I stepped up to the counter at Ben Gurion Airport and handed the young woman my Swedish passport. She eyed me up and down as she typed on her computer. I had taken that same flight, Stockholm to Tel Aviv, dozens of times, but this day was different. The clerk kept my passport and told me to take a seat in a room at the back of the hall.
Two hours later, a member of the Israeli security service interviewed me. She asked about my travel patterns, my family history, my professional and political affiliations. She even asked to see texts on my phone. After a total of four hours, I was free to enter Israel.
I have also been questioned at length while flying into Ethiopia, Germany, Morocco, Russia, Tunisia and the U.S. The inquiries each time followed a similar pattern. So I was surprised to read Peter Beinart’s recent article in the Forward complaining about his “detention” at Ben Gurion.
From what I can gather, Mr. Beinart entered the same room I did and was subjected to many of the same questions. But he concluded he was being persecuted for his political views. Few people are further apart politically than Mr. Beinart and me. He is left, I am right; he criticizes Israel, and I have worked for several pro-Israel publications. The facts point to a different conclusion: Israeli border security searches for patterns and flags that go far beyond either Mr. Beinart’s or my ego, and the profiling is much more sophisticated than any political spectrum.
To date, I have been questioned at Ben Gurion four times for up to five hours, yet this is the first time I have ever written about it. I have seen enough of the world and traveled to enough dangerous places to be able to differentiate between questioning and detention, thoroughness and threat.
A few years ago, I sat on a chair at a government office in Tehran, being questioned about my affiliations with Israel and the U.S. and asked whether I had a secret Zionist mission. It may sound similar to the questions Mr. Beinart got at Ben Gurion, but the experiences are worlds apart.
I did not argue with my Iranian interviewer, as I did his Israeli counterpart. I did not post about the experience on social media or make sarcastic jokes as I left. When they held my passport at Ben Gurion, I did not fear I would never go home. The Israeli questions about my family did not hold an eerie, underlying threat that made my mouth go dry and my legs turn to jelly.
When I am pulled aside and questioned on entering a free country, I am inconvenienced—but also grateful that the place I am visiting is sufficiently serious about border security that a white woman from the most liberal country on earth isn’t exempt. Comparing an interview to an interrogation, or implicitly equating a democracy with a dictatorship, may be an effective way of getting publicity. But it comes at the price of legitimizing and emboldening evil regimes, which can use the comparison as an excuse for further atrocities.
This article was originally published in The Wall Street Journal