Thursday, August 27, 2009

Criminal Kimchi?

There have been few times in my American life when I felt singled out because of my race.  These moments dot my memory but are spaced pretty far apart.  I've been in Israel for seventeen days and have already had two of these moments.

The first actually occurred at JFK Airport at the El Al security screening.  El Al employees question non-Israelis entering and exiting Israel, employing difficult questions such as "What is your father's name?" and "Where are you from?"  In my case, the second question immediately preceded, "Where are you originally from?"

This isn't usually a big deal.  Before my Birthright flight, I explained to them my origins, from birth in South Korea to adoption in the United States.  All went well.  This time, however, El Al felt compelled to hold my carry on luggage and separate me and four others from the main group.  Once they finished examining our carry on luggage, they walked us to the gate, making sure we stayed within their sight lines at all times.

I am sure they had many legitimate reasons to hold me (including my notoriously sneaky Korean appearance) and would profess to a random selection process.  Unfortunately, an event this morning increased my discomfort with looking different in Israel.

Erica left this morning, sadly, and is making her way back to Chicago as I type.  This left me without a traveling buddy and, more importantly, without a plug adapter for my computer.  Fortunately, a cell phone store nearby has these adapters so I walked a couple blocks to the store.

On the way there, a couple Israeli men with walkie-talkies stopped me and two other Asian tourists and asked for our passports.  We complied and they waved on the other two.  When it was my turn, they asked me where I was from.  Chicago, I replied.  They talked to each other in Hebrew and flipped through my passport.  When did I get here, they asked.  A couple weeks ago, I answered.  They pointed at the stamp on my passport.  Is this the last time you entered the country?  Yes, I said, starting to get annoyed.  They conferred with one another, then with the walkie-talkie.

After a few seconds, they waved me on.  Have a nice day, one said, already walking away.  During the entire exchange, they never looked at or stopped anyone who was not Asian.

I understand the need for security.  I understand that Israel must be vigilant to remain safe.  However, security and safety come at a price.  That price is my sense of belonging here, my sense of inclusion.  This country will never really accept me for who I am because of the color of my skin.  I will always be, in the eyes of many Israelis, an outsider, someone to distrust, question, and suspect because I am different.  I will always be part of the excluded.

I suspect there will be more evidence of this in the coming months.  In any case, the Sderot post should be done by this evening.


  1. Matt, I am sorry to here about this.
    This is one my biggest gripes with Israel. I was in that group being held at JFK before our trip and we just sat there segregated, not allowed to socialize with the rest of the group (or use the restroom).
    It definitely started the trip on the wrong note, but on my way back was worse. An airport security official had me unpack my luggage before I even step foot inside the airport. The real profiling took place inside, but I'll spare you the details. It is so unfortunate that my first and last impressions of Israel always have to be so negative and unpleasant. It's so strange to feel so welcome, yet so unwelcome at the same time.

  2. Matt, this is awful, but not fully unanticipated.

    The Israeli's evidently engage in behavior which, in others, would be characterized as anti-semetic if directed to them. This "exceptionalism" also seems to dominate its foreign policy and may be responsible for its failure to win "hearts and minds" in matters where Israel would otherwise have justifiable cause. Refusing to remove settlements which are seen as invasions is just one, important, example.

    I do hope your visit is not severely hampered by these unexpected threats, but I am not sanguine about that.