Israel’s bad example: Racial profiling is Un-American

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Israel’s bad example: Racial profiling is Un-American

Dr. Aref Assaf/NJ Voices 

One of my Thanksgivings wishes was for a safe trip to my homeland Palestine to see my ailing eighty-year-old mother. I had expected a dreaded experience at Newark Airport not only because I am an Arab American traveling to Israel, but because of the newly enacted and much stricter screening procedures. I would argue that the media has exaggerated the travelers’ disgust with the new full body scan and full body pat down procedures the TSA has implemented at Newark Airport. To my surprise and unlike my past experiences, the whole experience of checking in and clearing security and immigration hurdles was, I must admit, rather uneventful.

Only terminal B, not A or C is equipped with the new full body scan and for those who opt-out, the full body pat down where one’s private parts are touched by a same sex-screener. My flight to Tel-Aviv was on Continental Airlines, which departs which from Terminal C. Travelers to Israel, unlike other foreign destinations; undergo not one but two security checks compliments of American taxpayers. The first instance is at the entrance to the departure area, the area secured by TSA personnel where only ticketed passengers are permitted. But there is also an Israel-only security checkpoint near the gate which is secured and all passengers are again subject o document verification, pat downs, and inspection of their carry-on luggage.

At the entrance to the departure area, you still can enjoy the now-old security apparatus: emptying your pockets, taking off your shoes, belt, and watch, and passing your computer and carry-on luggage onto a belt through an enclosed X-ray machine. For me, I just walked through the x-ray machine. At the other side, feeling that I accomplished something, I pointed to the security personnel that it was another successful mission. I wasn’t sure if he knew of my background, but then he suggested that I would not be as elated with the experience if I were going on El-Al, Israel’s official airline, which departs from Terminal B. My polite and careful exchange with the TSA employee gave me an opening to vent my utter disgust with the treatment Arab Americans receive when travelling on El-Al or when they are in Israeli airports. They appear to treat all travelers similarly, but you guys receive the most attention, he said. I replied that Israel treats Arab Americans as lesser American citizens subject to more scrutiny, humiliation, and sometimes refusal of entry into Israel. The United States government is fully aware of the disgraceful treatment but has opted for muted diplomatic jargon to address the maltreatment.

Some pundits have promoted the notion that the US should emulate Israel’s security regime because of it the most effective in the world. The comparison between Israel and the United States is without merit for it fails to consider the sheer size differential in the number of airports, flights, and travelers. While Israel has only two major international airports with less than fifty daily flights, the US has over 450 international airports with thousands of daily flights and millions of travelers going to and coming from all corners of the world.
But beyond the sheer size of the US airport system lies the requirement of safeguarding individual freedoms, privacy, and civil rights. Israel has forsaken liberty for the sake of security. Differential treatment, or more accurately, racial profiling of potential-threat causing travelers is an accepted practice in Israel. And when you are an Arab American or look like one, you are a target of a most grueling and humiliating experience. There simply is not one ethnic or national profile that can be used to describe potential terrorists. Here is a list of recent plane-terrorists that would deviate from the conceivable racially-based formula:

• Germaine Maurice Lindsay, born in Jamaica, involved in the July 7, 2005, London attacks.
• David Headley, U.S. citizen who masterminded the Mumbai (India) attacks.
• Richard Reid, the British citizen aka as the “shoe bomber.”
• Adam Gadahn, California born and once know as Adam Pearlman. He is a spokesman for al Qaeda.
• John Walker Lindh, well known as “American Taliban.”
• Jack Roche, “Jihad Jack.” From Australia.
• The Duka brothers, ethnic Albanians involved in the Fort Dix, New Jersey plot.
• Jose Padilla, the American citizen known as the “dirty bomber.”
• Daniel Boyd and his sons, American citizens plotting grassroots attacks inside the United States.
• Nick Reilly, the British citizen who in May 2008, attempted to bomb a restaurant in Exeter, England.

In fact, profiling does give the illusion of a measurable sense of security. This I would argue can prove counterproductive to good security by blinding people to real threats. They will ignore potential malefactors who do not conform to the perceived profile they have been provided.

A relative of mine traveled recently to Israel and his nightmare started right here at Newark Airport. His first mistake was to book a ticket on El-Al. Upon arriving at Newark with his parents, the 19 year old American- born traveler was met by a team of Israeli security personnel, one female officer dressed in black pants and a white shirt, (similar to the ones you see at Ben Gurion airport), and separated the son from his parents for questioning. The second officer corralled the parents to another area and began to question them with questions such as their names, if they had IDs on them, and their relationship to the person traveling. The father was so annoyed by the line of penetrating questionings that he burst into loud objections to what he perceived as undue infringement onto their personal freedom. Their crime is that they were at Newark to send their son off on his first maiden flight. They felt as if they were no longer on American soil after being so crudely being questioned by agents of a foreign country. As for the son, he would be the subject of a deliberately repetitious line of questioning by the security officer, his luggage clearly tagged with a yellow sticker, his computer and his phone checked in as luggage, and his seat towards the front of the plane switched to the last row.

While it is true that Israel’s security measures have prevented many potential attacks from ever taking place, this is also true of so many other airports with less stringent and discriminatory security practices. Admittedly, while it is impossible to keep all contraband off aircraft, efforts to improve technical methods and procedures to locate weapons and IED components must continue. However, these efforts must not only be reacting to past attacks and attempts but should also be looking forward to thwarting future attacks that involve a shift in the terrorist paradigm. At the same time, the often-overlooked human elements of airport security, including intuition, situational awareness, and observation need to be emphasized now more than ever. It is profoundly imperative to profile individuals based on their behavior rather than by their ethnicity or nationality. While Israel commits human rights violations every time it comes in contact with an Arab or Arab looking traveler, the US, with its diversity and constitutional constraints must not adopt illegal and immoral practices to achieve absolute safety for the traveling public. Imagine subjecting 70% of Americans to racial profiling! It is those soft skills and moral requisites that we must acquire to seek out the bomber and not just the explosives.

The young man spent a month or so studying Arabic in the Israeli- occupied Palestinian territories. The ‘Welcome to Israel’ signs ceased to mean anything when he returned to Ben Gurrion Airport to fly back to the US. Not only he will not fly on Israel’s El-Al but he may never visit Israel again. And he is an American citizen whose government gives to Israel 4 billion dollars in non-payable grants every year – but that’s a story for another time.

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