Going for the Gold in Jewish Education

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By: David Mizrahi

Stricter security procedures at US airports have met with a public outcry and calls to reevaluate the way planes are kept safe. And many believe that the solution is to be found some 6,000 miles to the east of our shores – at Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport.

Several months ago, a 49-year-old woman – we’ll call her Andrea – was flying out of Pittsburgh.  Waiting in the security line on the way to the gate, she knew she would have to avoid the electronic scanners, since she was recovering from chronic fatigue syndrome, and cannot expose her fragile body to excessive radiation.  According to newly implemented guidelines of the federal Transportation Security Administration (TSA), passengers must choose between full body scans and a so-called “pat down search” by TSA officials.  So, she innocently opted for the pat down. But the experience turned out to be so dreadful, that Andrea went into trauma, and began crying. Graphically describing the ordeal in a letter she sent to civil rights activist John Whitehead of the Rutherford Institute, she wrote, “The officer ran her hands over every square inch of my body, firmly pressing into my flesh in every area.”

After the search was finally completed and she retrieved her belongings, she pulled out her camera to take pictures of the site, planning to file an official complaint.  Andrea was promptly apprehended and forced to delete all the photos she had taken.

According to her testimony, the stressful experience reactivated her autoimmune condition, and she needed a full month to recover and rebuild her body’s immunity.

While Andrea’s story might be characterized as extreme, it underscores the growing disgruntlement of millions of travelers who pass through America’s airports. While long lines and burdensome measures like removing shoes and belts have been breeding displeasure with the air travel process since the World Trade Center attacks, the newest protocols are viewed by many as invasive and a violation of the constitutional right to protection against unwarranted searches.  In recent months, public ire was ignited and fueled by several videos of humiliating full body searches that were widely circulated on the internet and shown on television.  These disconcerting videos were accompanied by a leak by the Gizmodo technology blog of one hundred scanned body images obtained from an Orlando courthouse scanner, providing a disquieting glimpse of the graphic images TSA officials see every time a passenger walks through the machine.  The public outcry has drawn attention to possible alternatives to current methods of protecting American aircrafts.

A Troubling Pattern

The TSA has been establishing progressively stricter rules in response to evolving terror techniques.  The agency was established by the Bush Administration in November, 2001 in the wake of the deadly hijackings of four American aircraft on September 11 of that year, for the purpose of federalizing aviation security. Federal security agents were dispatched to every US airport to inspect checked-in luggage for explosives, and carry-on luggage for sharp instruments – like the infamous box-cutters used by the September 11thhijackers.

One month after establishment of the TSA, a traveler named Richard Reid, now infamously known as “the shoe bomber,” drew international attention through his failed attempt to destroy a Miami-bound airliner by hiding explosive material in the heels of his specially modified high-top shoes. The TSA responded by requiring all passengers to remove their shoes for inspection before boarding. In 2006, after the discovery of a plot to destroy several airliners over the Atlantic Ocean with liquid explosives, the TSA decreed a ban on liquids carried in quantities of over 3 oz.  Water, soda, baby formula, perfume and even snow globes would have to be surrendered before boarding.

But the terrorists found a bizarre Achilles’ heel in the system, and in December, 2009, would-be terrorist Umar Farouk-Abdulmutallab smuggled a bomb onto a Detroit-bound aircraft in his undergarments.  The TSA then began equipping the nation’s airport terminals with full-body scanners which enable federal screeners to see inside a passenger’s clothes.  There is currently one such scanner in every US airport, and the TSA has announced its intention to have 1,000 such devices in operation throughout the nation’s airports by the end of 2011. For those who are skittish, for whatever reason, about walking through the scanners, the only alternative if they want to board a commercial airplane, is to subject themselves, like Andrea did, to a full body pat down search by a same gender TSA official.

These guidelines have been slammed by numerous groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which issued a strident statement urging Congress to pass legislation outlawing the new technology: “Passengers expect privacy underneath their clothing and should not be required to display highly personal details of their bodies – such as evidence of mastectomies, colostomy appliances, implants, catheter tubes etc... – as a prerequisite to boarding a plane.”

Others have raised concerns about the health risks posed by the new technology.  David Brenner, head of Columbia University's Center for Radiological Research, has warned that these scanners may increase the risk of cancer, and radiologist Dr. Sarah Burnett noted the possible risks to pregnant women and their fetuses. Others have claimed that, ironically, intrusive security checks can actually increase travel risks, as more travelers will opt for motor transportation, which statistically has a far higher mortality rate than air travel.  Then there’s the issue of money – the approximately $150,000 taxpayers are spending for each of the 1,000 machines that are planned to be operating by the end of the year.  And this is even before factoring in the salaries of the federal screening officials.

