Thursday, November 10, 2011

Take all the courage you have left

In a book I read a while back, I stumbled upon the following lines:
That's the thing about activism. It isn't a members-only club. We don't get to choose who is, and who isn't, an activist. The ability to stand up, to do the right thing - to be active - is in every human being.

I found this idea to be quite motivating, and while that hasn't changed, I now question to what extent it is true.

What if we in fact don't all have what it takes to be an activist?

These doubts come after my experience in the Tel Aviv airport a few months ago. I think I was doomed from the start. Several people had told me that as a young woman traveling alone, I would be one of the top profiling targets and warned me not to bring along clothing with the word 'peace' on it or anything that would mark me as an 'activist.' This only increased my natural tendency to worry. Besides this, I am really bad at lying and have a rather irrational fear of 'getting in trouble.' On top of it all, I stepped off the plane at 4:30am after spending all night traveling.

True to prediction, I had barely taken my place in line for passport control before I was approached by a security employee who asked if I had been to the country before and what my plans for the visit were. Upon reaching the counter, these questions were repeated as well as inquiries about where and with whom I was staying. Apparently, my answers were unsatisfactory, as the woman behind the counter conferred with a second woman (in Hebrew, of course) before the second woman took my passport and led me to another room.

Here I faced an intimidating man who repeated the same questions and added ones about what I do in Germany (try explaining an organization called "Peace Brigades" without using words like peace and human rights!), if I knew anyone in Israel, what I knew about the conflict, and if I had any ties with Palestinian groups or plans to go to Palestine. He then moved on to his problems with the American pastor (who previously attended the same church as my parents)that I was planning to stay with because 'why would someone who doesn't even know you invite you to stay with him?'

Despite the fact that it was not yet 5:00am, he then proceeded to call Pastor Fred, question him about his alleged guest, chide him for inviting others to Israel when he himself was a guest in the country, promising to make remarks in his passport, and threatening trouble if anything suspicious were to turn up. Perhaps the most absurd element was his suspicion caused by Fred's and my shared connection to a church called Bethlehem Lutheran.
Read Fred's account of it here:

The security officer then demanded my cell phone and proceeded to search through its contents. It was all I could do to conceal my fear, as I had repeatedly claimed not to know anyone else in Israel and there were in fact two ICAHD contact numbers in my phone. Luckily, security man only found the most recent calls (bonus points for German-language phone!), though he even seemed suspicious of these German contacts ("Who's Gaby? A friend in German, really?")

As he then led me across the hall to a waiting room, I quickly pulled out my phone and deleted the two Israeli contacts as secretly and subtly as I could. But of course, just as I was flipping the phone closed, security man turned around and saw me: "What are you doing?! Why are you deleting messages?! Give me that phone!" And so my phone went off to join my passport in the land of confiscation.

The make-shift waiting room to which I was taken was quite surreal. In it were about a dozen security workers and soldiers who appeared to be on break: some were dozing, some were eating, and some were playing games on their phones. Besides me there were two young women who, if I were to make a guess based solely on appearance and attire, were part of some sort of prostitution/trafficking ring. Above the vending machine, a TV was playing without sound and appeared to be showcasing some sort of 80's workout video with three leotard-clad people doing sit-ups on some mountaintop with a sea or ocean in the background. This would later switch to them doing jumping jacks on a cruise ship, with the instructor wearing a captain's hat. If the officials were trying to play mind games with their detainees, it was definitely working.

After a second round of answering the same questions (from a different official in a different room) and another wait in the jazzercise break-room, I was taken to a third room, where I was greeted by yet two more security officials and told that:
"We are going to ask you some questions that we already know the answers to so that we can see if you are cooperating."
Security man then proceeded to tell me that they had spoken with Fred five minutes before and he had no idea who I was. Further, Fred's letter of welcome was something I could have typed up myself and after he brought up the internet on his computer came the following exchange:
"Please sign into your email and show us your conversations with Fred."
No, I won't do that.
"Why not?"
Because I don't show my email to people.
"We are not people - we are the authorities."
I don't have to show you my email.
"You don't have to enter Israel...What are you hiding?"
I'm not hiding anything - I have the right to privacy.
"You have no rights in this room." (It was this statement that just about did me in). "So you are refusing to cooperate - you know this will prevent you from entering Israel. We are also friends with the USA, so if you don't cooperate with us, you will be in trouble there."

And with this, they sent me back to the waiting room, but not before asking exactly how much money I had, having me take out my cash, and keeping my wallet and the rest of its contents.

So there I sat. Fighting tears. Expecting to be sent back to Germany. Hoping that nothing worse happened, that somehow they would find proof of something and arrest me.

After a while, I was approached by yet another anonymous official who informed me that they knew I was lying and if I continued not cooperating, I would not enter Israel.

I was then led into another screening room, only to be taken out again so they could Fred again, this time without me being able to hear what they said to him. When I returned, security lady told me they were willing to let me into the country if I signed an an agreement that I would not enter areas under control of the Palestinian Authority and if I left a monetary deposit as a safeguard that I would do as promised.

In my somewhat-altered decision-making capacity, I agreed to the conditions, even though it's quite possible that the monetary sum (which I can no longer remember) was more than I even had available. But at this point, after having repeatedly denied any intention to go to Palestine, I figured it would be unwise to turn down the agreement.

I was sent once more to the waiting room and upon return was greeted with the ever-so-gracious announcement that "We now believe you, so you don't have to leave a deposit."

They, however, did not believe me enough to forget about the agreement, which threatened deportation, a fine, and a 10-year ban on Israel if I were to enter PA-controlled zones.

And so, four hours later, I received my passport, complete with stamp, and continued on my way.

There were many true activists headed for Palestine that day. More than 300 were on blacklists sent from the Israeli government to European airports and were thus not allowed to board their planes.

Others arrived and, unlike me, boldly and purposefully stated their intentions to visit the Territories. As a result, they were arrested and imprisoned for four days, some of whom were harassed or beaten (

And this is of course is nothing in comparison to the threats and violence that face Palestinians and activists around the world on a daily basis.

Yet, against the background of a safe, spoiled, and secure life, my airport experience was one that shook me to the core.

And this begs the question: if I am so troubled by a few uncomfortable hours and some intimidating questions in an airport, how can I hope to handle facing soldiers at a checkpoint or settlers on an accompaniment? If such a minor incident affects me so greatly, how can I believe I have what it takes to take part in these actions of solidarity that so interest me?

I know, of course, that there are many ways to take action that involve neither threat nor risk nor fear. But somehow, to me, it's not the same.

And what if activism, this kind of activism, truly is a members-only club? And I don't belong?