What's at stake

Posted: Aug 22, 2003 12:00 AM

It just wasn't my day for smooth traveling—not what I was hoping for when I had to fly nearly halfway around the world.

  Flying El Al—Israel’s official airline—is an unparalleled experience.  Everyone is subjected to what other airlines consider "strict" scrutiny—and some lucky travelers really go through the wringer.  Count me as one of the “lucky” ones.

  Going through El Al’s security, it is easy to see why it is the safest airline on earth.  You probably couldn’t sneak a toothpick past their attention.  But where their system excels is in the personal touch.  (And no, don’t snicker—I don’t mean it like that.)

  Every would-be passenger has to “chat” with an El Al security officer—someone who actually lives up to that title, unlike many American counterparts—as a primary component of the screening process.  By talking to people in a natural setting, the highly-trained El Al officials are better able to smoke out those who are excessively nervous—as well as those who just seem a little “off.”

  Because I wanted an emergency exit-row seat, I arrived at JFK some five hours before the El Al flight, giving me enough time to be at the front of the line when they started check-in at 8am.  As “luck” would have it, though, El Al “randomly selected” me.

  Of course, as a young, single, non-Jew, “random” didn’t really feel that random.  Perhaps I was told that because we were in America.  Either way, I wanted to do whatever was necessary to minimize the manhandling.

  When the El Al security officer asked me if it was “ok” for her to go through my two bags, I responded with a wonderful Hebrew phrase, “ayn baya.”  I don’t speak Hebrew, but the expression sounds much more pleasant than responding “not a problem” in English.  Given my situation—telling her that it was a problem was not an option—it seemed like the best way to appear cheerfully cooperative.

  After every last item in my luggage had been carefully examined and after talking to the El Al security officer for nearly half an hour, I made my way to the ticket counter.  The emergency exit row seats had already been snatched up. 

  But as I sat with my knees lodged into the seat in front of me for the next ten hours (with the emergency exit row just behind me), I soon realized that what I went through was nothing more than a petty—yet absolutely necessary—annoyance.

  Happily wandering and dancing around the plane were delighted and delightful children, apparently oblivious to the misery they should be experiencing during a 10-hour flight.  Though almost all were Jewish, the children collectively constituted diversity in the truest sense.  They ran the gamut from dark- to light-skinned and ranged in age from newborns to teenagers.  Some were jocks, some were nerds, and some were precocious infants.  Some wore skull caps, others, baseball caps.  And some wore nothing on their heads.

  Then it hit me.  The children share one thing in common: they are all marked for death, supposedly in the name of a political cause.  And an El Al jet must be an even more sought-after target than the public buses that Palestinian terrorists now regularly blow up.

  Because they were on the plane—which was made safe in part because of “random selections”—the kids avoided the fate that befell dozens of young Israelis who were killed or wounded by a Palestinian suicide bomber who blew himself up on a bus full of children while we were over the Atlantic.

  The mass murderer so eager to take the lives of innocents was actually a schoolteacher, leaving little doubt as to what his students were learning.  Who knows how many of them want to—or will—follow in the footsteps of their teacher, who killed six children and wounded 40 kids.

  If only this was an isolated tragedy; it sadly continues a long string of attacks specifically targeting young Jews.  That children have done nothing wrong is of no consequence.  They are Jewish, so they are wanted dead.  It’s that simple. 

  Against that, what I went through was truly “ayn baya.”