Racial Discrimination in Airports: One, Not Unusual, Story

"No to Racism" Photo: CC-by-Ilan Sharif

“I am telling you all of this so that you would know. That it happens here. To Arabs. All the time. It happens to people in senior positions, managing prestigious clinics, and it happens to cleaners and housekeepers. If they are Arabs. Or even if they just have dark skin.”

March 21 is International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. On this day in 1960, police opened fire and killed 69 people during a demonstration against racist laws in Sharpeville, South Africa. In 1966, the UN General Assembly established this day as a call on the international community to increase its efforts to eliminate all forms of racial discrimination.

In the past few years, racist discourse and practices have become more salient and acceptable in Israeli society, particularly targeting minority groups such as Arabs, migrant workers, and refugees.

One particular and long-standing form of institutionalized racist discrimination towards Arab citizens of Israel is the practice of racial profiling in airports, under which all Arab citizens of Israel are labeled as a “security threat” and are subjected to humiliating interrogations and bodily examinations – simply because of their identity. This form of racial discrimination has wider ramifications, as it perpetuates the notion that Arabs are “dangerous” and “a fifth column” – and this message spills over into other places, and is reflected in a hostile attitude and racist beliefs.

ACRI has appealed to the High Court of Justice against the Airport Authority, the General Security Service, and the Ministry of Transportation, demanding that that the scope and level of security checks will be determined for all citizens, Jews and Arabs alike, according to equal and relevant criteria. On 3 March 2011, following ACRI’s appeal, the High Court of Justice has issued an Order Nisi requiring the Israeli authorities to explain why they will not check all airport passengers under such criteria.

Many people are not aware of the existence of this discriminating practice, or of how it is performed. Therefore, on this International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, we want to share with you a personal story, originally published by Gili Pliskin on her website, GILIST, about Samira Saraya, one of her best friends, and about the experience that Samira underwent when she wanted to fly from Tel Aviv to Eilat to visit her partner. We hope that this one common story can show you what it means to be “racially profiled” and why this discriminating practice must end.


“I want to tell you a story about Samira Saraya, one of my best friends, one of the closest people to me, my chosen family. Samira is a nurse, who manages a bone marrow transplant clinic in Tel Aviv. Ravit, Samira’s beloved partner, just came back a week ago after spending a year abroad. Ravit is a senior oncologist at the Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv, and she went to Belgium to learn and develop and come back as the best there is. She indeed came back a pro, and a few days after landing here she went to an oncological convention in Eilat, in the south of Israel, to give an important lecture.

Samira, who missed her girlfriend, wanted to surprise her and fly to Eilat for a day to be there for her during the lecture. Eventually she couldn’t keep the secret and told Ravit that she is planning to drop by, and they were both really excited. Samira asked if I wanted to come along, but it didn’t work out. On Wednesday noon, Samira went to Eilat. Alone. I talked to her while she was on her way to the airport, she sounded so excited and full of expectations.

At the airport she was thoroughly interrogated. Where are you going? Why? What will you do there? Who are you meeting? Why such a short visit? She told them she is going to an oncological convention. She told them that her partner, a kosher Jew, is giving a lecture there. She told them she is a nurse, running a transplant clinic. No matter what she said, they wouldn’t let her go on the flight. Do you have an invitation from the convention? She didn’t. Why would she? Samira is an Israeli citizen, carrying a blue ID card, she was born in Haifa, she’s flying on an internal flight. They would never ask me for an invitation, because I’m Jewish.

They told her she can only fly if she can prove that she’s telling the truth. How? If they heard Ravit confirming all the details. Samira said Ravit is sitting in a lecture at the convention, but they wouldn’t listen. So she texted her, asked her to leave the lecture to confirm her partner’s “story.” The security guards called Ravit. “Yes, Samira has been my partner for the past seven years; yes, she is a nurse; yes, she is meeting me; yes, let her get on the plane.” How lucky that Samira decided not to surprise Ravit, or else she would say: “What? No one is supposed to meet me” and who knows how that would unfold.

Believe it or not, but this was just the beginning of the nightmare. On her way back to Tel Aviv, Samira was taken aside at the airport. They kept her in a room with 5 people, including one guy that just stood there and watched. They took her small bag completely apart and scanned her body, and unfortunately the metal clip in her bra beeped. The logical thing to do in this situation is, of course, to undress her. Samira, my beloved chosen family, had to stand in front of them almost completely naked, in her underwear, as they were checking her. After more than an hour of examination, touching, and humiliation – they shoved all of her stuff into the bag (including her immaculately ironed clothes, and if you know Samira – this is not something you can do to her) and sent her on the flight. Without her bag.

Samira, who is a strong, positive, and proud person, whom it’s usually very hard to humiliate or hurt, came back broken. She called me in a weak voice and said that she is exhausted, hurt, and has a horrible migraine. I don’t often hear her like this. I felt so much pain and anger because of the way she was treated, but I was glad that at least she came back to her loving and supportive environment, to the family that loves her, to the work that she does so well, to her home.

I am telling you all of this so that you would know. That it happens here. To Arabs. All the time. And it happens when there’s no kosher Jew to testify that “Oh, I’ve known her for many years, she comes from a wonderful family and we go to parties together.” It happens to people in senior positions, managing prestigious clinics, and it happens to cleaners and housekeepers. If they are Arabs. Or even if they just have dark skin and don’t look Ashkenazi. And so often there is no one that can help, say, testify. And they go through interrogations and humiliating physical examinations. And sometimes things disappear from their bags when they get them back. And they miss flights. And they don’t get their luggage back on time.

I am telling you all of this because until it happens to someone that we know – we never hear about it. But it happens all the time. And it breaks my heart. And I want to do something about it.”


More articles about ACRI’s appeal against racial profiling in airports:

Jack Khoury, Ha’aretz, “Head to Head with ACRI attorney Auni Banna: Is there a logic to the security at Ben-Gurion?”
Dahlia Scheindlin, +972 Magazine, “Airport security and Arab citizens: change in sight?”



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Categories: Anti-Democratic Initiatives, Arab Citizens of Israel, Arab Minority Rights, Democracy and Civil Liberties, Racism and Discrimination, The Right to Equality

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