“I’m a Christian Too; Welcome to Israel”

Ramblings of a Levantine Expat

From the outset, at El-Al’s JFK security counter Israel had already begun shattering stereotypes. My “cross-examination” took roughly five minutes—even though I was told to expect a grueling five-hour interrogation (my first time flying El-Al.)

The airline’s security agents were tough as nails; deliberate, methodical, invasive even, but supremely courteous. They wanted to know why I was going to Israel, what was the purpose of my previous visits, the names of the conferences I had attended in previous years—at Beer Sheva and Tel Aviv—the names of some of my colleagues in Israel, my area of specialty, and the courses I teach at Boston College. It was all seemingly anodyne, and a legitimate line of questioning—albeit not the kind one would ordinarily expect when boarding a flight to Paris or Amsterdam. But I was not heading to either Paris or Amsterdam, and I came prepared for Israel’s tough(er) border-crossing politics.

I spent my childhood in the Middle East, in war-torn Lebanon to be exact. I know the predatory nature of my neighborhood. I also know how vigilant one must be to remain alive; “if you’re not a wolf you shall be mauled and devoured by wolves” goes a popular Arab proverb. But in the end I was cleared for check-in and boarding, in under five-minutes, and my security agents were apologetic for having kept me a tad longer than the Jewish colleagues accompanying me on this trip. In fact, I was “harassed”—to use the term of my Jewish companions—far less than Israeli citizens, and I didn’t even feel as if I was being harassed. Israel has won this public relations battle as far as I am concerned. But the icing on the cake came during boarding, when one of the security agents who had been scrutinizing me and my passport earlier at the El-Al counter declined to see the boarding pass and passport I had handed him. He waved me through with a friendly tap on the shoulder, quipping “I know who you are Franck, have a nice flight.”

The arrival in Israel was equally contrary to convention. Although I cannot say that on my previous trips I was “detained” or “harassed,” it took me exactly a half-hour of—overall friendly—Q&As with the shin bet before being given the entry stamp. This time around I was not singled out for questioning. It was only me and the “menacing” immigration officer in-the-booth. She greeted me with a broad smile and a friendly Shalom, and spoke to me in Hebrew—to which I replied with the little Hebrew I could handle. But the minute she opened my passport and—I assume saw “Beirut” on the “place of birth” line—her complexion changed, her brows curled up, and the skin of her face stiffened. And although she had tried to keep her composure and her friendly disposition, it was clear that this was now serious business, and firmness was the name of the game. She asked all the routine questions: “why are you here?” “what’s the name of the conference you are attending?” “what courses do you teach?”, etc… Then came the serious part:

–“Where are you from?” she inquired.
–“Andover, Massachusetts, USA,” came my answer.
–“Where were you born?”
–“Beirut Lebanon!”
–“How long ago was your last visit to Lebanon?”
–“About ten years ago.”

Then, after grilling me on my father’s and grandfather’s names, she dropped her bombshell; the question she was itching to ask:

–“So, what are you; Muslim or Druze?” she queried.
–“Neither,” I said, “I’m a Maronite from Mount-Lebanon!”

Her face lit up, she looked me in the eye, smiled, stamped my passport, and blurted out “I’m a Christian too; welcome to Israel!”

July 13, 2011 | 5 Comments »

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