From the outset, at El-Al’s JFK security counter, Israel had already begun shattering stereotypes. My “cross-examination” took roughly five minutes even though I was told to expect a grueling five-hour interrogation. This was my first time flying El-Al, Israel’s flag carrier.
The airline’s security personnel were tough as nails; deliberate, methodical, invasive even, but supremely courteous. They wanted to know why I was going to Israel, what was the purpose of my previous visits, the names of the conferences I had attended in years past—at Be’er Sheva and Tel Aviv—the names of some of my colleagues in Israel, my area of specialty, and the courses I taught at Boston College. It was all seemingly anodyne, and a legitimate line of questioning—albeit not the kind one would ordinarily expect when boarding a flight to Paris or Amsterdam. But I was not heading to either Paris or Amsterdam, and I came prepared for Israel’s rigorous border-crossing rituals.
I spent my childhood in the Middle East, in war-torn Lebanon to be exact. I am intimately acquainted with the predatory nature of my neighborhood. I also know how vigilant one must be to stay alive in my little piece of paradise. “If you’re not a wolf you shall be mauled and devoured by wolves” goes a popular Arabic adage.
But in the end I was cleared for check-in and boarding, in under five minutes, and El-Al’s security personnel were apologetic for having kept me a tad longer than the Jewish colleagues accompanying me on this trip. In fact, I felt I was “harassed”—to use the term of my Jewish companions—far less than Israeli citizens; and at the time I had not even noticed that what I was being subjected to amounted to “harassment.” Israel has won this public relations battle as far as I am concerned. But the icing on the cake came hours later, during boarding, when one of the security agents who had been scrutinizing me and my passport earlier at the airline counter declined to see the boarding pass and passport I had handed him. He waved me through with a friendly tap on the shoulder, quipping “I know who you are Franck, have a nice flight.”
The arrival in Israel was equally contrary to convention. Although I cannot say that on my previous trips I was “detained” or “harassed” by Israeli immigration, it always took me at least a half-hour of (overall friendly) questioning by the shin bet (Israel’s General Security Service) before being given the entry stamp. This time around I was not even singled out for questioning: it was only my “menacing” immigration officer-in-the-booth and myself. She greeted me with a broad smile and a friendly Shalom, and spoke to me in Hebrew—to which I replied with the little Hebrew I could manage. But the minute she opened my passport—and, I assume, saw “Beirut” as my “place of birth”—her complexion changed, her brow furrowed, and her smile stiffened into bewildered suspicion. And although she had tried to keep her composure and friendly disposition, it was clear that this was now serious business, and firmness was the name of the game. She asked all the routine questions: “Why are you here?” “What’s the name of the conference you are attending?” “What courses do you teach?”, etc… Then came the more serious part:
--“Where are you from?” she inquired.
--“Andover, Massachusetts, USA,” came my answer.
-- (no, stupid,) “where were you born?” she probed tersely.
--“Ah, that ‘where are you from?’ Beirut, Lebanon!”
--“How long ago was your last visit to Lebanon?”
--“About ten years ago.”
Then, after quizzing me on my father’s and grandfather’s names, she popped the question; the one she’d been itching to ask:
--“So, what are you; Muslim or Druze?” she queried.
--“Neither,” I said, “I’m a Maronite, from Mount Lebanon!”
Her face lit up, she looked me in the eye, smiled (again), stamped my passport and blurted out “I’m a Christian too; welcome to Israel!” I smiled back, thanked her, turned around, winked at the colleagues fretting behind me worried that their “goy” companion was being mistreated by their tough coreligionist border officer, and walked into Israel.
In the aggregate, it took the Maronite goy from Lebanon less time to get through the impregnable Israeli security “wall,” than it took my habitués Jewish companions who’d spent a lifetime traveling to Israel. I tell this story because, to my mind, it reveals an Israel that is at great odds with the stereotypical “bunker state” that it is often made out to be—both by its Arab rivals and its smart, liberal, Western Jewish critics. At the very least, Israel is a complex, dynamic, enterprising society; a turbulent democracy perhaps, with flaws and failings aplenty, but a democracy regardless, trying to maintain itself as such—and as a refuge for Jews and other Near Eastern minorities—against tremendous regional and international pressures.
In a recent critique of Arab totalitarianism, Syrian thinker Adonis wrote that for nearly a century of Arab-Jewish antagonisms in the Eastern Mediterranean, Arabism and its ancillaries
have attempted to submit the richness of the Levant to a single linguistic, cultural, racial, and religious identity, laying down the foundations of a uniform, monolithic, one-dimensional culture; a narrow, regurgitant, exclusivist culture, built solely on negating apostatizing, marginalizing, and obviating ‘the other’...
Israel is an experiment in the opposite direction—arguably a clumsy, belabored experiment fraught with pitfalls and challenges. Yet it remains the Middle East’s only experiment in minority “self-rule” where Jews, Muslims, Christians, Druze and others have equal rights before the law and enjoy the same individual freedoms of assembly, conscience and dissent, without fear of retribution. It is certainly not Switzerland or Sweden. But judged by the standards of its own neighborhood—where non-Arabs and non-Muslims have traditionally not fared well at all—it remains infinitely better for one to be an aggrieved minority in Israel than a privileged majority in, say, Egypt, Syria or Jordan.