But besides the cost, inconvenience and indignity to travelers, as well as possible health risks, the current procedures have raised concerns that this may not even be the end of the slippery slope of privacy invasion. Lest one think that prospective aviation terrorists are out of options, we have the story of an al-Qaida operative who, in 2009, turned himself in to Saudi authorities and requested a meeting with Saudi Arabia’s Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, head of the country’s counter-terrorism operations. The terrorist cleared a rigorous security screening – and yet managed to detonate a bomb in a suicide operation that nearly killed the prince.  Investigators later found that the bomb was concealed… in the man’s rectum.

It’s probably best not to imagine how the TSA would plan to tackle this one.

But the resistance to invasive screenings raises the obvious question, what else should security officials do to thwart terrorists? How can passenger safety be ensured without thoroughly inspecting every person and object that comes on board the aircraft?

Many people believe that the answer is to be found in a tiny Middle Eastern country along the Mediterranean coast, which has long held the gold standard in air travel security.

All Eyes on Zion

“Israelification” is the term that has been coined in reference to the proposed fundamental changes in approach to aviation safety, embracing the Israeli model of first rate security coupled with first rate efficiency.

The facts are practically self-evident, and difficult to ignore. Israel faces a greater terror threat than any other country, it has a near perfect track record of aviation security in recent decades, and the procedures followed in its international airport seem far more efficient than those in American airports. Travelers through Ben Gurion Airport do not remove their shoes or belts, and do not surrender their Coke cans or hand cream.  And, barring external factors such as inclement weather and computer glitches, the average time required to get to the departure lounge after arriving at the check-in line is approximately 25 minutes.

How do they do it?

As opposed to the cumbersome and perhaps overly simplistic approach of thoroughly searching and scanning every object boarding a plane, the Israelis follow a more sophisticated model of identifying potential security threats. By focusing on people instead of just objects, the Israelis can identify suspicious persons well before they attempt to board. First, every vehicle that approaches the airport passes through a short security check, during which the driver is asked two simple questions: “How are you?” and “Where are you coming from?”

According to Rafi Sela, who heads an Israeli transportation security consulting agency, the security guards really don’t care how the driver is doing, or where he or she is coming from. What interests them is the person’s facial expression, body language, and manner of speech. “Two benign questions,” Sela told the Toronto-based The Star last year. “The questions aren't important. The way people act when they answer them is.”  The guards look for subtle signs of anxiety or uneasiness that are characteristic of somebody on his way to commit a crime.  And, as the driver answers the questions, a live camera photographs his license plate and a computer checks it against a database of suspicious vehicles.

The second “security filter,” Sela explained, is the outdoor area around the main terminal, which is manned by armed patrols.  These guards, too, are trained to monitor people’s faces and gestures as they make their way to the terminal.  At the terminal’s doors, another team of patrols await and peer alertly at everyone who approaches. Ben Gurion will also soon introduce an unmanned vehicle operated via remote control that will patrol the perimeter of the airport.  The device was displayed this past November to 50 security experts from around the world, representing three continents, who assembled at Ben Gurion to receive a tour of the airport’s highly-touted security system.

Inside the main terminal, 700 closed-circuit cameras monitor each traveller’s every move. 

And as soon as a traveler steps onto one of the check-in lines, which are purposely staggered to avoid heavily concentrated crowds, he or she is approached by a security officer who asks for the passenger’s ticket and passport and conducts a short, half-minute or so interview.  The questions, once again, are not terribly intrusive.  “Where do you live?”  “Where are you coming from?”  “Who packed your bags?”  “To whom do the suitcases belong?”  “Have the suitcases been with you the whole time since they were packed?”  “Has anyone given you something to put in your luggage?”

Rafi Sela explains that the guard pays little, if any, attention to the answers.  “The whole time, they are looking into your eyes – which is very awkward… But this is one of the ways they figure out if you are suspicious or not. It takes 20, 25 seconds.”

And so, by the time a passenger checks in his luggage, he has passed through four layers of security, and has had hundreds of cameras watching him.  Assuming he has not aroused any suspicion, he has endured, at most, a few short minutes of inconvenience.

