Elia Zureik – born Palestine, left Israel, lives Canada – discovers under interrogation at Tel Aviv airport that he has lost his identity
As a Palestinian-Canadian sociologist living in Canada, it sometimes feels that the experience of passing though Ben Gurion airport and across Allenby bridge during regular journeys to Israel/Palestine over the past decade has taught me more about borders, identities and statehood than my scholarly work has. But just after I started to think that Israel's interrogatory 'welcome' at these frontier points had nothing left to surprise me, a recent incident gave me a surprising lesson in how life escapes the grip of ideology.
In common with other Palestinian travellers, I expect interrogation and a body search on arrival. A frequent traveller to Israel/Palestine learns the questions by heart and answers by rote.
'Whom will you see?' and 'what is the purpose of your trip?' are routine, but the first question is usually: 'where were you born?' To this, I cite my Canadian passport: 'Acre, Palestine.' When I was born the territory was indeed called Palestine; Acre is the English equivalent of Akka, the Arabic name of my hometown in the north of the country.
The response is: why don't you name 'Akko, Israel' as your place of birth? Well, the territory's change of name came almost a decade after my birth, and through no choice of my own. Moreover, 'Akko' has the same meaning as 'Akka', and – since Arabic is my mother tongue – I am more accustomed to the Arabic than the Hebrew form.
This usually settles things. In most cases I am given an entry visa on my Canadian passport, and allowed to enter Palestine /Israel and Acre/Akko/Akka.
But the most intrusive questions come on departure. Then, the questions come in waves: how did I spent my time during the visit, whom did I see, did I visit the territories, where do my relatives live, what are their names, do you have letters of invitation, who paid your hotel bills and where are the receipts, who bought your airline tickets and where are they, do you have any 'official' papers and other questions that depend on the state of alertness of the interrogator - and of the country as a whole.
I am intrigued by the personality and interrogation methods of officials from the private-hire company in charge of airport security. These companies are part of a sprawling 'security industry' which Israel markets worldwide, run by a huge surplus of retired military and intelligence personnel. Israel is a state-for-hire, ready to train other governments in the art of 'security management'.
Individual experiences produce variations in the rehearsed routine. What do these young people (most of the frontline security employees seem to be in their 20s) think of their job? What do they think about their duties? They are trained to behave professionally, look officious, not befriend their subjects, to be courteous – and to make sure they interview every Palestinian, Arab, and (more recently) foreigner and Israeli Jew who has a record of political activism against government policies in the territories.
One interrogator responded to the information that I was a university professor in sociology by saying: "Ah, I studied sociology at Ben Gurion University." I asked if she planned to study further. "Yes, and I am working here in order to save money." I asked who taught her sociology there. "Uri Ram." "Uri Ram? Do you ever see him?" She replied that she would if she applied for a master's degree at Ben Gurion. I told her to give him my warm regards, since in his book on Israeli sociology he said nice things about my work.
We discussed the relationship between sociology and her work at the airport. She saw little connection. She had a purely instrumental attitude to her job: money was the object.
A rapport had been established, and the questioning shifted. The 'subject' was now questioning the 'official' – or at least the process had become reciprocal. This is what sociologists of deviance call 'neutralisation technique'. It makes interrogation more bearable for both parties. In this case, it did not eliminate the routine questions, but it did temporarily place me outside the box of the accused.
A particular visit to Jerusalem was revelatory. At passport control in Tel Aviv airport, after confirming that I speak Hebrew, I was asked: "Where were you born?" This time, I replied: "Acre, Palestine, as it says in the passport". We had a brief shouting-match over the words 'Acre' and 'Akka'. The officer implied that there was no such a place in Israel, and that I was making it up (Arabic is one of the two official languages in the country). Did I have an Israeli passport? "No", I said, "I never had one." "Are you an Israeli citizen?" "No, I gave up my citizenship some forty years ago, and I do have a void Israeli ID card back in Canada." "Wait please."
The officer made a few phone calls and asked me my last name. I told her: as it is written in the passport. "What is your hamula (clan) name?" Hmm, I thought, a new twist. "I don't have a hamula." "Are you sure?" "Yes, ma'am." She shook her head, and made another call – to the interior ministry. "You are still an Israeli citizen, and according to the rules of the country you can only enter and exit on an Israeli passport." Since I had neither a hamula nor an Israeli passport, I began to anticipate a swift return to Canada courtesy of Israel's 'security' apparatus.
