I can’t say I wasn’t warned. As we stood waiting for the other students to arrive at Chicago O’Hare International Airport on the morning of September 1, 2014, a fellow Muslim student and I were pulled over by our professor: Expect that you might be stopped and questioned once we reach Israel, he said. We have a letter of invitation from the Jerusalem Press Club in case, he said. That should ease things. But sure enough, profiling is exactly what happened once we arrived at Ben Gurion Airport.
Out of our group of 12, we were the only Muslims. We are both Americans but our passports indicated we were from different ethnic origins. My classmate is of South Asian origin and I am of Arab origin. We were both questioned about our lineage. Questions like “what’s your grandfather’s name?” and “what’s your uncles’ names?” We had to provide our parents’ and siblings’ names, ages, birthdates, email addresses and telephone numbers.
If my name wasn’t Arab-sounding, or if I didn’t choose to wear the hijab (Islamic head covering for Muslim women), I suspect that I might have been able to pass easily through Israeli “Passport Control” with the rest of my classmates.
I am an American, but that didn’t matter, because to the guy questioning me, I sure didn’t look like one. To him, I wore my Muslim identity on my head and that’s all that mattered. As the trip progressed, it became obvious that my hijab was something problematic for my Israeli counterparts and that my first profiling experience wouldn’t be my last. So after over an hour and a half of some questioning and some waiting, I came out to face my classmates.
I had applied for this Israel immersion trip months ago. I was sure that if I got selected, it would be a Medill experience I would never forget. I was right. I have never been to Israel before, but as a Palestinian-American, I wanted to go to the place of my roots, the place my mother was born, and the place my grandparents fled from in 1948 at the establishment of the Israeli state. But more so, I wanted to go because I am studying to become a journalist.
On the trip, we encountered the religious and the secular. We spoke to government officials and journalists alike.
Identity and religion are very important and so intertwined in Israel, to the extent that Israel frequently bills itself as a “Jewish state,” but at the same time, a democratic one.
“As there is no clear segregation of religion and state, a central inter-community issue has been the extent to which Israel should manifest its Jewish religious identity,” states a government-issued fact book.
The book goes on to say that there is tension with the secular Jewish community on how far religion should rule public life: “the non-observant sector regards this as religious coercion and infringement on the democratic nature of the state.”
While this is a debate being had in the Jewish community, it is also a reality that the non-Jewish community, like the Muslim and Christian Arabs living there, has to deal with. They are citizens of a state that defines itself as first and foremost Jewish.
Don’t “Jewish” and “democratic” then become mutually exclusive? asked a classmate.
And doesn’t this then mean that people like me, who identify as Muslim or merely look the part, become automatically excluded and singled out?
According to Amir Fuchs, a researcher at The Israel Democracy Institute, there is a problem with the premise that Israel is the nation state of the Jewish people because it shifts the balance to a more Jewish and less democratic state.
“I find it hard to explain to the medium Israeli why this is wrong,” he said.
Fuchs says this premise leads to legislation like “loyalty bills” or bills that introduce a requirement of a declaration of loyalty to the Jewish state and if you don’t adhere, you’re automatically excluded. These “anti-democratic legislation,” among others, lead to discrimination against Arabs and non-Jewish populations, they affect freedom of speech and protest and they limit the power of the Supreme Court, Fuchs said.
So as a Muslim-American woman or even just as a Muslim woman entering a place like the Israeli Foreign Ministry, should I really expect nothing less than to be stopped, yet again, when nearly all my classmates have already entered? And this time have my purse be swiped for gunpowder in front of my classmates, even after I have entered and have gone through a metal detector?
Should I be comfortable with being asked about the type of Islamic creed I practice? To have an Israeli parliament member stop in the middle of his speech to our class, point to me and ask: “Are you Sunni or Shia?”
It was uncomfortable and humiliating to be singled out. Because of my hijab I became suspect and was discriminated against. There was no rationale, I didn’t do anything wrong, it was just fear and suspicion as always is the case with profiling.