At the last stage of the process, passengers must pass through a security check on the way to the departure gate, similar to the TSA lines in the U.S. Unlike many U.S. airports, however, the lines for the security check at Ben Gurion are usually no more than five minutes.

As Sela explains, this is because the security officials at Ben Gurion aren’t looking for soda cans or searching people’s shoes.  Nor are they pulling infirm octogenarians out of their wheelchairs or trying to convince panicky toddlers to walk through the screener without their parents, as is generally required in American airports.

While everyone passes through the same basic screening process, individuals who fit the general profile of past terrorists – single Muslim males between the ages of 18 to 40 – are scrutinized much more than other passengers.

“They’re not looking for everything…” Sela says of Ben Gurion security personnel. “They look at you.” And unlike their American counterparts, if you don’t seem particularly suspicious, they generally won’t invade your privacy needlessly.

The “Profiling” Debate

Just a half-hour wait from the check-in lines to the gate.  No “pat downs” or full body screening.  Shoes and belts stay on, and you can keep your water bottle.  To an American air traveller, it almost sounds too good to be true.

And for some, it is.

Israel’s approach to air travel security, which is often referred to by the loaded buzzword “profiling,” is paradise to most travelers, but not to all.  A report in the Washington Post cited Pini Shif, a founder of the security division at Ben Gurion, as estimating that two percent of the airport’s travelers are subjected to extensive questioning and interrogation because they happen to have a suspicious “profile.”  Many Arabs and other foreign nationals are singled out by security officials and endure inspections which are not only inconvenient, but also, in some cases, humiliating.

In one widely-reported incident last summer, the president of the University of Miami, an American of Lebanese descent named Donna Shalala – who had served as President Bill Clinton’s secretary of health and human services – was detained for 2.5 hours at Ben Gurion Airport.  The Post also reported that Hunaida Ghanem, an Arab resident of Jerusalem who holds a PhD from Hebrew University and a postdoctoral degree from Harvard University, was subjected to an embarrassing body search at Ben Gurion in the summer of 2009.  The experience was so traumatic, she says, that she has since declined six invitations to conferences overseas, as she is not prepared to endure that kind of interrogation and search.

“Smart Screening”

Defenders of the practice, however, claim that it is the most efficient and effective way to protect airplanes.

“The profile system gives you the right, logical way to know who to check,” Pini Shif said.

Ariel Merari, a terrorism expert at Tel Aviv University, is critical of airport security officials’ treatment of Israeli Arabs and certain foreign nationals, but even he told the Washington Post, “The profiling system is good,” while adding that “it has to be done with more sensitivity.”

Among the more prominent and outspoken advocates for using passenger profiling as part of an overall security strategy, is Steven Emerson, Executive Director of the Investigative Project on Terrorism, and author of six books on radical Islamic terror.  After the botched “undergarment bomb” attack in December 2009, when it appeared likely that the TSA would move toward full body scans, Emerson issued a call for “smart screening,” a comprehensive profiling system whereby suspicious passengers are identified based on a wide range of factors.  He includes in this list behavioral signs, appearance, itinerary and travel history, appearance on watch lists, known connections to radical organizations or individuals, ethnicity and religious identity.

It is the final two items on this list – ethnic background and religious affiliation – that have proven to be the most controversial.  In a society that prides itself on the equal treatment of all races and religions, the singling out of certain ethnicities and religious affiliations in any context naturally causes discomfort and invites criticism.

Emerson, however, believes that the policy is a necessary step to secure airports and jetliners.  Shortly after the December 2009 incident, Emerson wrote that “it simply cannot be ignored that the overwhelmingly large majority of terrorist attacks undertaken over the past decade were committed by Islamic fundamentalists.”  As such, it is perfectly reasonable, in his view, to subject passengers with ties to radical Islam to special searches.  Emerson emphasized that “profiling” does not mean keeping Arabs or Moslems off airplanes, but rather enabling security officials to focus their attention on the people who have historically been more likely to pose danger.  “A proposal for ‘smart screening’ is not a call for a ban on Muslims flying on planes, nor is it an attempt to stop every person with Arab features and put them on a watch list.  Rather…it is simply an additional investigative tool that will allow law enforcement officials to effectively and efficiently marshal their resources toward a known threat, that posed by violent adherents of radical Islamic theology.”

“Profile Me!”

