In the spotlight: Political and racial profiling at the border

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took the unusual step this week of saying the questioning of US author Peter Beinart was an “administrative mistake.”

A security officer stands near closed El Al check-in counters in the departure hall at Israel's Ben-Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv (photo credit: REUTERS/NIR ELIAS)
A security officer stands near closed El Al check-in counters in the departure hall at Israel's Ben-Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv
(photo credit: REUTERS/NIR ELIAS)
Israel’s border security and its detention and interrogation of travelers is under unprecedented scrutiny after a series of high-profile Americans were stopped at the border. The Attorney-General’s Office is now looking into recent cases and has requested details from the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency). This comes in the wake of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) examining several cases from the last two months.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took the unusual step this week of saying the questioning of US author Peter Beinart was an “administrative mistake.” The Shin Bet denied a political agenda behind questioning Simone Zimmerman, a co-founder of If Not Now, who was stopped along with a friend while returning from Egypt’s Sinai.
Author Reza Aslan also said he was questioned while crossing from Jordan recently. He claimed he was threatened and told he could be a kept for a “long time” and not see his kids. The Shin Bet says Aslan was stopped because of suspicious behavior and allowed to proceed after a “short” investigation.
The latest twist in the case are the rumors of “blacklists” of foreign organizations or individuals. But the Shin Bet says there are no blacklists. “When you are coming to Israel there is a security check that happens like it does in every country,” a spokeswoman told CNN. But the ACRI thinks there’s more to it than that, claiming the Shin Bet “appears to have abused the border control officers at the airport, and its own presence at the site, for purposes that have nothing to do with preventing attacks on Israeli aviation.”
The larger story is more complex. Israel’s Strategic Affairs Ministry did publish a list of organizations in January. People affiliated with these groups would be prevented from entering the country due to their support for BDS, the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel. These include Jewish Voice for Peace, Code Pink and others.
For instance, Ariel Gold, a Jewish American BDS activist, was denied entry to Israel in July. Vincent Warren, the executive director of the Center for Constitutional Rights and Katherine Franke, a member of its board, also said they were detained for 14 hours and denied entry in April. CCR organized a group of 100 lawyers to write a letter to Netanyahu claiming Israel “has a history of adopting and enforcing discriminatory national entry policies that exclude people based on their political views, religious, ethnicity or national origin.” The letter called on Israel to respect human rights activists and “cease its practice of excluding human rights defenders and advocates based on their criticism of the government.”
THE LONG history of people being detained at the airport shows that the recent phenomenon may not represent a major change, but rather a kind of “mission creep,” whereby existing policies began to catch more high-profile figures in the web of interrogations and detentions. In 2013, I investigated the issue of profiling at the airport for The Jerusalem Post Magazine. In dozens of interviews with foreigners, Israelis, Arabs, Jews, African-Americans and people from all walks of life, including an intern at the Post, we found several patterns.
Arab citizens were particular targets for extra screening, usually involving strip searches and questions. “We never understood what we did wrong, why we were security threats, except that we had Arab names,” one woman said. At the time, the Israel Airports Authority (IAA) was considered the only organization tasked with performing security checks “based on security needs and according to professional guidelines set by the ISA [Israel Security Agency] and the Israel Police.” One source noted that those stopped for questioning fit a profile of “usually either very extreme Left or Arabs.”
The profiling didn’t seem to be as “smart” as Israeli profiling is often credited with being. Arab filmmakers and actresses were stopped. The daughter of former Supreme Court justice Salim Joubran was stopped, even though she was a cadet at the Foreign Ministry at the time. Arab employees of the civil service also reported being stopped, including Christians and Muslims.
Foreign visitors, including a surprisingly large number of academics, reported long interrogations. Donna Shalala, a former secretary of US Health and Human Services and president of the University of Miami, was even detained despite being on a trip with the American Jewish Committee. Her university said she was “delayed by questions and a full luggage search that lasted almost three hours.” Shalala’s last name is of Arab origin. Many Jews have been stopped over the years as well, including those on Jewish programs coming to Israel, or academics such as Noam Chomsky and Norman Finkelstein. Chomsky was denied entry in 2010, and Finkelstein deported in 2008.
The system of interrogations, despite hundreds of articles detailing numerous problematic incidents, is rarely challenged in court. In 2015, the Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court found in favor of Prof. Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem after she was questioned for over three hours by IAA inspectors. The court said the IAA was authorized to question the professor, but found that the incident was a “humiliation” and “the accused violated their duty to respect the plaintiff and safeguard her privacy.” The academic was awarded NIS 7,500 NIS, but the overall system was not challenged by the court.
The security checks involving questioning non-citizens about BDS, and therefore their political views and connections related to that, are authorized. A 2017 amendment to the Entry Into Israel Law specifically allows this. There’s a lot of leeway here, because foreign travelers can also be stopped if they appear to be security threats.
IN ADDITION, people who are suspected of intending to stay in Israel are deported. A Kenyan Jew, despite having a visa, was turned back in December 2017, over disputes about whether he was Jewish. Two African-American Jews were also turned away in 2015 because the Population, Immigration and Border Authority suspected they were traveling to join the black Hebrew community in Israel, according to The Root online magazine.
Supporters of Israel’s tough questioning point out that not only is it done for security, but also that other countries deny people entry based on political views. The UK Home Office has banned numerous Muslim clerics it claims are either extremists or “not conducive to the public good.” Israeli citizen Sheikh Raad Salah was even detained in the UK in 2011. A series of young activists accused of being “alt-right” were denied entry to the UK in March. These included a US activist, an Austrian and a Canadian blogger.
“Conducive to the public good,” is a far more flexible definition. And power given to authorities to prevent people traveling to the UK is far greater than Israel’s more narrow attempts to prevent BDS supporters and those harming state security from entering.
The difference between Israel and the UK is that large numbers of BDS activists, despite “boycotting” Israel, seek to come to Israel, whereas anti-UK activists don’t seem to go to the UK as often.
The US often prevents numerous people from traveling to the US for various reasons. Narendra Modi, now the prime minister of India, was denied a visa in 2005, largely due to political accusations about his role during riots in India in 2002. And India deported Lord Alexander Carlile when he arrived in New Delhi on July 11, claiming he didn’t have an appropriate visa. Local reports said India was concerned his presence would “create problems between India and Bangladesh” because he had been on the legal team of former Bangladesh prime minister Khaleda Zia.
Looked at in the broader light, Israel’s policies of keeping out BDS activists is little different than those of many countries that deny entry to those “not conducive to the public good.” What is less clear is why more moderate voices who don’t support BDS have run afoul of these interrogations. It also raises questions about the different treatment of some of Israel’s own citizens due to racial profiling, and whether the current media frenzy has only erupted because a few Americans with good connections have been targeted.
The explanations from the various government officials and authorities don’t explain what has happened. If the questioning of Beinart was just a mistake, then why was he questioned? How many mistakes are made? In the end, border security has to rely on large numbers of people to carry out the proper procedures. Empowering them with too much political leeway to detain people may lead to more mistakes and a greater spotlight on the overall process. Under the guise of security, that likely won’t do more than pay lip service to changes in the process.