The Toughest Airline Security of All

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Flying out of Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion airport recently, after covering the outbreak of violence between Israel and Hizballah, I got the usual treatment for a gentile foreigner: half an hour of questioning by a young security agent before I even got to the counter. He started with "when were you born?" and ended with "how did you get to the airport?" and covered a lot of ground in between. I was accustomed to the drill, having lived in Israel throughout the 1990s as TIME's Jerusalem bureau chief. This, chiefly, is how the Israelis keep aviation safe in their country; no flight out of Tel Aviv has ever been hijacked. They ask a lot of questions, don't hesitate to take their time doing it, aren't embarrassed about profiling fliers and are quick to take matters to a higher level of scrutiny.

The point of the long question sessions is to find inconsistencies in a terrorist's cover story, or to agitate him into a panic. I was typically asked questions like: who paid for your ticket, why are you traveling, why did you buy the ticket so late (or so early), where did you travel in Israel, whom did you meet here. Answers like "the Prime Minister" never seemed to get me anywhere. Almost always, I'd be questioned by one agent, who would then leave to consult with a second agent, who would appear and ask many of the same questions. Then the two would compare notes, often with a supervisor, before the first agent would return with more questions. Women traveling alone are said to get special attention because of the case of an unwitting Irish woman who in 1986 was wooed by a Jordanian terrorist who gave her a suitcase with a bomb sewn into it; El Al agents at Heathrow discovered it by questioning her.

Once, on my way to Tel Aviv from London, I was drilled especially nastily by an Israeli agent. Years later, my upstairs neighbor came down to say he wanted to bring over his new live-in girlfriend but she was reluctant. It turned out she was that agent and remembered me. When she finally did visit, we laughed about it, though of course I had to ask if the contents of her bag belonged to her.

Sometimes, questions don't suffice. In the mid 90s, my brother and his wife came to visit me in Israel, and something about these two blond Louisiana lawyers struck the security officials at Ben Gurion as suspicious. After the usual bout of questions, they were led away to a special room where every ounce of toothpaste, lotion, shampoo and Neosporin in their luggage was squeezed out of its packaging and examined. They missed their original flight and, once deemed harmless, were eventually put on a later one, but only after officials seized my brother's scuba diving gear. I was able to get it released later.

Traveling in and out of Israel for Arabs and for Muslims from all over the world, that kind of treatment is not uncommon. Neither are strip searches. Profiling in Israel is not a dirty word.

I was the subject of a much milder form of it, every time I flew out of Ben Gurion. Security officials, plainly, are charged with determining whether fliers are Jewish are not. My name could go either way. The Israelis know it's rude by Western standards to come right out and ask, so they have a set of questions meant to settle the matter: Do you have family here in Israel? Did you ever volunteer on a kibbutz? Do you speak Hebrew? Some prayers maybe? That you learned for your baht mitzvah? What are your children's names? And this last time I flew: Are you a member of a congregation at home? I've learned to recognize these questions for what they are and to simply tell the questioner I'm not Jewish so that he can protest that it's not what he was getting at and then move on to why I booked an aisle seat. Once, when I was running late, I said that my son was named Yaakov, the Hebrew version of his name, Jacob, and I found myself whisked through in no time.

On another occasion, though, I decided I wouldn't play the game. If the agent wouldn't come right out and ask me, I wasn't going to let him know whether I was Jewish or not. I answered every question truthfully but in a way that gave nothing away. Yes, I knew a little Hebrew, which I'd learned in Israel. Yes, I had family in the country: my husband, stepson and children. No, I had not volunteered on a kibbutz. And so on. When finally the time of my flight's departure passed, I leaned forward and said to the agent: "Listen, I'm not Jewish." "Well, nobody's perfect," he said, and put me on the next flight.