American Zion

The Ben-Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv is a bastion of banal and normalized paranoia. The place is swarming with a hyper-militarized security detail, rifles slung with menacing casualness, trained with a suspicious eye for any miscreants and undesirables. I still remember being stopped and grilled about my ethnicity only moments after disembarking, and the quizzical look in the border agent’s face as she spoke in hushed tones into her telephone, scanning my documents. There are many stories about people of an undesired color or creed being detained at Ben-Gurion Airport and whisked away to a deportation center, or turned back at the border of the Allenby Bridge, and I wasn’t keen about discovering for myself that infamous Israeli hospitality. Nor is the Israeli government exactly known for being welcoming to human rights activists. So when my entry through the airport went off (so to speak) without a hitch, I had the feeling of being only mildly unwelcome in the Promised Land.

The second time I landed in Ben-Gurion was relatively smooth as well. There were more questions, but nothing too intrusive or totalitarian-state-ish. It was not until my third time flying in that I was introduced to the airport security quarantine, managed by the Shin Bet intelligence agency, where my fellow undesirables and I were made to answer for our crimes. (As far as I could tell, these include: being brown, especially Arab or Iranian; looking Muslim; having family in the occupied territory; being engaged in the subversive activities of “human rights advocacy.”) The security waiting room is not particularly secluded; standing up, you can peer through the barrier at the queue of passengers being let through to the world outside. Inside, however, you feel the claustrophobia of being bound by more than a couple walls—of being, rather, at the total mercy of a military superpower. My significant other, who was traveling with me, was granted straightaway her entry visa; and though she was allowed to sit with me a while, we knew that we were separated by more than just a piece of paper.

Now, I’ve spent some time in the occupied Palestinian territory, so I know a little bit about draconian security and testy border officials. But when I’m taken to a small back room and grilled extensively about my personal life and background, as well as my beliefs, without the benefit of a lawyer or even knowing what my rights are (if there are any), I get somewhat thrown off. The inquisition starts to grate on me, but I’m in no discomfort yet: the fun’s only begun. A bald and burly oaf of a man walks in, looking like an uglier Vin Diesel, to play the other half in a good-bad cop routine. Rolling up his sleeves and grimacing, he challenges me to prove I’m not a threat to the State of Israel. I am not, so it turns out, the kind of guy he likes. This doesn’t stop him from inviting himself into the contents of my cell phone—my photographs, my contacts, my social media profile. I like to think I can stand up to this sort of state-sponsored bullying, but the home court advantage wasn’t exactly mine, as it were.

In hindsight, I had it pretty easy. The whole lurid business lasted several hours, mostly in the waiting room, but for all that bluster about being a security threat I was let into the country after all. I wasn’t deported, as many are who see the inner hallways of the Shin Bet at Ben-Gurion; nor was I strip-searched, as often happens in security detention. But I remember thinking about ringing up the U.S. consulate for help, then also thinking, Why even bother? It was a moment when I felt the engine of a racist, securitarian state machinery revving up—one that would rather not allow me in, and one that had, perhaps, already made up its mind. And in that case I knew the normal rules of democratic rights and civil liberties just wouldn’t quite apply.

So when I read last week’s reports of immigrants and refugees being detained in U.S. airports, I felt a kind of déjà vu. Not that I know a thing about what it means to be an immigrant or refugee, but that scenario—of being singled out, sequestered and suspected as a threat; of being separated from your loved ones or from your home and place of work (or even place of refuge) at the full discretion of a hostile and inscrutable bureaucracy; of being a stranger in a strange land, or even in one’s own—was a familiar one. On that account, it is necessary to make one correction to the idea that Donald Trump’s executive order is “discrimination.” To be more accurate, it is in fact the utter failure to discriminate. It’s the type of sweeping, arbitrary dragnet one expects from a place like Israel, where paranoia has become an institutional and routine fact of life.

Racial and religious profiling is nothing new in America, of course. In point of fact, the invasive and exclusionary tactics I described in Ben-Gurion have been employed by U.S. goons since well before our 45th president. But the brazenness and broadness of Trump’s agenda is something new, and it points to an expansion of that paranoid mentality. Looking back on Trump’s campaign rhetoric, as in the aftermath of the Orlando nightclub massacre last June, you get an idea of where he’s coming from: “I think profiling is something that we’re going to have to start thinking about as a country. Other countries do it, you look at Israel and you look at others, they do it and they do it successfully.” Or in September: “You know, in Israel they profile. They’ve done an unbelievable job, as good as you can do. They see somebody that’s suspicious, they will profile. They will take that person and they’ll check out.” The wholesale ban of entire nationalities within a week of swearing-in should be a sign that he intends to keep his word.

The similarities don’t end there. In the last Israeli election, Benjamin Netanyahu raised more than a couple eyebrows when he warned publicly, “The Arabs are coming out to the polls in droves.” Sound familiar? The aspersions cast by Trump and Bibi on the legitimacy of voters is only part of their assault on civil society. Like his buddy in Jerusalem, Trump has made an enemy of the media, is waging economic war against non-profits, traffics in dark conspiracy theories about leftists and foreign powers, and shows a mad hostility to international law and institutions. Soon enough we’ll get a big fat ugly Wall of our own, perhaps aided by Israeli engineering; and by the time the alt-right ditches its façade of civic patriotism and calls openly for an all-white ethnostate in North America, they’ll have a readymade contemporary precedent—Israeli Zionism, of all things.

Imagine living in their world: a world brimming with imagined enemies, both internal and external, where lurid fears about “security” devolve into political and demographic anxiety. It is a world of barricades and entry bans, a distillation of mass neurosis, where disrepair at home and destruction abroad are answered by building up our flimsy isolation. These are the symptoms of an empire in decline. Although the geopolitics of Israel and the United States are not perfectly analogous, they share a common genesis and thread. Decades of colonial expansion and imperial mischief are returned in kind by inducing the conditions of domestic fascism. More than a century ago, Mark Twain forewarned that “we cannot maintain an empire in the Orient and maintain a republic in America.” It’s a shame that we still have to be reminded.

Los Angeles, 2017.

Postscript. For a very long time in America, pointing out the racist and repressive and downright fascist elements of Israel has been taboo, not least among our liberals. To see these traits denounced so swiftly when they appear on U.S. soil is fairly heartening; although the double standard is pretty rich, and a rather awful case of the chicken coming back to roost. That silence may give a hint as to how such odious things are propagated and legitimized over time.

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