I land at Tel Aviv, entering Israel for the first time. My passport proudly states my place of birth as “Pakistan,” a country that doesn’t recognize Israel (and actually has a passport that states “Valid for every country except Israel”). I am a practicing Muslim with a Muslim name and a beard. I have no idea what to expect, but I know that I’ll be drilled before allowed in.
As soon as I go to the counter the person behind the counter looks at my passport and ask: “First time in Israel?” “Yes.” “Okay, go in that room and wait.”
I go into the room and it’s full of bored-looking people from everywhere. There’s a TV with a movie in English playing. There is a sign with the Wi-Fi code.
Wait, it’s okay to use the phone?
They probably want you to use the Wi-Fi so they could monitor the traffic.
There’s a water cooler with water. There’s a sign telling you where the bathrooms are.
I go and sit down. A lady comes in 15 minutes or so and calls me in. Before she asks me anything, she apologizes for a good 2 or 3 minutes for wasting my time. She tells me it’s necessary to screen people, especially first-time visitors. I am sitting in a chair, she’s sitting in front of me. She tells me that they live under a lot of threat, so innocent people like me have to go through the drill as well. I felt she was going to get on her knees and beg me for forgiveness. She apologized so much it was uncomfortable. In the conversation with her, I noticed much later, she had three questions she repeated in many different ways: “Purpose of visit,” “What do you do for living,” “Do you know anyone in Israel, West Bank or Gaza.”
Wait, was the apology just to make me put my guards down so she could detect if I was being honest or not? Brilliant!
I talk to two more people before the final and fourth guy. Once again, I realized much later he had gone through my public social media posts. Funny guy, he cracks a few jokes and then apologizes. I wasn’t standing, I was sitting in a chair as he sat across the table. He asked me if I wanted water or to use the bathroom.
He explains that they have to do this. Says he’ll get me to the hotel room as quickly as he can so I can relax and my long journey can end. We chat for 15 minutes, joking about everything from local politics (I hold a local elected office) to technology to Amazon. It was honestly a friendly conversation with a friend. In the conversation three questions were sprinkled in many different ways: “Purpose of the visit,” “what do you do,” “do you know anyone.”
I remember one exchange:
“So wait, you work for Amazon and are a politician?”
“Haha, that’s awesome. How the heck do you manage both?”
-It works out, it’s all about time management”
-I bet, dealing with people can be tricky though”
-Yes, sometimes it can be challenging”
-I know, I hope I am not being challenging. I am really sorry, I am going to get you to the hotel as soon as possible, I feel really bad that you’re held up here.
-Who are you meeting here?
-No one, I don’t know anyone.
-Yes, sorry you did tell me that. What’s your title?
-Software Development Manager.
-Yes. Listen, when you stay at Tel Aviv, you gotta go see Jaffa. There’s this seafood restaurant there you must visit, I am blanking out on the name but ask anyone. Do you eat fish?
-Yes, love it.
-Awesome, I bet your job takes you to fun places. What do you do?
-Software Development Manager at Amazon.
-Uh yes. So that place, go there hungry because they give you a lot of food. Do you have friends you can meet there?
-No, I don’t know anyone here. Only people from work who are traveling with me.
-Aye yes, go with them. They might be less busy during the day. What are you doing here during the day?
-I am interviewing candidates, but I’ll definitely check out the place for dinner.
-And the drinks there are great. Do you drink?
-Oh man, you’re missing out. Your loss, haha. Do you have any local’s phone number on your phone?
-No, I don’t know anyone here.
-Oh yes. Sorry, you said that. Why do you have to come interview, why doesn’t anyone from Amazon Tel Aviv interview?
-I am hiring from my team, I am here as the hiring manager along with others from my team.
-That’s really impressive. What do you do?
The thing is, I did not feel drilled. It felt like a conversation with a new potential friend. If I were lying about my story, it would be much easier for him to catch because I would have had my guards down and was no longer nervous and stressed.
At the end another guy came with my passport and said, “Listen, I am so sorry you had to waste so much time. I wish this was faster, but here’s your passport. Have a great day.”
As I leave I look around the room and though people were tired and bored, one thing they weren’t was stressed. If there was someone up-to-no-good they’d stand out as the only nervous ones who’d probably be taken for extra screening.
If someone was following a memorized script to answer questions, their style of questioning to disarm people made it more likely for the person to slip.
On the way back out of Tel Aviv to catch my return flight, I got tagged with the highest security, which wasn’t unexpected. They went through everything (and I mean everything).
They opened wrapped chocolates and tested them (I threw them out, even though they taped the wrapper together).
They swabbed every piece of dirty underwear and sock.
The whole thing probably took 30 minutes.
As they did that, they had chairs for us to sit in. From time to time someone would come and explain that it was for our safety.
So I sat there shoe-less (my shoes were in some machine getting tested for God knows what), at least half a dozen different people came to me asking what time my flight was, so they could “make sure I make it to my flight.”
You and I both know neither of them really gave a damn if I made the flight, but in all honesty, I felt that I was in safe hands. I was calm and relaxed.
This fairly attractive 20-something year old came to me apologizing: “I hope you understand, this is for your safety. You see, you’re leaving the country. At this point we’re not doing this to keep us safe, we’re doing this to keep you safe. So sorry you are wasting your time. What time is your flight? I want to personally make sure that you don’t miss it.”
Despite the whole thing one thing I did not feel was stress!
I sat there and made a new shoe-less friend who was going through the same thing. We exchanged contact info.
The attractive security person chatted with me, asked me a bunch of random questions about shopping at Amazon. I have no doubt in my mind she was analyzing me as she asked me questions, but it did not feel like an interview. It felt like a random conversation between people who happened to be in the same spot.
Soon after landing, I flew to Seattle, for the 10th time that year. I average 15–20 trips to the US from Canada every year. I am a trusted traveler. I have Nexus. I have TSA-Pre.
I got randomly selected for secondary screening. It’s fine, it happens and is important.
I go inside and sit down in a room with no water. I don’t know where the bathrooms are. There are signs saying “no cellphone.” An agent comes in and barks, literally yells, at a woman using her cellphone: “Do you see this? What does it say? No cellphone! Put that away.”
An older couple worried about their flight tried to point out their flight was about to leave. “YOU’LL LEAVE WHEN I TELL YOU TO LEAVE. GO SIT DOWN AND WAIT FOR YOUR TURN, OTHERWISE I’LL JUST SEND YOU BACK HOME.”
No officer person showed any empathy and the only emotions were negative. They only smiled at each other. The Asian couple struggling to speak English annoyed them.
I look around and literally everyone (except frequent travelers immune to their tactics) were stressed. If there was someone up-to-no-good it’d be impossible to tell that person apart because everyone looked stressed.
The lady who got yelled at was stressed.
The older couple about to miss their flight was stressed.
How in the world are you supposed to tell actual bad-guys ™ apart when everyone is nervous?
tldr; The difference between TSA and the Israeli security is that TSA is a silly security theatre designed to create an illusion of security. The Israelis felt like professionals who were actually trained to do their jobs.