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The Gatekeepers

Talking our way into Israel

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Newark Airport: the traditional gateway to the holy land(Marc Tracy)

We are sitting in the El Al terminal at Newark Liberty International Airport (EWR for you call-sign buffs), waiting for our 1:30 p.m. flight with what appear to be at least four or five other Birthright Israel trips in addition to our own. Our terminal is sparse due to construction: a newsstand and two bars, only one of which (but one of which, thank God) sells tea and coffee.

The thing we’re thinking about right now is our El Al security interviews, which are far, far more extensive than anything you encounter even in the course of international travel—even at, say, customs. Before you even go through security—in the case of Birthright travelers, before you get your ticket—you are subjected to an extensive questioning by an El Al employee (almost all of whom, in our case, were young and female) about your bags, sure, whether you packed them and whether you received any gifts, but also about your reasons for traveling to Israel and your Jewishness. After all, they know you’re with Birthright Israel. Which of course begs the question: If they know you’re with Birthright—which is to say, that you have been pre-screened through a months-long application that includes an extensive phone interview—why do they also insist on this? I suspect the answer lies in security imperative.

Two travelers I spoke with as well as myself experienced the same jarring experience: After being asked if we had received “gifts” from anyone, we were told that they were asking the question because in the past—”in at least one instance,” my questioner told me—somebody ON BIRTHRIGHT? receiving a gift to take to Israel turned out to have been given a “bomb.” When somebody says the word “bomb” at El Al security, it goes off like, well, a bomb in your head. It seem not unlikely to me that they are in fact instructed to do this, perhaps to rattle you. (It also left me wondering: Is it indeed true—I have little doubt it is—that somebody has tried to place a bomb on El Al by telling a passenger they were taking a gift? What would El Al do if this had never happened and they had been denied such a useful anecdote?)

Said Leon Neyfakh, who is traveling on our trip: “I’ve gone through customs before. You expect certain questions, and you’re accustomed to know why they’re asking you certain questions. In this case, they took turns you didn’t expect them to. ‘Where do you work? What do you do there? How long have you worked there? That’s weird that you would have that job given your major?’ That might’ve been just small talk.”

Reasons for traveling and family connections were brought up. Editorial assistant Stephanie Butnick (blogging at Jewcy) was asked about family in Israel after her questioner noticed, in her passport, that she has been before. Contributing artist Margarita Korol’s questioner “was baffled by my Ukrainian birth,” Margarita said, noting that birthplace is in your passport. “I had to prove my Jewish encounters, from Jewish community center to Tablet Magazine. She never asked about bat mitzvah. I volunteered that MY sister had first THE bat MITZVAH in my family, and she gave me a mazel tov, and that was the last question.”

I was asked about by Hebrew proficiency, mostly, it seemed, as a way to ask me about my Jewish education. Another traveler found himself remembering lessons long lost. “She asked if I speak Hebrew, and I said, sort of. ‘How do you know Hebrew?’ I went to a Jewish high school. Then she said, ‘Atah mevin mah sheh ani omer?‘ (Do you understand what I’m saying?).” Our traveler responded: “Kein, ani mevin.

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diamonddon111 says:

You never know what you’ll learn in an interview, which, btw, is far and away the most effective method of flight security.   El Al questioned an engaged woman and learned her fiancee was traveling separately.  Turns out he had hidden a bomb in the bottom of her carry on!  These interviews enabled El Al to be the only airline to continue to provide metal knives and forks immediately after 9/11

    This incident happened in 1986 The women was not only set up by her finacee  to become a unwilling suicide bomber, she was also 5 months pregnant at the time (with HIS child).
    With all the questioning, Ben Gurion Airport, and ElAl, are the only ones that still allow passengers to take any amount of liquids on board (except US flights).

      ginzy1 says:

       And the only reason that BG Int’l prohibits “large” amounts of liquids on flights to USA is because the TSA insists on it & would prohibit El Al flights to USA if the policy were not enforced.  Most Israeli airline security types I know of think the TSA policy is ridiculous.


ginzy1 says:

Keep in mind that El Al has long been the holy grail (how’s that for a mixed metaphor) for skyjackers, terrorists etc.  That there haven’t been any successful attacks on El Al since the early ’70s is a measure of why El Al security is what it is.  El Al was the first airline to have armed security personnel on flights (as early as 1970) even though it was condemned internationally as against the conventions & treaties governing international flights.

The interviewers are  trained to engage in conversation and to challenge or probe anything you say so as to throw you off base if what you are saying is just a cover story.  And yes, there have been cases of bombs hidden in “gifts”.


J’lem / Efrata

julis123 says:

2 points:
1) They ask you questions to see your general reaction. The specific answer isn’t as important as your general behavior.
2) In the 1970s a Palestinian sent his pregnant European girlfriend on an El Al flight to Israel with a parting gift of a boom box containing a bomb (without her knowledge) 

alexander feoktistov says:

I was asked about my family in Israel, what holidays I celebrate, and whether I had a Hebrew name. My dad isn’t Jewish, and unlike my older brother, my namesake was from my dad’s side of the family, so I never got a Hebrew name (I checked “just Jewish” on my Birthright app). The El Al girl was pretty persistent about this point. “Really, you don’t have a Hebrew name?” It kind of mad me sad, honestly, like I wasn’t Jewish enough. Of course I understand the security. Anyone can pretend they’re Jewish and get on Birthright, (that “extensive” phone interview was hardly that) and this is easily exploitable. 40 American Jews on one bus are an appealing target, I’m sure.

since it’s been a while since you wrote it down, take a look at this link:
you will find an answer, also read through El-Al’s Wikipedia page,
some people don’t know it but the questions now asked by ground crew (check-in counters) all over the world are derived from El-Al’s system.

Laura says:

Does El Al mean “God Over”?


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The Gatekeepers

Talking our way into Israel

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