Jerusalem Press Club event exposes unfortunate reality of profiling

Uri Dromi
Uri Dromi

Recently, I hosted at the Jerusalem Press Club a group of students from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Chicago. They came to learn firsthand about the complexities of covering Israel and the Middle East. With the growing hostility toward Israel on campuses all over North America, we went out of our way to prepare for these future journalists the best program possible, which would send them home enriched and better educated about the situation here.

One of the participants was a Palestinian-American female, wearing a hijab. Sensing possible problems, I contacted security at Ben-Gurion Airport and vouched for her. Alas, it didn’t help. The first thing these young people encountered upon arrival was their hijab-wearing friend being pulled aside and interrogated for two hours.

Trying to avoid more such embarrassments later, I asked security at the Foreign Ministry (where I had better connections) not to single her out when the group entered the ministry, but rather to pick some people, including her, as if at random, for further inspection. The trick didn’t work. In her blog she wrote: “Because of my hijab I became suspect and was discriminated against.”

To discriminate against people just because of their religion or the way they look or dress is the last thing Jews should be supporting. However, the security personnel in Israel didn’t pick on the Muslim student from Chicago arbitrarily. There is an onslaught on Jews and Christians today, being carried out by militant Islamists, and when attacked, Jews and Christians have the right to defend themselves.

ISIS fighters are easy to identify, with their beards, machine guns, black flags and Toyota trucks. On the other hand, terrorists disguised as airplane passengers or passers-by pose a difficult challenge. I wish there was a device that would identify them, perhaps by monitoring the sinister energy they radiate (if Israeli high-tech mavericks invent such a thing, remember where you read about it first). In the meantime, unfortunately, profiling is sometimes the lesser evil.

Being a woman doesn’t necessarily help. Security people in Israel remember Wafa al Bass, a 21-year-old Gazan who in 2005 befriended Israeli guards at the Erez checkpoint. She travelled several times on a special permit from Gaza to Be’er Sheva, where she had been treated at the Soroka Hospital. For some reason, one time the guards became suspicious and discovered that under her traditional black robes she had strapped a 22-pound bomb to her leg. She was sent to prison, but released in the Gilad Schalit prisoner swap. To the Palestinian schoolchildren who came to greet her upon her release, this pious woman said: “I hope you will walk the same path we took and, God willing, we will see some of you as martyrs.”

This feeling of an elusive enemy within poisons even the most liberal minds. At the Touro Restaurant at the Jerusalem Press Club, most of the sous-chefs and the kitchen workers are Palestinian. We love them and treat them as equals. Until at the Begin Heritage Center next door, a Palestinian cook pulled a gun and shot Israeli activist Yehuda Glick. Then, against everything we believe in, we start becoming suspicious.

When will all this end? When Islam overcomes this militant phase and retreats from the battlefields of the jihad back into the mosques. That, however, might take some time. In the meantime, my heart goes out to this Palestinian-American student, whose only sin was that she was wearing a hijab and now has bad memories from her first trip to Israel.

I know what I have to do. The next time I expect a Muslim guest, I’ll try harder. There must be a way to walk the thin line between securing our lives and not hurting the feelings of innocent people. This is a calculated risk worth taking.

Uri Dromi is executive director of the Jerusalem Press Club. He was the spokesman of the Rabin and Peres governments and was the chief education officer of the Israeli Air Force.