US must respond to religious discrimination at Jordan's border - opinion

We had crossed the Israel/Jordan border on foot and the experience was nothing less than degrading and outright antisemitic.

 THE WRITERS undergo a security check at the border crossing by Jordanian personnel (faces blurred), with the religious items placed on the table.  (photo credit: Zvi Schwartz)
THE WRITERS undergo a security check at the border crossing by Jordanian personnel (faces blurred), with the religious items placed on the table.
(photo credit: Zvi Schwartz)

We recently experienced an egregious, blatant and intentional violation of our religious freedom and flagrant antisemitism at the hands of a country that is ostensibly a friend of the US and a peace partner with Israel. 

As Americans living in Israel, we are appealing to you, Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt in your capacity as special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism (SEAS), and you Ambassador Thomas Nides as the representative of the US government in Israel, to please investigate the matter, raise your concerns with the highest level, and seek to abolish this policy and all other forms of discrimination. 

We had crossed the Israel/Jordan border on foot at the Yitzhak Rabin Terminal/Wadi Araba Crossing between Eilat and Aqaba, and the experience was nothing less than degrading and outright antisemitic. We were heading to nearby Saudi Arabia for three days of research and a Saudi driver was waiting for us on the Jordanian side of the border.

Leaving Israel using our Israeli biometric passports was quick, efficient and uneventful. The Israeli personnel were bi- and trilingual, personable and professional. The contrast to what came next could not be starker. Entering Jordan on our US passports, we experienced blatant antisemitism

Blatant antisemitism at the Jordanian border

We were planning to be away for a mere two nights and thus had minimal luggage. The first Jordanians we encountered on their side of the border, before we reached the immigration staff, were the security personnel, who seemed to have had only one mission: root out and remove anything related to Judaism. Without any communication with us, they took our bags, put them through the X ray machine, and then proceeded to go through them in a painstaking, thorough manner. 

AN IDF soldier patrols the border area between Israel and Jordan at Naharayim, as seen from the Israeli side on October 22. (credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)AN IDF soldier patrols the border area between Israel and Jordan at Naharayim, as seen from the Israeli side on October 22. (credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)

When they came across our tallitot, they removed them from our bags and placed them on the side. They then found our tefillin and prayer books and haphazardly put those on the side. We were wearing baseball caps and they asked us to gently flip them off to check if there was a yarmulke underneath; there was, and they insisted that too be removed and put in the pile with the other “contraband” items.

Finally, having meticulously gone through our bags and removed anything connected to Judaism, they declared that all those items stacked on the side were not permitted to be brought into Jordan. Astounded, we asked why. “Because it is forbidden to bring Jewish religious items into Jordan,” they replied. We were in shock. Flabbergasted!

WE HAVE been to numerous Muslim-majority countries in Africa, Asia and the Persian Gulf, including some that do not have diplomatic relations with Israel, and have never encountered such outright, unabashed antisemitism. We politely engaged them for some time regarding the principle of the matter, but to no avail, as they were emphatic. 

It was also quite difficult to carry on the discussion, since none of those in official positions spoke English (nor Hebrew, at the border with Israel) and the situation, in general, was quite unprofessional.

At that point, we gave up on the principle and tried arguing that we were like transit passengers in an international airport, and should be allowed to take our items to the Saudi car waiting outside, which would take us directly to the Saudi border. After two hours of negotiation and after they confirmed with their department head, they finally reiterated, “If you want to enter Jordan, you must return those items to Israel, otherwise you cannot enter the country.” 

“If you want to enter Jordan, you must return those items to Israel, otherwise you cannot enter the country.”

Jordanian border official

At one point, a uniformed soldier even intimated that he wanted to frisk us to check if we were wearing tzitzit under our shirts, but, thankfully, they forgot to do this. Left with little choice, we ultimately returned all of our Jewish ritual items to our car in Israel, crossed through to Jordan, and continued straight to Saudi Arabia. But we had to cut our trip short by a day – at a considerable financial loss – so we could return to Israel the next afternoon, and not miss a day wearing tefillin.

IT IS INCONCEIVABLE that this obvious antisemitic activity occurs in 2022. Imagine if the State of Israel would forbid even one Muslim to bring a Koran into Israel, or a Christian from bringing in a cross. World outcry would be deafening. It is inconceivable to us that Jordan has such a policy and gets away with it without a huge international uproar. 

We had read about such suppression of religious freedom on the part of the Jordanians, but did not believe such a policy would be tolerated and actually exists; now that it happened to us we believe it. But we cannot believe that the US, Israel and the international community tolerate such government-mandated antisemitism. 

Subsequent to our experience, we have spoken to other people who had their religious items confiscated by the Jordanians at various borders and yet others who proudly reported how they managed to sneak their tefillin in. Are we in the 1930s, that we must hide our religious items and sneak them in?! 

Jordan relies on tourism for about 15% of its GDP and is working to increase the number. Jews, Israelis and freedom-loving people should boycott Jordan until it learns to welcome other religions and eliminates government-sponsored antisemitism.

As Jews and as American citizens we are asking: Ambassador Lipstadt, please use your commission as SEAS to investigate these policies of the Jordanian government and help right this wrong; Ambassador Nides, as the US representative in Israel, please assist your many citizens, and all other Jews, by insisting that Jordan maintain religious freedom for all. We thank you in advance for your assistance.

This outrageous policy must not be passively accepted by the US or Israeli governments. 

Ari Greenspan is a dentist in Jerusalem. Ari Zivotofsky is a professor of neuroscience at Bar-Ilan University. They have spent decades researching Jewish history and traditions near and far, and were traveling on such a mission.