Pure Affectation

Deborah Friedell · Flies El Al

Two months before Richard Reid tried to blow up American Airlines 63 with his high-tops, he took a flight to Israel on El Al. The airline's security team questioned him, as they do all passengers, and couldn't find a reason not to let him fly; but his body was searched, his luggage was put through a decompression chamber and hand-checked, and an air marshal was put in the seat next to him. El Al likes to boast that the 9/11 hijackers would never have succeeded on one of their planes: I don't disbelieve them.

Last week I flew from London to Tel Aviv and back on El Al. Before my flights, security officers established that I'd celebrated my Bat Mitzvah – so why was my Hebrew so poor? But then the converse can also be suspicious: years ago one of my Israeli cousins flew El Al on his American passport, having forgotten his Israeli one. 'Why is your Hebrew so good?' he was asked, and taken to another room. I was asked why I was named Deborah and whether I had any siblings: I said I had a younger brother. 'Where does he live? Has he ever been to Israel? What does he do? What is his dissertation about?' I was asked what I was planning to see in Israel: which tourist sites, exactly? And then, at the very end, did I know that my accent went back and forth between British and American? 'Pure affectation,' I said, and I was allowed to board.


  • 5 July 2010 at 3:02pm
    Chris Larkin says:
    Perhaps El Al should consider not only air marshalls, but linguistics professors and experts in phonology as permanent members of the filght crew from now on?

  • 6 July 2010 at 7:04am
    Geoff Roberts says:
    Maybe the answer is to stay where you are and reduce your carbon footprint.

  • 6 July 2010 at 10:39am
    Adam Shatz says:
    Deborah Friedell's blog about her El Al trip took me back to my last and only trip to Israel in 2005. I flew there alone, which was enough to raise suspicions in the eyes of the Israelis, not because they feared I was a terrorist, but rather because I might be a member of the International Solidarity Movement, who were busy throwing themselves between Palestinian homes and Israeli bulldozers set to demolish them. As a single male in my 30s I fit the profile. It didn't help that I was carrying a book I'd recently edited, an anthology of writings by Jewish critics of Zionism; or that my passport showed I'd been in Lebanon, Syria and Algeria. 'Are you Jewish?' I nodded yes to the woman reviewing my documents. 'You've been to these places and you've never been to Israel? How come?' Better late than never, I suggested. For the next three-quarters of an hour I was questioned about my bar mitzvah (did you read from the Torah? did you chant?), whom I knew and whom I planned to see in Israel, which newspapers I read for information about Israel, what was my understanding of The Conflict, and, of course, whether I intended to visit 'the territories'. I was not permitted to go to the cafe for a snack and was escorted to the plane by a a short, unsmiling man who would not have looked out of place as a bouncer or mafia body guard. Give credit where credit is due: Zionism did produce a new Jew, nicely described many years ago as 'Rambovitz' by Paul Breines in his book Tough Jews. I asked my escort what I had done to deserve such an honour. 'It is entirely random,' he said.

    Maybe -- but I had the luck of the draw when I left Israel as well. Two young women opened my suitcase and began to rummage through my clothes. They found some literature I'd picked up at the Sakakini Centre, a Palestinian cultural centre in Ramallah that holds concerts and poetry readings. Mahmoud Darwish had an office at the Sakakini and I'd been there to see him. One of the women interrogating me asked if I spoke Arabic. I said I didn't. 'But what about these brochures?' I pointed out that they were also in English, but this did not allay her suspicions. 'But you do speak Arabic?' she asked me, perhaps a dozen times. The search continued, and my clothes were in a pile. By now the other people in the queue probably knew which brand of underwear I wore. 'Ah ha, you do speak Arabic!' one of the women declared, very proud of her discovery. She handed me my notepad, written in illegible English that, from a certain vantage point, did look like Arabic, I suppose.

    After about an hour, I was allowed through. 'This always happens to my husband,' said the woman behind me in the queue. 'He's Persian, and he looks like an Arab.'