'Are these your bags? Did you convert to Judaism? Why?'

VIP traveler not prepared when an El Al security officer began asking personal questions at the airport.

ben gurion security 224 88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
ben gurion security 224 88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Israeli airport security checks are known for their thoroughness. Answering questions such as, "Did you pack these bags yourself?" or "Did anyone give you anything to carry?" is par for the course. But a recent VIP traveler was not prepared when an El Al Israel Airways security officer began asking personal questions in full view and earshot of other passengers - questions that seemed to have nothing to do with security. "So, you converted to Judaism? Why?" The traveler, one of a group of guests of the Tourism Ministry presently visiting Israel, said he was "shocked and humiliated" by the questions posed to him in front of the ticket counter. It was not clear how the security official even knew about the tourist's conversion. "I've been coming and going to Israel for more than 20 years and have boarded El Al flights to Israel originating from Los Angeles, New York, London, Paris and Istanbul, and I have never experienced any strangeness or difficulties whatsoever," said the tourist, who preferred to remain anonymous. "At the beginning of my security interview, the young woman acknowledged that she knew I was a guest of the Tourism Ministry and El Al airlines. "I was in shock and I was humiliated. But I did not know what to do - I did not want to cause a fuss. I was afraid that if I objected to answering the questions about my conversion I would not be allowed on the plane. "It was deeply humiliating to be forced to disclose the most private aspects of my life and justify it in front of complete strangers and onlookers." The incident occurred as conversions and converts have come to the forefront of media attention. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of conversions have come under rabbinic scrutiny as a result of a clash between religious Zionist and haredi rabbis. Haredi rabbis have accused the State Conversion Authority, run primarily by religious Zionist rabbis, of being lax in their demands of converts. These rabbis claim that many of the conversions performed by the authority are invalid. As a result, the Jewishness of these converts, many of whom have lived for years as Jews, has been questioned. "I'm surprised at the treatment I got given the political reality of the conversion debate in Israel at this time," the tourist said. The Tourism Ministry said it "viewed in a very negative light the disparaging, hurtful treatment of tourists, whether these tourists were official guests or not. "Tourism Ministry director-general Shaul Tzemech will discuss the matter with El Al CEO Haim Romano," the ministry spokesman said. El Al said "the debriefing process for travelers is done in accordance with a protocol determined by the state and by the security services. El Al cannot divulge details regarding this process. "Regarding the specific traveler: the incident was investigated and [the traveler] was found to have been treated in accordance with regular procedure. "El Al apologizes if the passenger was upset."