It happened about a week ago, when I was among a group of travelers that included several Israeli citizens and a Palestinian citizen of the United States. We were returning to Israel following a two-day meeting in Jordan. We arrived at the Sheikh Hussein Bridge an hour before it closed for the night. There weren’t many other travelers there aside from a group of female Palestinian citizens of Israel studying for master’s degrees at a Jordanian university.
The Israeli citizens, both the Jews and the Arabs, quickly passed through the security check, but the American was held back. His modest suitcase had been cleared at the security check, so only the documents he had in his bag had to be checked. A meticulous young inspector laid the documents out, one by one, and leafed through them with a sense of gravity. She then found an especially suspicious paper titled “A Two-State Solution.” Border agents passed the document from hand to hand and asked the man — who explained that he is a professor who teaches at Bir Zeit University and Tel Aviv University — what his connection was to this solution. He had to explain, in detail, how he came to possess such a subversive item.
As closing time inched nearer at the crossing, the terminal emptied of all other travelers. Our colleague, the professor, asked that we leave him with the border police, explaining that there was nothing new about what was happening. He also said that he knew it was uncomfortable for us to watch, but we should let it go and continue on. We refused. A half hour later, he got his American passport back, and we left.
Soon thereafter, I found a Jan. 16 item written by Nahum Barnea in Yedioth Ahronoth discussing a form that visitors invited to attend conferences and meetings in Israel are asked to complete. It is a seemingly simple form that asks for personal details, but it also includes two rather astonishing questions: what are the visitor’s plans when not at the conference and with whom does he intend to meet in his leisure time. The second question concerns anyone the visitor knows in Israel — that is, names of family, friends, business contacts, academics, and diplomats and other people in government roles — and requests their phone number.
As it turns out, this is (allegedly) a gesture of hospitality the state has decided to bestow on its guests. There is (seemingly) no requirement that one fill out the form, but those who do will be registered as a VIP and not subject to an interrogation upon exiting the country. Any attempt to learn what brilliant mind invented this new procedure encounters some difficulty.
The Israel Airports Authority is the agency that issues the forms to conference participants, but it claims that the Shin Bet is behind the idea, as it is interested in making sure that whoever leaves the country has no terror-related plans. When Barnea sought to confirm this with the Shin Bet, he got nothing. The internal security agency claims to know nothing of such a questionnaire. In any case, one can assume that any tourist visiting Israel with malicious intentions will not declare them upon arrival.
Such practices have clear ramifications for those who come to Israel's gates. There are totalitarian nations that ask questions like these, and I can personally attest that I’d rather not return to them so I don't have to answer such questionnaires. By the way, the questioners at the gates of these nations do not introduce themselves so they themselves can be questioned, and whoever dares to ask what authority they represent encounters an angry response, as if their dignity has been violated by your not knowing the answer to this trivial question.
A nation that knows the economic and diplomatic significance of robust tourism has to be careful with actions that could break the branch on which it sits. The problem is much deeper than the danger of turning off potential tourists. In Israel's case, it touches on its character as a democratic nation. Israel is a democratic nation that in certain respects acts undemocratically, which is why global democracy indices classify it as a “flawed democracy.”
It is important to remember that there is no necessity that Israel be a partial democracy. Security threats do not require it to act differently from Scandinavian countries or others confronting terrorism.
An Israeli regime that makes gestures of friendship to ruthless leaders the likes of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orbán and Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte at the expense of liberal values, and sometimes at the expense of the fight against anti-Semitism, has no sympathy toward anyone who balks at impertinent questionnaires upon arrival. Such a regime is not concerned about damage to the democratic image of Israel and convinces itself that every visitor is an anti-Semite, a hypocrite or a cynic. Whoever thinks this way would lend a hand to any document that asks conference participants what they intend to do with their free time. In any case, how many would know in advance everywhere they want to visit and at what restaurant they’ll eat dinner?
I do not know how to process the claim by the Airports Authority that the questionnaire was prepared at the request of the Shin Bet and the Shin Bet spokesperson’s pronouncement that it has no involvement in the matter. I have no doubt, however, that it is a case of the “spirit of the chief.”
One can assume that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu learned about this just like many other newspaper readers, previously knowing nothing about the questionnaire presented to those brazen people who dare to participate in conferences in Israel. That said, whoever prepared the document — causing further damage to Israel's self-image and its image in the eyes of others as a nation of eroding democratic features — knows well that he who currently sits at the top of the pyramid would approve.
If the next Israeli government is to be different from the present one, it will systematically check the actions being taken at Israel's gates. It must make do with what is truly essential to security while eliminating questions about the opinions and friends of our guests.
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