Never Awaken the Wrath of a Petty Bureaucrat
“What is the purpose of your visit?”
“Surfing? But you have no board.”
This interrogation opened my third trip to Israel, my second as a journalist on assignment from Spiegel Online. I was still in the Berlin airport. I’d been advised not to mention Gaza.
“I can borrow one in Tel Aviv.”
“Do you know people in Tel Aviv?”
“What are their names?”
“Arthur Rashkovan . . . ”
When you check in for an El Al flight in Berlin you have an interview with an airline official at a little portable desk, and the official, a fleshy, black-haired man with a false smile, struck me as meddling. “If we go to a computer, can you show me e-mail from this Arthur Rashkovan,” the attendant said, “that proves you intend to surf?”
No, I said, sorry. I wasn’t about to let some airline apparatchik read my e-mail.
“Do you have his phone number?”
“Do you mind if we call him?”
“I suppose not.”
So they called Arthur, and Arthur mentioned Gaza. The official came back with his boss. “We have just talked to your friend, and he told us a different story,” with the mild air of a good cop cross-questioning a suspect.
“Are you planning to go anywhere else, related to surfing?”
I said yes, perhaps Gaza City.
“Why didn’t you tell us this before?”
“It isn’t definite. Who knows if I can get in?”
They took me to a room, unpacked my bags, wiped everything down, emptied my pockets, read my notes, and searched me for weapons. The experience was irritating, but I got over it.
At Ben Gurion Airport, the problem escalated. The border authorities forced me to sit for several hours while they ran background checks. During the first hour they quizzed me about my business in Israel. This interview went badly. I still couldn’t admit the power of airport authorities to oversee what I planned to do in a supposedly free nation, and I wasn’t aware of which ministries—or which links to El Al—were behind the interrogation. So I didn’t mention Gaza. It broke no laws to visit Israel and write a story about surfers without declaring myself as a journalist, and when I did register for a press pass, to reach Gaza, I would be honest about my plans. I was trying to glide through the border regime.
Bad mistake. The woman managed to confiscate six pages of printed e-mail from Matt Olsen that gave the names of Gazan surfers.
My German passport didn’t help, but neither did the American one: two passports were suspicious. The border authorities in Israel are also notoriously unreasonable. This particular bureaucrat was attractive—short and nerdy and hip, wearing glasses and a pair of jeans—but when we established that I was a journalist she turned against me, and when I continued to fail to mention Gaza, she called me “stupid” and gave me one last chance to declare my true reasons for entering Israel.
Well, I said, “if I can, I’ll go to Gaza and write about surfing there.” That set the woman off. She was pissed. She called me a liar and banished me to the waiting room. A British man simmering there had been waiting for two hours. He worked for a humanitarian organization.
“If they don’t want us to go back with bad reports about Israel,” he said, “I’m not sure why they do this.” Soon police also put an agitated Orthodox man in the tank with us and even cuffed his hands.
I called the Spiegel correspondent in Jerusalem, Christoph Schult.
He was very helpful. “I know someone at the Foreign Ministry, they have an office at the airport. They can put pressure on them. This is ridiculous.”
He said Shin Bet was investigating me—Israel’s answer to the FBI.
Now I think El Al had reported the contents of my bags, including that e-mail printout, to the Interior Ministry.
After a while I was summoned to the police desk and handed my passports and a gate pass by a woman in uniform. “Thank you, Mr. Moore,” she said. “Enjoy your stay in Israel.”
Great! But hang on.
“Do you have my other papers?” I said.
“Some e-mail printouts were taken from me.”
I saw them in the hands of a large plainclothesman at the end of the counter.
“Those papers there,” I said. “I need them.”
“You can have them on the way out,” the plainclothesman said.
“On the way out of Israel?”
“Yes,” he said. “Maybe.”
I called Christoph again.
“No, they can’t do that,” he said. “They can photocopy the pages, but they can’t keep them.”
I insisted on the papers. The man just waggled his fingers for my passports and asked me to wait. After half an hour a middle-aged policewoman in glasses said I no longer had permission to enter
“Because you lied about your reasons for wanting to enter. You were talking to the Interior Ministry.”
“But you just gave me permission. The only difference is that I demanded some personal papers. I still have the gate pass in my pocket.”
“You have your gate pass?”
“Give it to me.”
I straightened up.
“No,” I said.
“You will give it to me, or we will take it by force,” this policewoman said. “You are no longer allowed to enter Israel!”
“I don’t accept that,” I said.
“You don’t accept that?”
For the second time in one evening I had awakened the wrath of a petty bureaucrat, and I felt the rage of an official who sees her overreach of power go unrecognized.
“Then you will go into this office and we will take it by force,” she said. “You are not allowed to enter Israel!” She pointed into a small clerical office, and when I didn’t move on command she hollered, “Go!”
And they sat me in the office with a pretty uniformed guard by the door. No one tried to take anything by force. It felt like being sent to the principal’s. I called Christoph.
“They’re guarding the door,” I said. “I can’t tell if I’m under arrest.”
“This is harassment.”
“Is there anything we can do? They’re trying to rescind my permission to enter.”
“I’ll call the Foreign Ministry.”
After fifteen minutes the policewoman who had shouted at me for not accepting my banishment from the Holy Land called me to the desk and handed over my passports, my flight ticket, and my printed e-mail.
“Enjoy your stay in Israel,” she said.
© Michael Scott Moore