DESTINATION: Entering & Exiting Israel - How Dangerous Am I?
Generally speaking, I tend to think I'm a pretty harmless guy. Which isn't to say there aren't some things that will cause me to verbally spar with someone. If you've insulted me, if you've insulted someone I love, if you've insulted the sanctity of chicken and waffles. Just the essentials.
Yet despite the danger inherent in being on the receiving end of one of my patented tongue lashings, I've always kind of thought of myself as closer to the lamb than the lion.
My recent visit to Israel with UP, a subsidiary of Israel's flag carrier El Al, has caused a bit of an identity crisis though. The process of entering and exiting Israel is notoriously in-depth and in some situations can be perceived as invasive. You can easily Google the topic and find literally hundreds of articles and blog posts detailing various visitor's experiences trying to enter and exit the country with varying levels of difficulty.
Despite reading quite a few of these posts to prepare myself for the trip, I was still pretty surprised at how lengthy and thorough my experience was both entering and exiting Israel. I figured I'd need to answer some additional questions based on some of my travel patterns, but nothing too lengthy. This proved to be a bad assessement on my part though. It was pretty clear that there was quite a bit about my previous travel history, background, and personality that flagged a much higher level of scrutiny from El Al's and Israeli security regiments.
So for your personal enjoyment and to assist any travelers that might be considering a trip to Israel and are curious about they might expect, I'm going to detail my experiences entering and exiting the country. Without further ado, here is my tale in three acts.....
ACT 1: THE ENTRANCE
I was flying to Israel after spending a few days in Prague. I had used an award ticket with American Airlines to fly into Europe and had purchased an onward flight from Prague a few days later to visit Israel, a place I'd been anxious to see for many years. I was flying with UP, a new-ish low cost carrier created by Israel's flag carrier El Al to offer cheaper flights to some destinations with a lot of low cost carrier competition - including Prague.
I left my hotel with the intent of arriving at the airport 3 hours prior to departure based on all the stories I had previously read indicating that the security process for flights to Israel could take travelers a little bit of additional time.
I walked into the terminal about five minutes prior to UP's desks opening, and there was already a queue of approximately 20 people waiting in a roped off access point while airline employees ran about the check-in area setting up additional rope lines, desks, and podiums. I dutifully joined the queue which appeared to be made up almost entirely of Jewish Israelis and Czechs based on the religious clothing (head coverings, jewelry, hats, etc...) being worn.
Once the desks were opened the agents began processing the line. Two gentlemen would greet each passenger or party of passengers at the head of the line and ask for passports. After glancing through it, they'd ask a few questions about the purpose of your trip and then hand you over to one of several other agents working desks along the far wall where a more intensive screening was going on. They'd have a quick conversation and you were left with the new agent.
Even with the more stringent security compared to your standard trip to the airport, the line was moving fairly quickly and before long it was my turn to step up to the duo of gentlemen functioning as gatekeepers.
"Passport please" one of them said.
I handed it over to him with a smile and mustered my best attempt at appearing completely innocuous. He opened my passport and gave it a casual thumbing.
"Why are you going to Israel?"
I told him I was going as a tourist to see the sites in the Old City of Jerusalem and would also head out to the Negev desert to stop at the Dead Sea and Masada. He listened without glancing at me while continuing to look through my passport.
A nod from him. "Come with me, please."
He took my passport and walked me over to one of the podiums I'd seen in use earlier. So far so good. I wasn't too concerned at this point as every passenger had been brought to the desks. Everyone stood with the agents for a few minutes while answering questions and eventually were released to queue up for the check-in counters.
The woman manning the podium that I was dropped off at took my passport from my handler, took a quick glance at my information page, and then turned to me with a smile - "Excuse me for a few moments Mr. Scherer. I need to fill out a piece of paperwork. I will be right back."
She walked away from the podium and left me standing there. There are no chairs for you to have a seat at all, so you need to stand for the duration of your interview. I'm not sure whether that's because the intent is to not have you there long enough to need a chair or to stress out those who require long interviews where the mind drifts to bodily comfort and fatigue.
I waited for about 10 minutes while she stood about 20 feet away at a make-shift desk with a few of her colleagues. I tried not to stare, but I'd would occasionally glance over ever few minutes. She was meticulously going through every page of my passport and entering information into a computer and taking notes.
