[The first installment of Gone to Palestine]
When we arrived at Ben Gurion, we were immediately overcome by strange emotions that affected us in different ways. This was partly because we didn’t know what to expect, partly because we knew they were turning so many people away at the airport these days. Some tensed up and practiced their stories. Others seemed to be meditating and relaxing as they waited in line for the initial conversation, then for the secondary questions and unpacking of the bags, the analysis of chemical traces, and then for some of us even another round of questioning and so on. For me, the arrival occasioned a giddy sense of release.
I indulged myself in a comic performance and played it in a single key. I told the security officers that I was coming to Israel only to meet Jews. I said I would speak only with Jews, go only to Jewish places, eat only Jewish foods, patronize only Jewish-owned businesses in those cities whose Jewishness was unquestionable. To interrogators who spoke Russian to one another, I said that I’d come to Israel to see Jews and only Jews. I said this to the shy passport controllers from Addis Ababa. I said this to dark-eyed security officers whose grandparents used to pray in Baghdad and Fez. I thought I was laying it on too thick, but each interrogator seemed to like what I said and passed me to the next who liked it even more.
After the second round of security checks, we waited for Oz, who’d got stuck behind the group of Palestinians whose stuffed bags were torn apart in the first round of “customs.” When the Ashkenazi minders saw how long he was being forced to wait, they encouraged him to move to the line where an endless stream of Russians whisked through. Being who he was, he refused the offer on principle. Pointing to the dark-skinned men around him said, “It would be wrong to cut in front of these other people who have been waiting in line before me.” The rest of us didn’t have his scruples, so we insinuated ourselves into the Russian line and avoided the delays that attend brown people who are not Jews.
Sitting in the new terminal, smoking cigarettes we bummed from Moroccan cabdrivers, I remembered the long hall of the new airport, made of Jerusalem stone.
An hour earlier, as we walked through it, we had commented on everything we saw there. Someone described the vast dimensions of the interior space as Nuremburg scale, though the rest of us begged to differ. We finally all agreed: it was classic neo-Third Temple. There was no mistaking it, it took forever to walk from one place in the airport to the next and you felt lost in the mass of moving people, you felt like you were in the presence of high priests and holy sacrifices. We passed huge windows and half-hidden observation posts. We marveled at the small birds that had managed, despite the hermetic quality of the space, to infiltrate and fly freely throughout.
We almost missed the small bronze bust of the airport’s namesake. On the pedestal we read these words : “Conquering the sky is not just a matter of security. Spiritual, political and economic independence are not possible without command of the sky.”
Sitting and waiting for the rest of the group to arrive, I thought of the birds who swooped down to pick up the scraps left on the tables around the airport café. When I mentioned this to Oz, he blandly observed that unlike them, we’d allowed ourselves to be repeatedly searched, radiated, and interrogated for the privilege of being here.