‘I was Jewish, and that was it’

Jordanian airport security cut rabbi’s tefillin, claiming safety hazard.

Rabbi Moshe Haliwa's cut tefillin boxes. Courtesy.
Rabbi Moshe Haliwa's cut tefillin boxes. Courtesy.

A rabbi on his way to board a connecting flight at Jordan’s main airport had the straps of his tefillin (phylacteries) cut by security guards who called them a security threat, he said Thursday.

It was the latest in a series of harassment incidents at Jordanian border crossings, Israeli officials said.

U.K.-born Rabbi Moshe Haliwa, who lives in Israel, was returning on Monday night to Dubai, where he has been working as the head of a Sephardic community for the last year, when the incident took place.

Haliwa said he was stopped at the security checkpoint at Amman’s Queen Alia International Airport after an airport security guard noticed the two pairs of tefillin he had packed in his carry-on.

“Apparently, they did not know what tefillin was, so I showed it to him and explained that religious Jews wear it every day during prayer,” he told JNS from Dubai.

By then, two or three more guards had arrived.

“I showed them how I wear it and explained that it is 100% leather, there is nothing metallic in it, and that it has been through hundreds of airports,“ he said.

The original guard called his superior who said it could not be taken as hand luggage and could only be checked in a suitcase. But Haliwa had only a carry-on bag for the short flight from Israel to Dubai.

“I told them it was just a religious item, that we pray to the same God, and that it posed no threat,” Haliwa said.  “I begged, I pleaded, I cried.”

The Jordanian security personnel indicated that they do not allow any threads or straps in hand luggage due to concern over strangulation.

Tefillin are a set of small black leather boxes with leather straps containing scrolls of parchment inscribed with verses from the Torah that observant Jews wear during weekday morning prayers.

At this point, Haliwa, who didn’t want to get in trouble, suggested they cut the straps off and let him take the boxes.

Unmoved, the guard would not let him do that and threatened to call the police if he did not move on.

Haliwa passed through the security checkpoint leaving his tefillin behind.

He then recounted the events to a sympathetic female security guard, who took him to the head of airport security.

The head of security, who listened politely to what happened, was also unfamiliar with tefillin, so the rabbi showed him pictures on Google.

The security chief walked Haliwa back to the security checkpoint and told him that although he couldn’t take the straps through, he would take the tefillin boxes and board his flight, Haliwa said.

The rabbi was grateful but said he was shaken up emotionally by the “harrowing experience.”

“It gave me flashbacks of the scenes of the Nazis cutting off the side curls of teenagers,” he said.

Haliwa said that he felt that the incident was antisemitic because he was singled out as an Orthodox Jew.

“Never has tefillin been used to strangle someone,” he said.  “I was Jewish and that was it.”

After returning to Dubai, he spoke with the Israeli consul general, who told him she was familiar with other incidents of harassment by Jordanian border guards at land crossings with Israel, but that this was the first she heard of tefillin in hand luggage being an issue at the airport.

Haliwa said it was heart-warming to receive messages of support from both Jews and not Jews after he went public with his story.

He hopes fellow religious Jewish passengers will learn from his experience that they cannot bring tefillin in carry-ons while transiting through Jordan.

Next time, he will take a direct flight and he will not fly through Jordan again, said Haliwa.

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