My research into travel to Israel clued me in on what was happening. El Al, and it appears it's subsidiary UP as well, engage in very stringent security measures to protect its flights. Israel and anything associated with it tend to be targets for some groups, and this includes El Al. I had read that the airline takes various pieces of each passenger's information and runs it through a variety of computer programs designed to calculate risk and flag potentially suspicious passengers. I had no doubt that my agent was imputing a variety of my personal details into their systems to see what it had to say.
She came back, still wearing the smile on her face.
"Thank you for your patience Mr. Scherer. Now I just have a few questions for you." And that's when the interrogation started.
What followed was an hour and ten minutes of polite but persistent questioning. As I stood there with my backpack weighing on my shoulders and luggage propped against my leg, I tried my best to keep my composure and succinctly provide honest answers. The questions covered a variety of topics, some of which were quite predictable and others that took me a bit off-guard. She asked the questions in a very controlled and precise manner, and I noticed she would loop back to questions that had already been answered to have me repeat what I said previously. My online prep work had indicated this was a tactic designed to see if you consistently answer questions with the same response.
I'm going to provide a bullet-pointed list of some (not even close to all) of the questions that were asked of me while with the agent. Hopefully this gives you an idea of what to potentially expect and to also help you visually flesh out some of the common themes that came up in the questioning.
Why did you fly to Prague prior to flying to Israel?
Why did you fly through Dallas and then Frankfurt to get to Prague instead of a more direct routing?
What did you do during your time in Prague?
Why did you stop in Frankfurt before coming to Prague for 11 hours?
Why did you visit XX country? (XX being every single Muslim country or country with a large Muslim population I have ever visited in the past)
Did you make any friends while you were in XX country?
Do you keep in contact with anyone from XX country?
How did you get to XX country?
Where did you go after you went to XX country?
Do you have any friends that live in the United States that are from XX country?
Why are you traveling alone?
Why are you not traveling with friends or family?
Do you often travel alone?
What will you do while you are in Israel?
Do you know anyone in Israel?
What company did you book your trip to Masada with?
What did you study in school?
Why did you study Arabic?
Have you ever studied Islam?
Are you religious?
What religion are your parents?
How long ago did your family emigrate from Germany?
If you are an American citizen, why does your passport list your place of birth as Japan?
Why did you leave Japan?
Did any of your family members on your German or Japanese side fight during World War II?
Did anyone other than you pay for your ticket?
How do you afford traveling so often?
What is your frequent flyer program and how does it work?
Where do you live in the United States?
What do you do for a living?
As you can see the questions focused on a few specific areas that raised concern on their end - the free ticket with multiple connections to get to Europe, my previous travel to countries with populations of people potentially hostile toward Israel, my associations with people from said countries that I may have met on my visit or that may live in the US, my plans while in Israel, and my personal life including family, friends, and profession.
While I didn't think I was a suspicious person, the El Al security system did not agree whatsoever. My lengthy interview with the agent lasted longer than anyone else's that day in Prague by a country mile (confession - I have no idea what a country mile is). As I stood there answering the questions, I couldn't help but notice passenger after passenger being herded to the desks around me and being released. Before long I was pretty much the only passenger left at check-in save for the last few stragglers in line. While I've heard stories of folks being held much longer than I was, I was clearly the prime suspect today.
Eventually I was given the green light to check-in for my flight and get to Israel, but it didn't come from me simply answering the questions truthfully to the agent. Despite being honest about every question they asked me, I was asked to prove many elements of my "story".
To prove I had purchased my tickets to Europe with frequent flyer miles, I had to show them the receipt from the airline in my email and my frequent flyer card with American Airlines. I also had to explain to them how an award ticket works and how award miles are collected. To prove that I had purchased my hotels in Prague, Jerusalem, and my flights to each without the assistance of anyone else, I had to show them the email receipts from Orbitz and Expedia with my credit card numbers. To prove I was actually going to be touring Masada and the Dead Sea, I needed to show them the website I booked the tour through and my voucher for the excursion. To prove I worked for the United States government I had to Google myself and show them my name on various government websites. They also requested my federal badge but I had left it at home (I don't normally travel with my work items) and they settled for a thorough search of my work-issued credit card instead.
After all of that, I was thanked for my patience and told that the questioning was over, but they weren't quite done with me yet. They took me to a side area where the agent who had asked me questions for more than an hour searched my luggage and backpack. It wasn't a complete search, but she took an explosive swab of several items before giving me the all clear to get my boarding pass. As almost every passenger had already been issued their pass by now it was a breeze for me as the area was deserted. I quickly took my boarding pass, passed through the empty immigration counters and walked down to the departure gate for my flight as they were scheduled to start boarding my flight in about 10 minutes.
