Stripped of my clothes, my father, but not of my right to return

Discrimination against Palestinians is alive and well in Israel, reminiscent of Jim Crow.

Passengers queue for security checks in front of information boards at the Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv
Palestinians going through Israeli security often complain of racial profiling and discrimination [REUTERS]

“Unbutton your pants,” Sara, the stone-faced security agent at Israel’s Ben Gurion airport, told me. I sobbed, choking on my words, “My dad was born in Nazareth.”

“Lift your shirt,” she continued. 

“He’s dying, and he can’t return here,” I mumbled. I thought of what my father looked like at that moment, bruised and broken from a drunk driver, unable to breathe on his own, and helpless in a hospital bed in South Carolina.

As the daughter of Palestinian refugees, it was already a harrowing experience for me to make my way from my father’s homeland, where I have been working, back to Travelers Rest, South Carolina, where he chose to raise us after he was forced from Nazareth by the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 and forced from Palestine altogether by the occupation of 1967. 

But my latest attempt to return to my father, carrying memories of his lost home with me, was a devastating lesson in the indignities of exile and the fragility of life.

Shortly before my hastily scheduled flight, I was in Jerusalem, a mere nine miles from the area in which my father grew up in Palestine. I waited to hail a cab when a young Jewish couple close by engaged me in small talk. When the couple realised that we were all Americans travelling to the Old City, they offered me a ride in their cab, should they find one first.

After discovering that I grew up in South Carolina, the husband remarked, “I didn’t realise there were many Jewish folks in South Carolina.”

 Arabs in Israel complain of discrimination

“There aren’t many,” I replied. “And I’m actually not Jewish.”

“I’m Palestinian.”

Suddenly, whatever we had in common no longer mattered. The man stopped, looked at his wife, and then motioned me to the left: “Your buses are over there.” The couple got into a cab, and I stood there trying to comprehend what had just happened.

The humiliation and hurt coursed through me. I was raised in the American South. Though too young to have lived through it, I studied its shameful past of Jim Crow segregation. And I studied its proud history of struggle – written by those courageous black and white activists who risked and lost their lives – to build a society based on equality for all. Perhaps this American couple didn’t see the parallel – so stark to me – of refusing to share a cab with a Palestinian. 

Later that day, in what turned out to be one of my last conversations with my father, I recounted to him the cab incident in Jerusalem. Despite the heartbreaking story, he was proud of my determination to live in Palestine even with the anti-Palestinian racism I experienced. He supported the will that resides in me – and so many Palestinians – to return and fight for equal rights rather than endure the humiliation of being told to ride segregated buses.

My life began to unravel in the next hours as the news of my parents’ car accident reached me. After an unexpectedly sharp deterioration in my father’s condition, I decided to fly home. At Ben Gurion Airport, I watched as airport security officials inspected the contents of my two suitcases one by one, rubbing an ersatz magic-wand over every Palestinian memento I purchased for my family. 

Three cohorts of travellers bypassed the intense scrutiny I was facing and proceeded to their simple check-in process. In fact, only one other traveller, also an Arab American, received the same treatment I did. As with the taxi, there was once again the preferred line and the separate and unequal Palestinian line. Segregation is enshrined as the norm here.

This, of course, is a familiar scene to Americans of Palestinian descent who have attempted to visit their families’ homes. And for Palestinians who remained in modern-day Israel or the lands it occupies in the West Bank and Gaza, scenes like the recent attempted “lynching” of a Palestinian boy by a mob of Jewish youth have become alarmingly common, recalling the Jim Crow American South.

But my situation, I thought, was different.  

It was not. Nor was it different at Ben Gurion airport, where Sara insisted on strip-searching me.

Just as I thought the humiliation had ended and I could make my way to the check-in counter, Sara intervened again.

“I’ll take you to the counter,” she said, insisting that I would not be allowed to fly if she didn’t escort me. 

I was furious. In the depths of my despair, I still craved an ounce of justice – even if that meant for her to simply admit that I was being profiled. But Sara was not my friend. She was in character and cold.

We finally reached the gate just in time for boarding (I arrived at Ben Gurion four hours before my flight was scheduled to board), where my escort made sure that I – a “top-level security threat” who could barely see through my tears – did indeed board the plane. 

As I walked to the gate, searching for some sign – any sign – of her humanity, I told Sara that my father had stopped breathing on his own and was brain dead, all due to a drunk driver. 

“We are all humans,” Sara said, impervious to the irony. 

All I want is to be treated like a human, I thought, this time to myself. I wanted, especially on that day, to stand in line with everyone else, just like I wanted to take the cab with the Jerusalem couple.

While I have long known that Prime Minister Netanyahu’s notion of a Jewish state is wrong, I have come to sincerely realise since my return to a transformed American South because too many Jewish couples from the United States emigrate to Greater Israel and promptly abandon the principles of equality that served them so well here. And too many other Jewish emigrants are content to recreate the discrimination they endured elsewhere now that they’re on top. The way forward in Palestine and Israel is not an ethnocracy that favours Jews or a two-state solution that dispossesses millions of Palestinians, but one state with dignity and equality for all. 

This was done in Travelers Rest. It can be done, too, in the homeland my father and I share. The road ahead will be a hard one, but the two-state solution completely died for me in a Jerusalem taxi and Ben Gurion airport. We cannot simply be shunted into inferior lines and truncated Bantustans when we have a right to live as equals in all of our homeland.

Back in South Carolina, my dad passed away three hours after my hands interlocked with his. His mind, his memories, and his extraordinary resilience, however, will never die. This August, while picking figs from the 30-year-old fig tree he planted in our backyard, it hit me: My father had painstakingly done everything in his power to reinvent Palestine in Travelers Rest – to plant the fig, olive, and plum trees he knew from his childhood and to adorn our fence with grape vines.

In the trees and vines he planted, my father’s spirit lives on. However tragic and humiliating, his experience and mine have redoubled my commitment to return to Palestine, to honour the more than three-quarters of our people who were exiled and expelled due to the establishment of the state of Israel, and to carry on my father’s legacy – as well as our right to return. 

Asma Samir Jaber is a Palestinian American graduate student of Public Policy at Harvard University where she is a Harry S Truman Scholar.