A few months ago, I was sitting in the terminal at Ben Gurion International Airport, in Tel Aviv, reading a fellow traveler's account of flying out of Israel. I'd heard horror stories of strip searches and endless lines. I was curious what I was really up against.
I wasn't surprised to learn security is top-notch.
After all, I had already been searched and questioned twice, once through the window of my taxi and again before the terminal doors. All this and I hadn't even entered the airport yet.
But then I read about the stickers.
I learned that before any passenger ever gives up his luggage to the fine folks at Ben Gurion International, an employee places a neon yellow sticker on the back of your passport. On it is a 10-digit number. The first number, ranging from one to six, indicates your perceived threat level to whomever else you're passed along.
I got a five.
After I got back, I relayed this story to some friends who were more experienced traveling to and from Israel. My ego deflated a little to learn I didn't actually seem threatening, just more suspicious than average.
For one, I'm not Jewish. That automatically raises some red flags in a country fraught with religious and cultural conflicts. I was also on assignment as a reporter, traveling alone, without so much as an estranged second cousin I could say I knew. The profiling alarms had to be blaring.
The system isn't official, just the sort of through-the-grapevine rumors that travelers seemed to have agreed is true. So I can't know for sure what would have happened had I gotten a six. But looking back, maybe I don't want to.
As Lia Tarachansky wrote back in 2010 for Mondoweiss, while a one rating "is awesome," a six indicates that "you're f-----." It appears to be reserved for Palestinians, Muslims, and hostile internationals.
Extreme, yes. But effective.
No flight leaving Ben Gurion has ever been hijacked, and the airline servicing Israel, El Al, hasn't seen an attack in more than 30 years.
Too bad the TSA has yet to find a workable system of their own.
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