I was a little concerned during my flight to Tel Aviv that I'd be subjected to similar scrutiny during my entry process into Israel, but surprisingly there was no issue whatsoever. It went exactly like every other country I've visited - I queued in line with the rest of God's creation and after a half hour of waiting a bored immigration official stamped me into the country and sent me on my merry way in under a minute.
I picked up my luggage from the baggage claim and immediately noticed that the TSA locks on my bag had been cut. Not unexpected, and I wasn't too worried about it. Once I got to my hotel I checked the luggage and noticed that a few toiletries had been removed - my toothpaste, my toothbrush, and a container of face wash. I'm not sure why they were deemed dangerous, but I decided to shake it off and not let this rough start ruin my time in Israel.
That wasn't the end of my story though.
ACT 2: THE DEPARTURE
After a pretty amazing stay in Israel, it was finally time for me to leave. My previous research on travel to Israel told me that generally speaking folks found that the time it took to get through the security process at Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion International airport was even longer than the time it took them to go through the security process entering the country. With this in mind, I left my hotel in Tel Aviv about four hours prior to my flight's departure.
The first security check is quick - a checkpoint on the road into the airport where an armed guard spoke to my taxi driver. She gave me a once over and waved the car through.
Once I'd been dropped off I walked toward the entrance of the terminal where I was stopped again by a guard. I was asked to hand my passport over where it was examined and I was asked where I was flying to today. My luggage and backpack were put onto a table and opened for a quick search by hand. The guard thanked me for my cooperation and sent me into the terminal.
Inside the terminal the check-in desks are actually further back from the entrance than your standard airport. The additional space is taken up by large holding areas with roped off walkways leading up to another set of podiums for security checks. You have to find your airline desk listed on one of the monitor and approach the corral set up in front of that section of airlines. I was flying with Turkish Airlines that day and the security queue for their flights were clearly marked on the information screens.
I approached the appropriate area where I was stopped by a young woman who asked me a few quick questions about my travel plans while looking through my passport. After a few moments she directed me down a line in the corral. I was the only passenger in my line while other lines running next to mine were filled with between 10 to 30 passengers.
I stood at the front of my line and waited to be called to a podium by one of the agents. They called passengers from the other lines quite frequently but I was left alone in my line for around twenty minutes. It became pretty clear after awhile that I was alone in my line for the same reason I was held for so long in Prague - I'd already been flagged as suspicious by the queue monitor based on my passport stamps. Finally, one of the agents raised her hand to me and motioned me over.
"Good morning, sir. Where are you going today?"
I explained that today I was flying to Brussels via Istanbul before flying home to the United States the next day. She thumbed through my passport and essentially ran through a remix of the same questions that were asked of me in Prague. What did you do in Israel? Why did you visit Indonesia? Have you ever practiced Islam? Etc....
After about 20 minutes she seemed satisfied with my answers and said I was free to go check-in with my airline. She reached down into her podium and pulled out a sticker which she attached to the back of my passport. Again, my research online had prepared me for this. While I'm not sure how true this is, I had read that all passenger have a sticker attached to their passport for all security staff down the assembly line from this point to see. While the number and barcode are used for tracking purposes, you can tell how much of a security threat they view you as by the first number on the sticker. One is the lowest threat level and six is the highest. I left the podium and started walking toward the Turkish check-in desks and glanced down at my sticker.
I was a 5.
Check-in was quick and the Turkish agent wished me well as she handed me my boarding pass and I handed her my luggage. I walked further into the airport to the security checkpoint. Again, another agent requested my documents and checked my bar code. She quickly handed them back to me and pointed me vaguely toward the security queues behind her and said, "You will go through there and only there, sir." I thought she was simply telling me to go through the security set up, so I started walking to get into one of the dozens of lines that were set up. I quickly felt a hand on my shoulder though. It was the same agent from a moment ago, and she scolded me for walking past the place she thought she had clearly directed me - a special corral roped off from the rest of the standard security lines. I wanted to quibble about that alleged clarity, but what's the point?
The agent unhooked the rope and sent me into the line to await my turn for an expanded security screening. Only three other passenger were in line ahead of me - all Arab women wearing head coverings. Ahead of us were three Arab men going through metal detectors and having their hand luggage thoroughly searched. I quickly picked up on the fact that the three men were either married or related to the women in some way. There were lots of eyes darting back and forth between the groups, and it was clear everyone was under a great deal of discomfort and stress.
