On Political Correctness at Ben-Gurion Airport

I've always appreciated Ben-Gurion Airport security, mainly because it works on the principle that people are dangerous, not inanimate objects. In other words, nail clippers in your carry-on bag aren't considered a threat to the international civil aviation system if you yourself are judged to be a harmless traveler. The screening process -- one-on-one interviews conducted by highly-trained young Israeli army veterans -- can take its toll on people who fit certain profiles, but these interviews are usually done with a level of un-Israeli politesse. (And yes, please feel free to e-mail me your nightmare stories, always happy to read. I know several Israeli Arabs and Arab-Americans who glide through the process, but I know some who've been caught up in the screening for two hours.)

Sometimes the politesse, however, becomes a bit absurd. For whatever reason, Israeli security screeners won't ask departing passengers whether or not they are Jewish. But they are nevertheless desperate to know. This morning, for instance (I'm writing in the airport lounge) my screener asked me the usual series of questions -- where did you stay, why are you visiting, where exactly did you visit (back in the days when I was going in and out of Gaza regularly, I would tell the screeners that I had spent quality time with Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and other Hamas notables; on occasion they didn't quite know what to do with the information). Then my screener asked, "Are you a member of a community in America?"

Such a deep question, particularly in this age of multiple identities and declining civic participation! I wanted to say, "Does Twitter count as a community?" But I asked, "What do you mean?" He said: "In Washington, are you a member of a certain community, like a religious organization?"

I said, "Are you asking me if I'm Jewish?"

He said, "No!"

I said, "Really?"

He said, "Yes," but then he kind of ceded the point, asking, "Do you belong to a synagogue?" I told him the name of my synagogue (Adas Israel, in case you care) and he said, "Is that a strong one?"

I was very tempted to say, "Well, yes, though as you know the Conservative movement of  American Judaism is experiencing all sorts of pressures related to the re-Judaization of the Reform movement, plus there are the various challenges associated with intermarriage, the dues-paying model of religious engagement, and the gap between the level of observance among the clergy and that of their congregants, but all in all, things are going pretty well, and we've even begun a building campaign." But instead, I said, "Very strong."

"I don't know this synagogue," he said, and now I was offended. "Well, it's a pretty important synagogue,'" and I started to explain why, but he had lost interest, apparently convinced that I was Semitically nudnikish enough to check-in for my flight.

I noticed that the line to be screened was quite long this morning, and it struck me that if these screeners simply cut to the chase on this one crucial question, they'd be able to process passengers more quickly. I think the process at Ben-Gurion is sufficiently invasive that direct questions aren't going to be judged terribly offensive.

A couple of other things about Ben-Gurion (and these are observations that make me wish James Fallows was here with me, in order to provide his own commentary): Travelers are allowed to keep their shoes on through the physical screening process, and there are no TSA-naked-scanning machines to be found. Passengers are run through old-fashioned metal detectors. The TSA finds it necessary to take naked pictures of your body because it refuses to actually engage in the level of smart security employed at Ben-Gurion. I've heard all the arguments against the adoption of the Israeli approach in American airports -- volume of traffic, particular American sensitivities about probing questioning -- but the simple fact is, passengers board planes out of Israel highly-confident that the security protocols at Ben-Gurion work as well as humanly possible. And I find answering a series of questions about my travel less invasive than posing like a mugging victim in a machine that takes pictures of you naked.  Of course, if the TSA were to ask me if I'm Jewish, I might have a problem with that. Context is everything.