allowed to use this airport.

They always start with-
How do you pronounce your name? (I say my name while they stare into my eyes and compare my passport picture to my face)

Before I got my new passport last year, I had one from when I was 16 that didn’t really look like me. Exhibit A: comparison of the old and new passport pics:

When that was the case, the staring intensely into my eyes would last for much longer. They would also always ask to see another I.D., like my driver’s license. And would then hold up my passport and license on either side of my face, tell me to do the same smile as in my pictures, and stare at me for what felt like a long time. That was never uncomfortable at all.

Since my last name is uncommon, they usually follow up with-
What are the ethnic origins of your last name? (A.K.A., maybe you’re secretly a really pale Arab... at least that’s what I imagine they’re asking)
So do you speak Czech?  (That would be a big no- I explain how long ago my family came from there)

Next it goes something like-
Why did you come to Israel?
What are you studying?
Why did you come to Israel to study?  I usually give a different answer every time for that one. I had a lot of reasons :)
Have you been to Israel before?
What did you do here last time?

And then the trying to figure out if I’m Jewish begins. They usually suspect I am after I tell them I’m here studying the Holocaust.
Do you have any family in Israel?
Do you speak any Hebrew?
Where did you learn Hebrew?
Did you ever learn Hebrew as a child?
Do you belong to a certain community in the U.S.? I say yes and tell them what religion I am. 

One time they followed up with-
What street is your church building on?  I’m surprised I knew the answer to that, actually.

What holidays to you celebrate? This is the one that makes me laugh the most. I’m always tempted to answer with a really obscure holiday that no one makes a big deal of like Arbor Day!, but to speed up the process I usually just say “Christmas and Easter. I’m Christian.”

I haven’t been asked this a lot, but sometimes they ask-
Have you ever been to Jordan or Egypt?
Did you go to the West Bank?
Do you know anyone there?
Did you talk to anyone there?

When that happens, I tell them about the touristy things I did there (Petra, Bethlehem, etc.). The question about knowing or talking to anyone makes me roll my eyes a little bit. Does the tour guide count?

The award for most creative security questions goes out to Israelis that came to France in December to provide extra security (I’m assuming, since this was just 2 weeks after the terror attack in Paris). Most of the rest of this is about flying from Israel and not to Israel, but I had to include this because it’s funny. And they were Israeli.

How long have you been in Israel?
What is the conversion rate between shekels and euros? 
Translate  bavakasha (please/you’re welcome)
                rega (one moment)
                yalla (let’s go)
                l’hitraot (see you later)

And my personal favorite-
What are the Jewish months that Hannukah and Passover are in?

I’m pretty impressed with myself that I knew this. Kislev and Nisan, duh!

So not only was this whole conversation in French, he was asking me to translate things from Hebrew to French. That really hurt my brain. For the money conversion/translations I can see how he could have been making sure that I had actually been in Israel for as long as I said I had. Not sure how knowing about the Jewish calendar applied to anything though.

So back to Ben Gurion airport. After finishing the questioning part, they put a sticker with a bar code on your passport. Later, someone else scans this to see whether you are Jewish or not and what line to put you in. The next step is what’s normally the first step- checking in with the airline, getting your boarding pass, etc. My personal favorite part of traveling is when my suitcase passes the weight inspection and they take it away so I don’t have to carry it anymore. Today that part didn’t go so well though. When you’ve lived in the same apartment for a year and you have to fit everything you own in one suitcase, it’s complicated. I hit my personal record of a 75 pound suitcase, which might I add, I carried by myself this morning up 3 flights of stairs and down 5 flights to get out of the dorms. Ow. Still feeling that.

Step number 3 is the actual security part. You don’t have to take your liquids out, but you do have to take out everything that’s electronic- cords, chargers, everything. You also don’t have to take your shoes off, and they don’t have those 3-D scanner machines like in the U.S- just metal detectors. They take your passport for this whole process and you don’t get it back until you pass the inspection. Usually once you get to the front of the line, it takes maybe 10 minutes for them to go through your bags. They open and go through your bags every. single. time. They also rub all of your electronics with a wand to check for explosive residue.

There are some fun questions during this part sometimes too. The thing they always want to know is-
Which electronics came out of which bag? What came out of your pockets?

They’re obsessed with that. For the life of me I don’t understand why that matters, but you have to separate the electronics based on what was in your pockets/purse/carry-on,  and they constantly ask you to repeat what came from what.

Step 4 is going through passport control, which I’ve never had to do in another country when I was leaving it. This part usually doesn’t take very long, especially since I have a student visa. Something that’s interesting is that they don’t stamp your passports in Israel. Instead they print out a little card for you. Guess why? Because you can’t enter most Arab countries if you have an Israeli stamp in your passport. Guess why? Because they'e a little prejudiced and not huge fans of Israel. So this way, they make it so people won’t be excluded from visiting somewhere else just for visiting Israel. It makes me a little sad because I would have collected quite a few Israeli stamps and that would be fun.

That’s the last step! Sometimes it takes pretty long waiting in line, but I’ve never had any trouble. In my experience, if you’re polite, they’ll be super polite to you. I’ve heard a few stories of people I know actually having to go to interrogation rooms for more questioning because 1. they were rude 2. they had visited Arab countries/West Bank that needed further explanation or 3. they were studying something that seemed pro-Palestinian. It might sound kind of intimidating but they’ve always been so nice to me. My favorite was this one time when a security guard was directing me which line to go to and he did so by singing a line from a Beyonce song “to the left to the left.”

Since I’m weird and this is my only frame of reference considering the kind of books I read all the time, sometimes I pretend I’m being interrogated by the Gestapo or the KGB haha. But it’s really not like that. But it’s a little fun to make the best of the long process and extra screening by being dramatic in my head about how I’m a scary non-Jewish threat.

All in all, I feel so safe when I fly out of Israel. I don’t trust the TSA one bit compared to the Israelis. Europe is even worse. One time flying out of France, a guy made the metal detector go off, and they just let him continue anyways when he explained that it was his shoes’ fault. That being said, I’m pretty excited I don’t have to fly out of Israel anytime soon again. Not only does it take a while to do everything at the airport, it’s such a hassle to get out of the dorms and take both a bus and train while carrying luggage. Especially 75 pound luggage. 

Chilling on the train

If you want to see some pictures of the students at Haifa University, click here. I had a lot of time for blogging during my 15 hours of flying yesterday :)

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