After twenty minutes the line had not moved at all and we had been joined by a white German tourist in a tank top and dreadlocks and also two men that appeared to also be Arab. Israel makes on qualms about racially profiling passengers, and it was very evident in the queue today.
When it was my turn to go through the screening I was asked for my passport and boarding pass, which I handed over to the agent. He reviewed both before walking about twenty feet away to a large cabinet with cubby holes where he placed my items before walking back to me. This was the point where I became quite nervous as I really dislike being separated from my passport while traveling. There wasn't anything I could do and I knew voicing my concerns would fall on death ears, so I simply let it be and tried to just breath and stay calm.
Once he returned I was instructed to grab several plastic bins and remove every single item in my backpack. Piece by piece I had to pull them out and separate them out for the agent as he stood back from the tables and observed every thing I did.
Smiling. Silent. Observant.
Once that was done he started swabbing every single item in the bins with an explosive swab and testing them. My Kindle. My laptop. Every plug and charger I had with me. My scarves. Chapstick. The interior of my backpack, including every internal pocket and crevasse. Literally no item and not part of my backpack was left unsearched or unswabbed.
This entire process took about another 20 minutes before I was given the all clear to go through to immigration. While the Arab women and men ahead of me had gone through the same process, they were also questioned about their travel plans while disassembling their baggage and were taken behind a nearby screen where their bodies were searched after the luggage portion.
Luckily I was never questioned during this portion of the security check and never had my body searched. I'm assuming they were rated as 6s while my 5 status required that I have my luggage searched but didn't quite merit getting stripped down and interrogated again.
After I had repacked my backpack and was handed back my passport (heart attack over), I walked through to the immigration booths where I exited Israel without any further issue. I boarded my flight to Istanbul and connected onward to Brussels thinking that despite being lengthy and sometimes invasive, I had exited Israel a bit disheveled but generally unscathed.
Unfortunately I was wrong.
Once I reached Brussels I joined my fellow passengers at the baggage claim and waited for our luggage to arrive. Soon enough bags started streaming out on to the carousel and people collected their possessions and headed out the door. I waited. And waited. And waited. And my bright blue piece of luggage never made an appearance.
Frustrated, I wandered over to the Lost & Found Services desk, which is the contracted baggage handler for Turkish Airlines in Brussels. I told the agent my baggage didn't appear to make it and he started furiously typing away into this computer and even picked up the phone and made several phone calls in French. He kept working on the issue and I had no idea what was going on. I assumed it had fallen off a luggage cart in Istanbul and had become roadkill when Tarkan the Lazy Lorry Driver meandered over it. After about fifteen minutes he told me the news - my luggage had been confiscated by airport security and had not been placed on the flight. Turkish hadn't lost my luggage - it was being held for security purposes and had not been released as "safe" to be placed on a plane.
I was baffled. I understand needing to search my luggage, though I'm not sure what it needed to be held. There was LITERALLY nothing in the suitcase other than clothing. Not even a travel-sized toothbrush. Nada.
Even further frustrated but again realizing there was nothing I could do at this point, I filed my report with the airline and the agent told me that once it was released by the authorities they would send it to Chicago for me. I exited the baggage claim area and found a gift shop on the airside of Brussels airport where I spent 70 Euro on a t-shirt and hoodie to clothe myself for the next day.
ACT 3: FINALE
Avoiding the whole political hot potato that is Israel and it's place in the world, I still freely admit that I understand the necessity for the security procedures they put in place. Their airport and their flights are targets for violence and it is their responsibility to ensure the safety of passengers. I get that.
I'm still pretty surprised that someone in my position was flagged as such a suspect traveler though. Sure, I've visited my fair share of Muslim countries, but transiting planes in Kuala Lumpur or lounging on the beach in Bali didn't really register as too outlandish in my head. I'm a lover, not a fighter. But then again, a successful attacker would aim to look much more like me than themselves.
So what are some things I learned from this whole process? What traits and history did I possess that you may see in yourself that would cause you similar issues?
