With Passover just around the corner, Israel is traveling. While the country faces the economic crisis like any other country, this is still a time for seeing far-flung family or getting away from the constant bustle and struggle.
For our small community of international teachers living in Israel, the key question for Spring Break is “Where are you headed?” Shortly after comes, “What airline are you flying on?” And the correct answer is, “Not El Al.”
It’s not so much that flying on El Al is unpleasant. The flights are fairly typical, and many El Al planes are loaded with personal TVs and entertainment centers. Routes go to much of Europe and to major American cities. And Israelis tend to be especially brotherly and sociable on board, even if they’re a little over-flirty with the flight attendants.
The problem with flying on El Al is what comes before and after the flight.
It comes as no surprise that Israel is very concerned about security, and it stands to reason that the national airline is also concerned. Equally expected but significantly sadder is the ass-backwards approach El Al takes to “ensuring their customers’ safety.” The horror stories are endless.
A friend, B., boyfriend of a teacher at the school, has been singled out a few times over his two years of living in Israel. He doesn’t have a work visa and has to go out and come back in Israel many times. While he has a Slavic-sounding last name, B. is not Jewish. And so he’s a target.
The last straw with El Al came this winter on a visit to Rome. B. met up with his mother and toured the Eternal City. When it was time to leave, the two went to the airport, the mother reporting to her flight back to the states, B. to the security line to return to Israel. In the El Al line, B. was pulled aside for further questioning. So far, business as usual.
But traveling to and from Rome on separate flights from his mother, B. caused more suspicion. Unsatisfied with his reasons for traveling, his basic knowledge of Hebrew, and the fact that his Israel phone didn’t get service in Italy, the guards decided they needed some more info. They pulled B.’s mom out of her line with a different airline to interrogate her. She was not pleased when they quizzed her on why her son wasn’t married.
When it was all over, B. had 10 minutes to relax with his mother near the gate. At the same time, El Al agents, “kept watching me and listening to my conversations while at the same time pretending they didn’t care about me anymore.” The whole experience left B. with the sense that “once they’re done with you they act like you’ve been bothering them for an hour, and why don’t you go away.” The upshot is one less potential customer for El Al.
Another family at my school has taken more than their share of abuse from El Al and Ben Gurion Airport. “We’re stopped every time at immigration,” J. reports, before telling me about his daughter’s worst experience.
J.’s daughter, 19 and in college, has spent most of her life overseas. She was flying over the holidays to visit her family in Israel. She flew from Minneapolis to Switzerland, where she had to catch an El Al flight to Israel.
Everything seemed OK at first.
She made it through security with no bumps and was sitting in her seat on the plane, the boarding gate poised to close. Then they called her name and pulled her off the plane. Into the interrogation room she went, soon reduced to a terrified, intimidated suspect.
They asked her about what she was carrying in her luggage, then made her identify that luggage from the cargo. The agents seemed satisfied and let her back on the plane, but moments later she was called off again and made to watch as they opened up her bag and inspected each item.
At last, J.’s daughter was allowed to fly to Israel. She was shaken by the whole experience, and as such in no state to deal with the final indignity: the bag they had inspected didn’t make it to Tel Aviv on her flight. She broke down a little before her parents talked with the baggage agent and took her home. The bag arrived in two days.
Two days is a luxury compared to what my brother Mark faced when he came to visit me. His connection was in Milan. There, they asked him if he was going to join the army, if I was going to join the army, which side he was on, and if, “your brother is Jewish, he works in Israel, do you see any connection?” Fortunately, he came a few days before the Gaza war, so at least they didn’t have added pretext to doubt him.
In any case, they pulled all his bags off the plane and inspected them, paying special attention to his TI-89 calculator (despite the great technology in Israel, they’re very paranoid about any electronics coming into the countryer?, whether a laptop, an I-pod, a PS3, a calculator, or anything else). The bags didn’t arrive in Israel when he did, delaying him at the airport by an hour as he gave all the necessary info.
For the next week, Mark checked in with El Al every day, receiving mixed reports: his bag was in Milan still, workers were on strike there, they hadn’t inspected his bag yet, it would be on the next flight, it would come tomorrow, etc. It didn’t arrive in the country until more than a week after he did.
Then, instead of delivering it immediately and in a company car, El Al sent it to my apartment in a cab. No one was home when the driver came, and he didn’t feel like leaving it there. I was in the middle of a meeting when he called me, so I couldn’t help him. The cabbie left, taking Mark’s bag back to the airport with him. Only after a verbal shouting match on the phone did I manage to get a commitment from El Al to make sure the bag got there no matter what. And it did. 10 days late, but safe and sound.
It’s not just El Al that is a problem in Israel. The airport security officials at Ben Gurion airport are sticklers about letting you leave too. My non-Jewish girlfriend, M., has been hassled each time she’s left the country. Over Thanksgiving break the questions centered on vital issues like what novels did she teach her 6th graders, and what organizations did she belong to in the States?
They reviewed the questions a few times to try to catch her in a lie before letting her through. When she went home for Christmas with a bag full of gifts, they unwrapped each one from its bubble wrap protection and screened it through the detector, a tedious process in every stage.
Nobody denies that Israel faces security risks and has to adjust policies accordingly. Everybody I talked to conceded that they wouldn’t mind a few extra steps in the screening process. But there’s extra steps and then there’s unreasonable, ineffective bullying – an abuse of power in the most senseless of ways.
Maybe El Al shouldn’t be blamed; they’re based in a country where noble ideas and vital concerns get twisted into petty power plays and misguided policies all the time. In that sense, El Al and the airport are not unusual, just especially visible.
Dan Shvartsman is a teacher in Tel Aviv.