On my way back from the Balkans to Israel, I experienced another vivid example of outsourced sovereignty, (see earlier post: “welcome to the borderland”). Because of a lack of alternatives and for the first time in my life, I booked a flight with EL AL, the Israeli Airline. While the outbound flight was pretty easy compared to what I have experienced earlier with Israeli border authorities, the flight back has once again shown that a state´s borders are not necessarily just around it´s actual territory. In this case Israeli territory stretched out towards the check-in area at Sofia airport.
Arriving at the airport more than two hours ahead of departure, and heading towards the EL AL counters for check in, a friendly woman asked me whether I have an Israeli passport. Answering no, she asked whether I have been flying with the airline before, and that there are “special procedures”, due to security reasons. The spatial situation is that there are several speakers’ desks in the waiting area before the actual check-in counters, and at these desks people without Israeli passports are filtered out and have to undergo precisely these ‘special procedures’.
Along with the obligatory questions like: “Is this your luggage?”, “Have you packed it yourself?”, “Did anyone access it after you packed it?”, “Did anyone ask you to carry something for him/her?”, and “Are you carrying a weapon?”, I had to explain what I was doing in the Balkans, why I am going to and what I am going to do in Israel. Saying I was doing research was the correct answer, but maybe not the one making the situation easier. The still friendly woman wanted to see pictures from my trip, plans (as an architect, one has to carry plans!), pictures, notes, and sketches from my earlier visits to Israel. Obviously my answers were suspicious, because with my passport, my student card, and the letter from my university, saying I was doing research, she headed off, talking to her male colleagues, a couple of meters away. After a while, she came back with more requests, like providing a list of people I know in Israel, a list of people I know who speak Hebrew, a list of people I know who speak Arabic, and so forth. After answering the questions and giving the requested information, the woman left for the second time, only to come back with a male colleague of hers who eventually took over. The not so friendly – to put it mildly – man, who had no idea about architecture, started asking ridiculous questions about Serbian-, Balkans-, and Israeli architecture, trying to convict me of lying, or at least not being an architect. He also wanted to know what the world gains of my thesis. While this is a profound, legitimate question, my answer apparently did not satisfy him, as, according to him, there is no “concrete result” from what I am doing. All this has used up at least three quarters of an hour. I don’t know whether I finally convinced him that I actually am an architect, and to explain to him that the research I am doing will hopefully be a contribution to knowledge. Either way, all of a sudden another colleague of theirs appeared and asked me to follow him.
We went through narrow corridors into an even narrower (maybe 2 square meters) cubicle, where I had to take off my shoes and my jacket. My hand-luggage (I did not have booked luggage), which has been taken away from me earlier, was taken to a small room beyond the cubicle. I was asked to wait in the tiny cubicel and everything that was not on my body at that time was brought to this screening room next door. The room had the usual scanning devices, which I could see because the door was half-open. I saw that all my belongings were poured out of my suitcase and separately screened. At one point, two officers approached me, asking to pull down my pants. On my request if they are serious with this, they said they were. I complained that this is ridiculous and humiliating and they said they know, but that it was a necessary procedure.
After seemingly endless waiting time, one of the officers came with my computer, asking me to open it and type in my password to unlock it. Then I had to demonstrate it can show pictures (which had already been checked in the check-in area), and that it can play music. After shutting it down, the officer left with it and while I still saw all my clothes and other stuff near the scanner, I did not see the part of the room where they were busy with my computer. After another 45 minutes or so, I finally realised, I was already checked in and therefore I will eventually get on the flight. The officers said, I cannot have the charger and other electronic stuff in the same suitcase as my computer, and they packed these things into a box. Also the hand-luggage was no hand-luggage anymore, but was checked in.
To my surprise, one of the officers said, he was coming with me, because if I was left alone before boarding, they would have to check me again (we were already within the security area). I turned down his offer to buy a coffee or something from the Duty Free area under his supervision. Hence, we went straight to the gate, where I, together with the officer, jumped the line and was one of the first on board. I knew that there are armed security people on board of every EL AL flight, but that I was privileged with the company of my own security guard came as a surprise. However, he explained that the fact he was going to Tel Aviv as well had nothing to do with me, but was a coincidence.
I have to say that almost all the individuals I have been in touch with during these two hours were friendly and apologising. They were excusing what they did with instructions and regulations, but at least noticed what they did might exceed the limits of what is humane and acceptable. It is alarming however that there is a situation in which people do what they are told to, even if it is discriminatory and humiliating. This is the year 2013, and what happened to me has been done in the name of a state that calls itself a democracy. As I also said in an earlier post, with a European Passport I am still highly priviledged. What happened to me however, certainly gives a taste of how Palestinians are being treated in similar situations.
Although I was assured this had nothing to do with discrimination, a procedure that is called `ethnic profiling´ filters out all non-Jews and treats them as highly dangerous, potential terrorists or as collaborators with Israel´s enemies. Furthermore, in light of the recent scandals in terms of large scale monitoring and surveillance (see Guardian article on XKeystore, a NSA spying tool revealed in course of the case Edward Snowden) , my experiences with Israeli border authorities shows that the state of Israel can be named in the same breath with NSA, Google or any other large-scale data-collector. I am sure my file provides them with a pretty comprehensive overview of my life. On top of the information stored in my passport, they know about my family background, my places of living, my work, my telephone numbers and email addresses, people I know in Israel and in Jordan, and so forth. Being aware what is possible with only a few data, I imagine that the Israeli authorities are able to find out almost anything about me if they want to.
This whole procedure was a clear sign that EL AL does not want passengers other than Jews, as much as Israel does not want people other than Jews, or make it as hard as possible for them to enter the country or live in it. Even if tourism seems to be an important economic factor for the country, I have heard similar stories from many who are not Jewish and have been visiting Israel.
As much as one understands increased security measures because of the geopolitical situation of Israel, as much is such a treatment inappropriate and unworthy a state that calls itself modern, liberal, and democratic. While huge parts of the academic world are boycotting Israel, this is obviously what people who still visit the country, try to contribute to knowledge about it and attempt to be a communicator and connector, get in return.
To wrap up, I would like to quote some of the statements of the airline and its representatives. Elyezer Shkedy, EL AL President and CEO states in a press release from May 27, 2013: “We are committed to offering our clientele the very finest services and products.“ In a press conference in 2010, Shkedy tellingly also said that EL AL are „the civilian wings of the Jewish nation and the State of Israel”.
Moreover, here are two interesting bullet points out of EL AL´s corporation responsibility:
“At home anywhere in the world”
„We seek to exceed our clients’ expectations with the service we provide, and continually monitor and enhance our customers’ experience. We strive to provide a home to all of our clients and people by attending to their needs and treating them with respect and appreciation.“
“Safety and security“
„Safety and security are pivotal values for EL AL. We implement them in every activity area to ensure our customers, people and suppliers are safe and secure at the outmost.“
I was certainly missing respect and appreciation during the check-in in Sofia, as stated in the airline’s CR. And that the ‘wings’ of Israel reach far beyond its physical borders is not only evindent through what this post conveys, but is demonstrated by the airline saying to implement safety and security measures in every activity area, even if it is a place at another state’s airport. An interesting question is why other states, cities, and airports allow these special conditions.
© Sigi Atteneder, 2013