The fact that I was a solo traveler and that the majority of my travel is solo also didn't sit well with the security agents. If I were traveling with family or on a tour group they'd have been less suspicious I believe, but being alone on this trip and many of my other trips across the globe was the focus of a lot of scrutiny during both my entrance and exit from the country. Even without being alone, the fact that I simply travel so much also was of great concern to them. The idea that someone would spend so much time seeing the world seemed a bit foreign to both the agents in Prague and those in Tel Aviv. They said they'd understand if I took one or two trips a year, but five to ten? That's was odd. They dug into where I got the time, money, and willpower to see so much of the world in such a short time frame. It raised red flags in their eyes, so be prepared to discuss things such as your income, personal savings, vacation time, and debt ratios.
I'd also like to point out that every individual I spoke with during my time both in Prague and in Tel Aviv were very professional and friendly. It's not like they were asking me to add them on Facebook and go have a coffee klatch down at the local Starbucks this Saturday, but there were smiles and humor shared by all parties. When they asked me to repeat my answers to questions from the beginning of the interview, they'd chuckle and apologize for their forgetfulness. When they inquired about my personal relations, the tone was more curious than accusatory. I never felt negatively toward the staff for doing their job -it's a difficult one.
Whether that perceived friendliness was genuine or a ruse to lull you in a sense of openness is past my ability to decipher. I'm willing to be it depends on the agent you get. Regardless, it was never the people that made me feel stressed and attacked. Those feelings came from the process itself.
SO, IS A TRIP TO ISRAEL FOR YOU?
I shared some limited details about my experience with friends and family on social media and in person and they all seemed to ask me the same question - "Was it worth it?"
Yes, but with conditions.
Israel is a wonderful destination - make no mistake about that. There's are some phenomenal sites to visit both in historic Jerusalem as well as various locations across this small nation. The wealth of history, beautiful landscape, and the richness of the culinary scene scream out for exploration.
I do not regret at all my decision to visit this amazing strip of land.
But that doesn't mean the process doesn't take its toll on you. I must say that having visited almost 40 countries to date, the stress I felt trying to enter and exit Israel was by far the highest I've ever experienced as a traveler, and that includes the time my boyfriend was detained by Japanese immigration and almost deported a few years back. While the security process is clearly necessary and I know in my heart I have absolutely nothing to hide, I exited both ends of this process feeling battered and attacked.
The agents are polite, but you still feel slighted. Their questions are direct but you still feel that there's a secret game afoot. The process is well known but still takes you by surprise. You can be a good person with nothing to hide and still end up feeling like you've been hit and run by the process.
Keep in mind that in all likelihood most travelers do not fall into my profile. You may have visited much fewer suspect countries, be traveling with your family and friends, or have flown directly from your home country to Tel Aviv. The fewer red flags your raise the more likely your experience with the security process will be limited and pleasant. Most travelers are likely to face a much simpler, less invasive level of scrutiny than I experienced. Don't necessarily take my experience as indicative of what you may get when you show up for your flight. This process is fluid and there's a strong likelihood that you'll sail through with less turbulence than I did.
So based on my personal experience, is a visit to Israel worth it? Yes. By all means, plan a trip. Take some time to really look at what this country has to offer with this unique geography and history. Arrive in Israel with enough time to do and see everything you'd ever want to do in this land in one trip.
Because that's the thing about Israel - it's totally worth the visit but I wouldn't do it more than once knowing what I know now.
If I could wave a magic wand and suddenly cure all the evils of the world and the heavy security was no longer needed, I'd likely be planning a return trip to this little strip of land. I enjoyed myself so much I'd consider a return trip, no question. But sadly I have no magic wand and life is what it is, and right now given the choice I would not return to Israel - not because the area isn't worth seeing, but because I just cannot see myself going through that process again willingly knowing how stressed it made me.
I can tell you right now if I had been given a 6 instead of a 5 and been asked to go behind the screen to remove my clothes or have someone examine every crevasse of my body with their hands like the folks ahead of me in that line when I left Tel Aviv, I would probably be sitting here with a different opinion.
And that gets to the heart of why I won't be returning to Israel. I'm going to continue traveling, seeing the world, and making new friends from all corners of the globe - regardless of race, religion, gender, or any other arbitrary category we like to put people into. With that in mind, I don't know that the next time I attempt to enter or exit Israel that I wouldn't be given that 6 on my passport.
So for piece of mind I have decided that for the time being, this will be my one and only trip to Israel. I do hope that times will change and that the Israelis and Palestinians will find a way to bring peace to their land. Until that time comes though, Israel will remain a place I once visited but do not plan to return to in the future.
And that's a truly a sad thing, because it's definitely worth a second visit. And even a third.