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The local cab company in my part of Jerusalem largely employs as its drivers the residents of nearby Arab neighborhoods. This is usually something I never give a second thought to - except when I have to take a cab to the airport.
When we arrive at Ben-Gurion Airport, the security guards at the entrance gate, after noticing the driver is Arab, invariably make us pull over to the side of the road, rather than being waved through with most of the cars. The trunk is opened and checked, and I along with the driver am asked perfunctory security questions.
The whole thing usually takes no more than 10 minutes, and doesn't rate as more than a minor annoyance. Still, it certainly adds to the tension involved in traveling by air, and more than once I've wondered what I would do if the cab really ended up being delayed at the entrance.
I could, of course, just use a different cab company on these occasions. But this one has proven itself reliable at other times, and it seems a little unfair to deprive its drivers of these hefty fares just because, as Arabs, they fall, not unjustifiably, under a bigger burden of scrutiny.
Still, the heavy-handedness of the approach at Ben-Gurion rankles, even while I can fully appreciate that the purpose is to provide security for all travelers.
Naturally, this situation came to mind on hearing the recent news that the Higher Arab Monitoring Committee has called on Israeli Arabs to boycott El Al, if the routine security checks at Ben-Gurion are not carried out in a way that makes them less burdensome and humiliating for members of the community.
There are a few major problems with this initiative. The Higher Arab Monitoring Committee, like so many other Israeli-Arab political organizations, does nothing to address the underlying cause of this situation - Arab terrorism - and has shown that its only real interest is in pushing forward a radical nationalist political agenda aimed at transforming Israel into a binational state, rather than campaign for Israeli Arabs to receive their full civil rights as an ethnic minority in a Jewish democratic society. The insincerity of its intentions is evident in specifically targeting El Al in this instance, which has no authority over the security procedures at Ben-Gurion, including for other airlines.
STILL, EVEN when a cause attracts unsavory support, that doesn't mean the issue itself is illegitimate, and in this case, it isn't. While of course security concerns must be paramount when it comes to flying - especially in this day and age - more can and should be done to make security checks at Israeli airports less arbitrary and onerous for those sectors of the population that naturally draw special attention.
To do this, let's first move beyond so much of the rhetoric that revolves around the issue of "racial profiling." We live in the real world, and the simple fact is that almost every factor in the background of air travelers, including their social and ethnic origins, has to be taken into account by security authorities.
Indeed, this is something all human beings do automatically when assessing potential threats from other people in the interest of self-preservation. Within reason, it's fair and natural.
Decades ago, when I was managing a small store in New York City during the peak of its high-crime years, I initially always gave heightened scrutiny to young black males who entered the shop. This reflected the fact that the overwhelming number of robberies committed in the city at the time were perpetrated by members of this specific group. But it usually took no more than a moment to determine whether this particular young black man had any of the other characteristics (behavior, dress) that marked him as a possible threat.
In a democracy, the rights of citizens to be both fully secure and fully equal sometimes come into conflict, especially in such places as airports. In these situations, common sense must prevail over both set procedures and in-bred attitudes; distinctions must be made, and extra effort (and sometimes cost) must be expended to preserve the dignity of individuals.
This principle hardly applies just to Israeli Arabs at Ben-Gurion. Anyone who has hosted Jewish friends and extended family members here knows the inconvenience they too sometimes deal with in the face of heightened scrutiny flying to or from Israel. Ironically, since 9/11 it is also an experience faced by Israeli Jews abroad. Many people I know, myself included, have found themselves singled out for special security checks at airports when taking internal flights in the US simply because they hold Israeli passports or transferred from Israeli flights.
It's not "fair" of course, since terrorism emanates solely from the Middle East's Islamic residents, not its Jewish ones. But why should we expect an overworked, undertrained and likely underpaid security guard in Kansas City to take the trouble to make that distinction, if we here in Israel aren't going to bother to differentiate between non-Jewish Israelis at our own airports? For example, I was present once when a Druse woman who holds a serious position in a government ministry was singled out in an airport security check strictly because of her ethnicity; she was indignant at this treatment, and rightly so. The problem wasn't racism, but the unwillingness of the security personnel to make the slightest effort to depart from standard bureaucratic procedure, even in a situation which clearly warranted it.
I'm not being naÃ¯ve; all democracies today, including this one, have to contend with terrorists who wage war by cleverly and unscrupulously exploiting the very liberties and rights we are fighting to protect. But that doesn't absolve us of the responsibility to make every effort to ensure that in the battle to secure our future, we don't shortchange those rights and liberties for every individual - including Israeli Arabs and others. Getting us safely to our destinations is, of course, the first priority of those who secure our airports and planes. But making sure we still stay the course of justice for all is the responsibility of each and every one of us.
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