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FORBIDDEN: My Not So Excellent Adventure

by Susan Mckee


After flying into Tel Aviv, Israel, from Amman, Jordan, I went to the transit area of the airport (since I was changing from a Royal Jordanian flight to the El Al flight to Newark).

There was no one in the area, so I picked up the phone and asked for instructions. I was told to wait. Three more passengers from my same Royal Jordanian flight then arrived, plus two airport workers, one in a suit and both with mobile phones. The workers told us to sit and wait for our luggage. One kept repeating the numbers from our baggage tags into his mobile phone. 

After more than a half hour, the bags for the three other passengers arrived, but mine did not. The workers said that my bag was not on the baggage carousel with the other luggage from the flight. I asked to leave and go through passport control to check with the Royal Jordanian staff about my luggage. I was told to sit down and wait where I was.

More people arrived (no one was introduced), including a series of security officials who questioned me about my travel. Why was I in Israel? (The Freelance Council of the Society of American Travel Writers was invited to come.) If I was a guest of the Israeli tourism officials, with whom had I met? (The names were all on the papers in my missing suitcase.) Why would Israeli tourism host me? (You’d have to ask them.) What people had I met in Jordan? (The usual tourism industry folks.) Did I have any relatives there (no), and on and on and on. 

After another half hour or so, the staff member in a suit told me all Royal Jordanian staff had left the Tel Aviv airport, so it was useless (he said) to go out and try to report my missing bag. And, if I did so, I would miss my El Al flight.

I tried to call the Amman number for Royal Jordanian. No answer. I tried to call the Tel Aviv number for Royal Jordanian. No answer.

Finally, I went into the transit inspection area with the other three passengers (we were repeatedly asked if we knew each other, but we’d never met, except in the transit area – we didn’t even know each other’s names). 

Our luggage was unpacked completely by a crew of as many as 17 personnel at one time. Holding up each of our belongings (for example, paging through the magazines), there were extensive discussions among themselves.

People were coming and going so the number in the room was constantly changing. I asked if we were being used as a training session, and was told “no”.

With each of our belongings, there was visible dissention among the staff doing the searching. The four of us passengers were increasingly annoyed with the unreasonable and unexplained delay (which extended to more than two hours). One of us asked to speak to a supervisor to voice his complaints, another was strip-searched.

Finally, my sole piece of luggage, my carry-on, was emptied completely. A few things were returned to the carry-on: my laptop, camera and Flipcam. Everything else remained in a bin, and I was told I wasn’t allowed to take any of it on the plane.

a photo document of 'forbidden' itemsIncluded in the “forbidden” items: my non-US cash – amounting to less than $50 all told.

I asked the person who appeared to be in charge to have my cash returned to my carry on, and it was -- along with my travel papers (itineraries and such). I was relieved to find my credit cards still in my wallet, along with my US cash.

The umbrella? That was unnecessary as “it never rained on airplanes”.

I asked if I could take my contact lens equipment with me, as it was too essential not to maintain on my person. The contact lens case was dumped out into a second bin, and after much handling and discussion of each individual item, it was decided I could take the lenses and the solutions (except, inexplicably, for the soaking solution), but not the case or the rubber damper I used to close sink drains to prevent loss of my lenses. The lenses and solutions were tossed into the somewhat grungy plastic sack I use to store my umbrella and returned to my carryon. I could not take the case.

I asked if I could take my airplane snacks (sesame seed cookies and some trail mix). No. I asked if I could take my chewing gum. No, I could “buy more at duty free”. I asked if I could take the empty bottle I would fill with water at a drinking fountain and use on the plane. No. I asked if I could take the aspirin (to stave off deep-vein thrombosis on the upcoming 12-hour flight). No. I asked if I could take my notebook and pen. No. I asked if I could take my sleep mask and earplugs so I could sleep on the flight. No. Could I take my package of Kleenex? No! If I “traveled around the world” I knew that “there was plenty of Kleenex on the plane.”

At which point, the staff person said quite forcefully that if I asked any more questions, he “would be certain that I missed my El Al flight”. 

Other evidently forbidden items? My Four Seasons magazine, travel currency pouch  (now empty), hair brush, emery board, pens, barrettes and hair tie, Pepto Bismol tablets, rain poncho, “barf bag” and other such items that I routinely carry with me on airplanes, most of which have traveled with me on five continents – and which I carried without incident INTO Israel when I first arrived.

They took everything they’d placed in the “forbidden bin”, dumped it in a white cardboard box, stuffed some bubble wrap on the top and then spent several minutes trying to peel tape from two rolls and tape the box top closed. An identification tag was added, and I was given the receipt.

A security person, who was holding my boarding pass, walked me (and my box) to the airplane, where I boarded among the last passengers.

Susan McKee, an independent journalist living in Indianapolis, took her first overseas trip in 1989 and hasn't stopped traveling since.

photos courtesy of the author and 

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Reader Comments (3)

The experience described here sounds disturbingly like yours:
<A HREF="">My Trousers and Airport Security</A>

April 11, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAngela

Hi Susan,

This is an awful story which, I'm sad to say, doesn't surprise me at all. I am Israeli, and can understand some of the societal context under which these people are operating. Furthermore, I've heard numerous horror stories from friends and colleagues who traveled to Israel, so I tend to understand how the routines go.

I don't know if it'll help you in any way to know what goes on there, but here are some factors that, by my understanding, allow cases like this to happen:

1. Israeli jews are culturally trained to be xenophobic. They see themselves as descendents of many generations of Jews who were treated badly by gentiles, and believe that the same would happen today if they did not have force to defend themselves. Therefore they feel they need to constantly keep guard and be wary of non-Jews.

2. Israelis who are working in security are trained to have "professional paranoia". I've seen this happen first-hand when one of my friends joined Airport Security. The system teaches security staff that they are the most significant barrier between security and violence, and encourage an extreme measure of "better safe than sorry". The results, as you experienced first-hand, are somewhat akin to the results of Zimbardo's prison experiment: total power-madness

3. Israeli institutions, especially governmental and security agencies, have no accountability: they are not overseen to a significant extent, and Israel does not seem to care about tourism or its international image enough to look into the way passengers are treated. As a result, the higher-ups in the security agencies are given free reign, which results in kafkaesque experiences of the kind you've been through, and much worse [trigger warning]. None of them thinks this is wrong in any way.

The only practical step I can suggest in order to avoid such unpleasant and demeaning experiences in the future is to have nothing to do with Israeli security, and to not travel through Israel, until Israel reforms its transportation security (my guess: never). If you decide to travel to Israel after all, there are a number of precautions to take; one is to make sure not to fly El-Al (for some reason El-Al passengers seem to go through harsher security checks, both in Israel and before the flight to Israel). Another precaution is to prepare in advance, make sure you have as much documentation as you can, as well as phone numbers of contacts in Israel, who know you are coming and expect a phone call in case something goes awry. Organizations that invite you can also contact a security office that tries to make entrance of invited personnel easier (many don't know about this, but the information is available online).

For what it's worth, I apologize for the terrible experience you've been through. The state of Israel is acting like the neighborhood bully, and I don't think this will change in the foreseeable future

April 12, 2012 | Unregistered Commenteranonymous moose

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April 28, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAhmad

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