After further debate and another phone call she declared: "OK, we will let you in this time, but it will be the last time that you enter without an Israeli passport." "Thank you ma'am." I was processed accordingly. On my way out, I wondered about the depth of the Orientalist logic that every Arab must be a member of a clan. I also wondered what they had on me in the secret files of the state regarding 'my' hamula membership. Clearly I failed the hamula test!
Within a day, I was back at Tel Aviv airport to take a short flight to Amman, Jordan. During the luggage search, a man who appeared to be a supervisor of the operation told the inspection squad (in Hebrew) to speed up my processing. They seemed to ignore his request. He returned several times to check on the search, without any perceptible effect. After he left I asked a member of the squad if he was their supervisor. He was not.
Then, at passport control, another surprise. The officer called the interior ministry to check my citizenship status and was given the number of the identity card I held close to fifty years ago. She recorded it in Hebrew in my Canadian passport. "What about your hamula?" she asked. I told her that I had no hamula, had given up my citizenship when I left the country in 1962, and had never had an Israeli passport. She replied: "You are still an Israeli citizen. Go to the embassy in Ottawa and sort it out." What if I want to give up this badge of honour? "That is a problem between you and the interior ministry", she said. "But you cannot come back to Israel using this passport."
I was impressed that my name and details were still included in a national database after over forty years' non-residence. This is population surveillance at its most refined. Israel must have the most detailed information in its databases about the Palestinian people worldwide.
In the departure hall, I was contemplating a future in no man's land when the non-supervisor from the luggage search joined some security officers nearby. They spoke Arabic, and the name on his security badge was Arab. I asked him for his full name, which he gave me. He came from the Negev, but now lived in Lydda.
Israel had settled hundreds of Palestinian collaborators and their families in Lydda for their own protection after their identity was exposed when the Palestinian Authority was established.
The man intuited my mental equation (Lydda + Arab + security = collaborator). He hastened to tell me that his role in the airport security detachment was to assist Arab travellers, that he was not a member of the domestic security service Shin Bet, that he had studied yahasei enush (interpersonal relations) at the Berl school, and that he owed this training and employment to the previous Labour government. In other words, he was an ordinary hard-working man with leftist leanings serving both the state and fellow Arabs.
I had no way of telling if this was the truth, nor did I really care. But I did tell him that his earlier intervention had not helped me. He acknowledged this and said he arrived on the scene too late – the search and interrogation had already begun. He offered to facilitate my return entry from Amman through Tel Aviv airport and gave me his cell phone number. I thanked him, but in the end I flew from Amman to Canada via Europe.
I left Israel wondering why a state insists on embracing its 'citizens' even though many, like myself, have not been members of the body politic for decades. John Torpey provides an answer in his book Invention of the Passport: surveillance, citizenship, and the state. Modern nation-states are obsessed with exhibiting signs of sovereignty, authority, and territoriality. Among the essential requirements of a state are the ability to control entry and exit, define belonging and exclusion, and patrol the territorial boundaries. The passport becomes a certification tool for authorising the construction of citizenship.
What makes the Israeli case intriguing is that none of these elements of statehood – borders, population composition, and sovereignty – have yet been finalised and legitimated. What to do with the Palestinians, both inside Israel and in the Occupied Territories, remains a contested issue. Ariel Sharon's government is acutely aware that demographic and migration trends threaten Israel's identity as a Jewish state.
One result of this mixture of institutional realities and long-term processes is that the logic of Israeli population management and control, initially applied only to the Palestinians, is now being extended to involve specific cases of Israeli Jews. Jewish dissenters and supporters of Palestinians against occupation are also now subject to surveillance and monitoring at Israeli border crossings.
Yet even all this does not explain why the Israeli state is so eager to embrace a Palestinian subject whom it considers to be the very antithesis of its existence. Could it be that the logic of its commitment to power, order, control and bureaucratic procedure can override even its core ideological underpinnings?
This compelling question forces me to reread the sociologist Max Weber's work on 'the iron cage of bureaucracy'. Alongside my experiences at the borders of statehood, citizenship and national identity, it nurtures in me the sense that those who herald the end of the nation-state and the emergence of the transnational citizen are still, themselves, in no man's land.
I did contact the Israeli embassy in Ottawa, to solve my entry-exit problem. I was given a one-ear Israeli passport, pending further background checks. This was done in record time – within four days of applying to the embassy. During the process, the official asked me if I owned any property in Israel, and the street on which I lived some forty years ago. To both questions, I replied that I did not know. She turned to the computer, tapped into Israel's population registry, and with one click gave my childhood street name.
[i]This is an edited version of an article which first appeared on[/i] openDemocracy.net