Death wish

When I was growing up, the hostilities between Jews and Arabs living in America weren’t so strong, our Israeli-Arab friends regularly flew El Al to go back to Israel. They complained bitterly about the treatment meted out to them — but they flew it anyway, because it was the only airline on which they felt truly safe. If the Israeli civil rights activists have their way, though, no one on El Al will be able to feel safe any longer:

Israel’s renowned airline security faced a legal challenge Wednesday from a civil rights group charging that its practice of ethnic profiling is racist because it singles out Arabs for tougher treatment.

At a Supreme Court hearing, civil rights lawyers demanded an end to the policy, which they say violates Israeli law. Such profiling is illegal in the U.S., where passengers must be singled out for security checks on a random basis.

But some terrorism experts say Israel’s measures are effective precisely because they take ethnicity into account—and warn that equality at the airport could cost lives.

Israel is considered a prime target for hijackers and other attackers because of the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Despite that, there hasn’t been a successful attack on an Israeli airliner in decades, and experts point to Israel’s security procedures as a key factor.

Many of the measures are kept secret, but known precautions on Israeli airliners include armored luggage compartments, armed sky marshals and reinforced cockpits. But a key to preventing attacks, experts say, is the screening process on the ground.

Israeli Jews and Arabs get dramatically different treatment when boarding Israeli planes.

Hanna Swaid, an Israeli Arab, remembers being strip-searched by gruff security guards and having his luggage taken apart piece by piece 20 years ago before he flew from Israel to London, where he was a post- doctoral student.

Today, Swaid is an Israeli Arab lawmaker, and he regularly receives complaints from Arab citizens about similar treatment.


Swaid says he understands the need for security checks. “It’s in my interest and that of all the other travelers,” he said. But the screening should be done equally for both Arabs and Jews, he said.

Proponents of Israel’s approach say checking all passengers equally would require manpower and resources many times greater than are needed today and would needlessly extend the time passengers spend waiting for flights.

Ariel Merari, an Israeli terrorism expert who has written about aviation security, said ethnic profiling is both effective and unavoidable.

“It’s foolishness not to use profiles when you know that most terrorists come from certain ethnic groups and certain age groups,” he said. “A bomber on a plane is likely to be Muslim and young, not an elderly Holocaust survivor. We’re talking about preventing a lot of casualties, and that justifies inconveniencing a certain ethnic group.”

Hat tip: Earl

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    Anyone and every one is given a critical eye by El Al.
    The son of a friend, from France, was stripped searched and yes, his father was not only Jewish, but a new immigrant.
    While traveling with a friend of mine to Israel some years ago, she was questioned above and beyond the normal range of the half dozen or so basic questions. OH..did I mention she was traveling with me, who holds dual citizenship.
    Sounds like equal treatment to me.

    You want to fly El Al…you want to go to Israel…then you should be prepared.
    Stop complaining about tight security and Entebbe should be a good reminder as to why it is done and September 11, 2001 tells us what can happen when it is not done.

  • Mike Devx

    I understand that the screening process is critical. The questioners are highly trained interviewers who are looking for warning signs in responses, body language, eye movements, etc. This is why the half-dozen questions can suddenly lead to much lengthier interviews, when something suspicious is observed.

    And that’s why this can never work in the USA without incredible changes in our entire system. El Al is very small compared to our airlines. We’re in the mass-movement business, and our security procedures are meant to quickly process hundreds of thousands of people. In addition, the skills required to conduct these interviews would mean hiring thousands of peeople with some large amount of psychological interview training. (And in addition, the TSA, being a government bureaucracy, would totally screw it up anyway.)

  • soccerdad

    I once got hassled.

    I had a cousin named Terry Smith. Now Smith is a last name that raises a red flag. So when I told the screener that I received a package from Terry Smith though I’d never met her, they grew concerned. Fortunately my uncle, who had gotten the package from Terry Smith was nearby and was able to vouch that she was a real person and that he knew her.

    You’re right of course. I’d also argue that the Israeli courts have gotten too involved in how the government conducts war.

  • Ymarsakar

    (And in addition, the TSA, being a government bureaucracy, would totally screw it up anyway.)

    Did you read about the personal testimony of a man and his wife being harassed by a TSA employee because she was in a wheelchair?

  • Bookworm

    Yeah. That was at Rhymes with Right. Here’s the link.

  • suek

    There are other airlines. If people don’t like El Al, they should fly another airline.

    My husband – while in the military – flew in the ME. All Arab countries. They were equally security minded, including strip searching. This was in the late 70s, early 80s. My husband speaks conversational arabic – though whether that’s relevant or not, I don’t know.