Asra Nomani is a Muslim American journalist and author who has outspokenly come out in support of profiling.  In a public debate on the subject this past fall, she announced, “Profile me.  Profile my family.”  Nomani followed up on the debate with an article on the Daily Beast website, where she explained that Muslims deserve to endure special security checks because of their own failure to weed out the violent elements in their midst.  “In my eyes,” she wrote, “we in the Muslim community have failed to police ourselves.”

Nomani briefly traced the history of aviation terror since the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 over Scotland in 1989.  The pattern, she noted, is unmistakable: the overwhelming majority of planned terror attacks on airplanes were the workings of radical Islamists, with ethnic origins in or connections to Pakistan, the West Bank/Gaza, Jordan, Egypt or Iraq.  Moreover, in 1998, Osama bin Laden issued an explicit threat to attack Israeli and U.S. airplanes, and a declassified CIA memo from that year warned, “Bin Ladin preparing to hijack U.S. aircraft.”

It might be painful for Americans to consider what would have happened had airport security officials implemented a kind of profiling system in response to the al-Qaida warning, before September 2001.  But the truth is, as Steven Emerson noted, we might not even need to speculate.  In August 2001, immigration officials in Orlando prevented Saudi citizen Mohammad al-Qatani from entering the U.S. due to his suspicious profile.  Al-Qatani has been identified as the intended 20th hijacker from the September 11 attacks.

SY Profiling

Closer to home, many members of the Sephardic community have been frequently subjected to special questioning or searches before boarding an airplane, due to their Arab-sounding names or Middle Eastern birthplace.  They can certainly relate to the aggravation experienced by many innocent Arab and Moslem travelers, who arouse suspicion simply by virtue of their names, appearance or affiliation.

Saul Sultan told Community that because of his Middle Eastern last name, he is singled out for special scrutiny virtually every time he travels by plane.  Once, he was ordered to remove the metal braces from his legs so he could walk through the airport’s metal detector.  It takes Mr. Sultan a full five minutes to put the braces back on – no small matter for an older gentleman rushing to catch a plane.

Still, Mr. Sultan says he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“This is how it should be,” he says.  “I am happy they’re being careful.  It’s not a bad thing – they have to make sure a terrorist isn’t hiding some metal material somewhere.  I am always profiled – and it doesn’t bother me.”

Mr. Sultan compared security profiling to the kind of “profiling” he would do when hiring employees for his warehouse.  People from certain ethnic backgrounds might be considered more seriously for the job than other applicants, because experience showed that they are likely to have been brought up with a serious work ethic, where dependability and hard work were valued and promoted. And, a sibling of a good employee had a better chance of getting the job, because of the likelihood that he or she was raised with the same work ethic and set of values as the current worker.

Air travel security, Mr. Sultan says, is no different.  “You have to focus on the people with more of a tendency to cause harm.  There’s no reason to search the 90-year-old nun who’s belonged to her order for the last 50 years, but you have to search the 19-year-old exchange student from Lebanon.”

Mr. Sultan’s son, Rabbi Eli Sultan, for many years endured a unique sort of “profiling” whenever he flew out of Ben Gurion.  Each time, he would be pulled over during the security check for a lengthy interrogation, and on one occasion, he was held for close to an hour.

“It was certainly annoying,” Rabbi Sultan said.  Still, he harbors no resentment toward the Israeli security establishment.  “I fully understand the need for security.”

Interestingly enough, several years ago, Rabbi Sultan cleverly managed to improve his profile, so-to-speak, to avoid disconcerting searches and interrogations.  After a bit of questioning of his own, he discovered that he received special attention because he shares a name, birth date, and parents’ names with a certain Israeli criminal.  He obtained a phone number and the name of a certain Israeli aviation security employee whom he could call before flying to clear his “profile.”  Later, he was able to have a permanent note made in the country’s security files, and has never had a problem since.

Rabbi Sultan’s case is perhaps a good example of sensible profiling, and of how the system could be tweaked, at least on a case-by-case basis, to avoid unnecessary searches.

In spite of its apparent effectiveness and its potential to significantly ease security screening for most travellers, until recently, profiling was essentially off the table as an official policy at US airports. The vocal objections of Muslim groups – many of which have ties to radical Islamists – and liberal civil rights activists, have made smart profiling almost taboo. But the recent uproar over graphic body scans and invasive pat downs may trigger a shift in the attitudes of many Americans. And if it does, and security procedures are modified to incorporate more smart profiling and fewer uncomfortable searches, Andrea and millions of other Americans, may once again find that air travel in America is as friendly as it used to be.