When security breaches threaten airports, there’s not much doubt about who is usually called in to deal with the situation. Israel’s prowess in dealing with threats to its borders, and especially its air-transportation system, is legendary.
What makes their methods so reliable?
Leaving aside the reputation for toughness, smarts and facial-analysis techniques that the Jewish state’s security services have cultivated both inside airports and during covert operations, it’s actually something that doesn’t require much derring-do: a willingness to be politically incorrect.
In stark contrast to methods used in the United States, the Israelis practice what Americans call racial profiling without apology.
Which is why the current dustup about the questioning that liberal American Jewish writer Peter Beinart got when entering Israel recently made no sense. That said, however foolish the questioning of groups and individuals critical of the Jewish state may be, it shouldn’t, as Beinart clearly intends, cause Israel to re-examine its approach to security.
In this context, racial profiling means security personnel are trained to look for the types of people and behavior that raise red flags. While personnel from the Transportation and Security Agency at U.S. airports are as likely to single out an elderly grandmother or a mother with a baby for special scrutiny as anyone else, the Israelis focus their attention on the types of people who are more likely to be terrorists.
Israelis ask pointed questions of all visitors to the country to ensure that they are who they say they are. Inevitably, that also means they single out people based on ethnicity and age—to take just two of the most prominent indicators of possible trouble—for questioning or searches. In practice, that means that younger males who are Palestinian Arabs and/or Muslims are a lot more likely to get the third degree from Israeli security personnel than that proverbial harmless grandmother or nursing mother.
That strikes some as unfair. But Israel’s results, especially when compared to that of other security services that don’t follow the same procedures, are outstanding.
Palestinian terrorists continue to strike whenever they can at vulnerable Israeli targets. But Israel’s transportation system, which is normally the weak point in any nation’s defenses, remains secure. That’s because trained security people have learned how to spot problems and are unashamed to single out the types who are most likely to commit mayhem. And they have continued doing so, even though it has earned the country a reputation for being unfriendly to Palestinian and Muslim passengers and tourists.
It also puts the controversies engendered by Israeli officials who have subjected people like Beinart or Simone Zimmerman, the co-founder of the anti-Zionist IfNotNow group to interrogations when entering the country, in a different context.
Israeli security is smart enough to know that even if his views demonstrate a shocking ignorance of the realities of the Middle East, as well as staggering self-regard, Beinart is no security threat. The same is true of Zimmerman, even though her views are odious.
While Beinart’s account of an hour spent answering questions from what appears to have been a not-terribly-bright Israeli official when he arrived to attend a family simcha was overly dramatic, it’s equally obvious that the only purpose of such encounters that focus on politics is intimidation, not security.
These incidents are likely the result of an ill-advised law passed last year in which Israel banned BDS activists from entering the country. The legislation did nothing to enhance Israel’s security, but it does allow people whose ill intent is plain to play the martyr. Keeping them out in this manner does the Jewish state more harm than letting them wander about the country they want to boycott. It is far from unprecedented—even for democracies—to keep out people who advocate their overthrow, such as America’s longstanding ban on Communists. But terrorism is the work of terrorists not peddlers of bad or even repugnant ideas.
That’s why Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu is right to take notice of the Beinart incident. What happened to the liberal journalist was wrong. And if publicizing it leads to a crackdown on out-of-control security personnel who have been playing the inquisitor with American liberals who don’t like the country’s democratically elected prime minister and government, instead of just worrying about potential terrorists, Israel will be the better for it.
The problem here is that in writing about his “ordeal,” Beinart’s real purpose is not just to avoid similar incidents. To the contrary, he understands that—petty harassment aside—he was in no danger of being locked up for his beliefs because as an American Jew and a well-known journalist, even the dimmest of border officials understood he posed no threat. As he put it, his “national, religious and class privilege” was such that he was never frightened.
What Beinart wants is to ensure that Palestinians also aren’t subjected to tough questioning, no matter whether they fit the racial profile of a potential terrorist. That is where he should lose the argument with anyone who cares about protecting Israel.
While this incident plays into left-wing narratives about Netanyahu and U.S. President Donald Trump trashing democracy, there is a difference between wrongful harassment of political foes and smart policies that focus on actual threats.
While Beinart likes to complain about the decline of Israeli democracy, his real beef with Israel is that Israelis who share his views about the peace process haven’t won an election in 20 years. Moreover, the majority of Israelis not only disagree with him, they also sleep better knowing that those who are given the job to protect them are doing it without worrying about being politically correct.
That’s why Netanyahu should make sure that those who have that job stop playing politics, which inadvertently gives the country’s detractors undeserved publicity. Instead, they should stick to ferreting out actual terrorists by using profiling techniques that ought to have reminded them that Beinart wasn’t a threat, whether the writer likes it or not.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS — Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.