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The Gatekeepers

Talking our way into Israel

Marc Tracy
June 11, 2012
Newark Airport: the traditional gateway to the holy land(Marc Tracy)
Newark Airport: the traditional gateway to the holy land(Marc Tracy)

We are sitting in the El Al terminal at Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR for you call-sign buffs), waiting for our 1:30 p.m. flight with what appear to be at least four or five other Birthright Israel trips in addition to our own. Our terminal is sparse due to construction: a newsstand and two bars, only one of which (but one of which, thank God) sells tea and coffee.

The thing we’re thinking about right now is our El Al security interviews, which are far, far more extensive than anything you encounter even in the course of international travel—even at, say, customs. Before you even go through security—in the case of Birthright travelers, before you get your ticket—you are subjected to an extensive questioning by an El Al employee (almost all of whom, in our case, were young and female) about your bags, sure, whether you packed them and whether you received any gifts, but also about your reasons for traveling to Israel and your Jewishness. After all, they know you’re with Birthright Israel. Which of course begs the question: If they know you’re with Birthright—which is to say, that you have been pre-screened through a months-long application that includes an extensive phone interview—why do they also insist on this? I suspect the answer lies in security imperative.

Two travelers I spoke with as well as myself experienced the same jarring experience: After being asked if we had received “gifts” from anyone, we were told that they were asking the question because in the past—”in at least one instance,” my questioner told me—somebody ON BIRTHRIGHT? receiving a gift to take to Israel turned out to have been given a “bomb.” When somebody says the word “bomb” at El Al security, it goes off like, well, a bomb in your head. It seem not unlikely to me that they are in fact instructed to do this, perhaps to rattle you. (It also left me wondering: Is it indeed true—I have little doubt it is—that somebody has tried to place a bomb on El Al by telling a passenger they were taking a gift? What would El Al do if this had never happened and they had been denied such a useful anecdote?)

Said Leon Neyfakh, who is traveling on our trip: “I’ve gone through customs before. You expect certain questions, and you’re accustomed to know why they’re asking you certain questions. In this case, they took turns you didn’t expect them to. ‘Where do you work? What do you do there? How long have you worked there? That’s weird that you would have that job given your major?’ That might’ve been just small talk.”

Reasons for traveling and family connections were brought up. Editorial assistant Stephanie Butnick (blogging at Jewcy) was asked about family in Israel after her questioner noticed, in her passport, that she has been before. Contributing artist Margarita Korol’s questioner “was baffled by my Ukrainian birth,” Margarita said, noting that birthplace is in your passport. “I had to prove my Jewish encounters, from Jewish community center to Tablet Magazine. She never asked about bat mitzvah. I volunteered that MY sister had first THE bat MITZVAH in my family, and she gave me a mazel tov, and that was the last question.”

I was asked about by Hebrew proficiency, mostly, it seemed, as a way to ask me about my Jewish education. Another traveler found himself remembering lessons long lost. “She asked if I speak Hebrew, and I said, sort of. ‘How do you know Hebrew?’ I went to a Jewish high school. Then she said, ‘Atah mevin mah sheh ani omer?‘ (Do you understand what I’m saying?).” Our traveler responded: “Kein, ani mevin.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.

Marc Tracy is a staff writer at The New Republic, and was previously a staff writer at Tablet. He tweets @marcatracy.