Flying to Israel: Heeding security is key to smooth travel

The main thing to remember is not to stress about this whole process: nothing is personal, it’s just their job and the security is for the better.

August 4, 2019 03:41
An El Al plane in Ben Gurion Airport

An El Al plane in Ben Gurion Airport. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Most people are aware that the security at Israel’s Ben-Gurion Airport is far different than most airports in the world. When flying out of the country, even before checking in for a flight, an airport security official will speak with every passenger briefly. Coming to Israel is no different. In fact, from every airport that flies to Israel you’ll find a contingent of Israel security personnel.

On your way into Israel, you will be asked repeatedly why you are traveling and whom you know in the country. You could try and have answers ready for this: if you have hosts in Israel, make sure you know their name and have their contact details. Do know they might be called to validate this information. If you will be staying in a hotel, have the reservation details, and think of an answer for why you’re going. “Just to travel around” isn’t a terrible answer if it’s the truth, but will probably lead to many more questions. On the whole, if you have family or friends in Israel this process is a lot easier, and if you’re traveling on your own, you might be more thoroughly questioned.

The main thing to remember is not to stress about this whole process: nothing is personal, it’s just their job and the security is for the better. You should tell the truth, remain relaxed and really treat it no differently to if you were in any other country – most people have absolutely no problem, and even if you do get asked questions it doesn’t mean that you are a suspect or anything bad! Stay calm, remember you have nothing to hide, and treat it like an experience. 

Many tourists come here in a group and no matter the demographic or philosophical makeup of the group, the basics remain.

First and foremost, you should be doing online check-in. The information you provide to the airline is shared with a myriad of databases with the hope that it will make your physical arrival at the airport a speedier experience. Even if not checking in a bag, its advisable to do online check-in. If your flight is delayed or the gate has been changed, the airline will inform you directly.

Recently, we had a large group of young American Jews from a Washington-based nonprofit organization. Thirty-four of them in fact were coming to Israel on El Al departing from Newark Airport. Only 33 of them made it to Israel. This is the story of one of them, whom we will call Lilith.

Lilith arrived at the airport almost four hours before the flight with the group. Since she had checked in online that morning and was traveling without a bag to check, she headed straight to TSA security. That was her first mistake. Why when she checked in she didn’t take a seat or change the one she was assigned was her second mistake. Not printing out a boarding pass was her third one.

She bypassed El Al security completely. Whether you have a checked bag or not, you must go through El Al. Lilith arrived at the departure gate oblivious to her error, while the rest of the group meandered in. She casually mentioned to some others that she never went through any questioning and it was suggested she immediately go to the gate agent. The gate agent, on the overbooked flight, saw she never completed the check-in process, had no seat assigned and told her to take a seat and she would be called. At this stage, it was still two hours prior to the flight and yet the clock was ticking. Many names were called, given boarding passes, but not our Lilith. Finally realizing that she was in trouble, she again went to the counter and someone there pulled her aside to do the questioning. 

IN LILITH’S own words: “I handed her my passport, and she asked me questions for about 15 minutes starting with going through the stamps in my passport and asking me about any of them (specifically those on the last page from Morocco). She also asked for the names of all my Arab or Arab-American friends and how close I am with them and how often I see/talk to them. After going through all of this, she asked me to wait a minute. She took my passport and went to get her colleague, who I later figured out was the head of El Al security at Newark. He then asked me all the same questions again and continued questioning me about just about everything you could think of for close to another 40 minutes, getting increasingly hostile over the course of the questioning. I answered every single question I was asked truthfully (though certainly didn’t volunteer extra information) and with a positive attitude. At this point, the entire group except one person board the aircraft. The man then told me the only way he could let me on the flight was if he confiscated all my belongings except my passport. When I asked if I could bring a sweater and socks on the flight for warmth, he said no. He then took everything I had. When I asked to send my boyfriend a quick text, he said no. At this point I was quite distressed and uncomfortable but still really wanted to go on the trip.”

“They took me to another room where there were about six security officials. They took my shoes away and two women pulled curtains around us and searched my entire body in a way that made me very uncomfortable. They lifted my shirt off and examined the bottom of my feet. Finally they took me back to the gate and said I could board the flight and printed me a boarding pass.”

Lilith never got on the plane. It’s a bit of a mystery as she had been cleared, but she, as luck would have it, she decided to ask them questions. She turned to the head of security and asked would she get her stuff back in Tel Aviv and was told probably in a few days. He then asked her for her computer password and she refused. At the door of the plane, she walked down the jet way and asked a colleague if he thought there was a chance she wouldn’t get her belongings back, who raised his own suspicions.

For some unknown reason, she chose at that moment to become more strident, demanding to know if she would get her belongings back. One of the flight crew told her to give them her computer password and they would give her back her possessions. This impasse went on for a few minutes until one of the gate agents told her they would not board her. After a short time, her backpack and personal items were returned.
After taking some time to gain her composure, she went to a friend’s house while the group’s liaison made contact with us to rebook her. Yes, Lilith was determined to travel to Israel. A new ticket was procured, and the next day back to Newark she went. Still not doing online check-in, she went straight to the El Al security stand. She was spotted immediately and new agents asked if she was the woman from yesterday who was pulled off the line. Six people huddled over her passport, more people questioned her with the focus on her computer and why she adamantly refused to give them her password. In her words: “They labeled all of my baggage and my passport with labels that said ‘security division’ and had the number six on them, which, because I have done extensive research on Israel’s security system and El Al and know many people who have gone through interrogations at the border before, I know is a designation on their one to six ranking system of threat level, with six being the highest.”

They sent her to get a boarding pass printed, but upon arrival, told her there was something wrong with the booking. Why she never called her travel agent remains a mystery, but wait patiently by the check-in desk she did. While the plane was overbooked, Lilith had a firm booking but again the lack of doing online check-in and getting a boarding pass allowed El Al to put her on standby.

Ten people made the flight, in addition to the Jerusalem sales manager of El Al, who was personally updated on the situation once it was discovered she was physically at Newark Airport. While standing there, everyone else on the standby list was allowed to board except for Lilith. She asserts that no alternative flights were offered and although her agent did book her another ticket for later that night, she chose to avoid going through the same hassle a third time.

The group was a huge success, their trip to Israel gave them new perspectives in the challenges and success of the country. Their return flight was uneventful and Lilith’s saga came to an end. We did speak to security directly about the situation and were told that 99% of people questioned are permitted to board. Even those whose personal belongings are taken are allowed to fly and upon arrival in Ben-Gurion Airport are returned to them. Why she was singled out remains a mystery; why she felt determined not to give them her password is still not clear.

Bottom line, you don’t mess with security – honor their requests without asking too many questions. They are there to provide you and your fellow fliers with the highest level of security. Whether you believe it or not – they do know what they are doing!

The writer is the CEO of Ziontours, Jerusalem. For questions and comments email him at

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