Remember that montage in Love, Actually when all the couples and families are reuniting at the airport arrivals gate? That montage turned my heart to mush. And that scene in real life has the same effect. Since I was a kid I can recall loving to pick people up at the airport, or be picked up after a long flight; greeted by my mom beaming with smiles as I returned from a faraway trip or my boyfriend holding a bouquet of flowers and wearing a suit and top hat for the occasion.
My high school friends were in the marching band and we used to go to the SFO arrivals gate and play welcome music for random strangers just for fun. Throw in some free carnation flower handouts and we had ourselves an amusing night out. That moment of reuniting after a trip hasn’t lost it’s charm after all these years. In Love, Actually, the British Prime Minister, played by Hugh Grant, says:
“Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport. General opinion’s starting to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don’t see that. It seems to me that love is everywhere. Often, it’s not particularly dignified or newsworthy, but it’s always there – fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, old friends. When the planes hit the Twin Towers, as far as I know, none of the phone calls from the people on board were messages of hate or revenge – they were all messages of love. If you look for it, I’ve got a sneaky feeling you’ll find that love actually is all around.”
Of course, since 9/11, security protocols have pushed arrivals gate greetings out to the baggage claim area. Nonetheless, the ritual continues. Earlier today, when I arrived in Tel Aviv at Ben Gurion Airport I had a cheerful feeling. Arriving in the country of my family heritage on the eve of a major Jewish holiday, Shavuot, and taking part in an interfaith delegation to meet with peace groups and nonviolent change-makers, despite grave concerns about Israeli politics, I felt grateful and excited to be arriving. But between me and the “Promised Land” loomed the passport control area. I filed into line with the rest of the bleary-eyed, jet-lagged passengers and waited my turn. I approached the passport authorities window and flashed a toothy smile, as my silver Star of David necklace glistened in the fluorescent lights. I spoke a short and cheery “Hello! Shalom!” and slid my passport to the girl on the other side of the glass. She asked why I was there and I replied tourism. She asked if I had relatives in Israel. “Yes.” I added how excited I was to celebrate Shavuot in Jerusalem, where I would be staying for the week. She printed out my entry card and wished me a “Chag sameach!” Happy holidays! And off I went. If there was a hashtag for this brief, easy experience, it would be #whitejewishprivilege.
Of our 26-person delegation (that’s 25 adults plus one adorable baby), not all were so fortunate. Seven were initially pulled into “The Room” for more screening. After a brief time, five were released and two remained. Minutes passed. Then an hour. I went back to “The Room” to wait with these two and started pulling distraction tricks out of my bag: Vogue, crossword puzzles, chocolate. I was thinking about the segregation of the Jim Crow South, whites one way, blacks another, as I glanced around the detention waiting room and noticed most people appeared to be people of color. Another hour passes and I’m asked to leave repeatedly. I am finally escorted out and told that, even though I’m an American escort with the delegation, I’m not allowed to be there. Off to baggage claim I go, where I’m greeted by a SMILE representative. SMILE is an Israeli private tour greeting company that welcomes groups and helps them get their bags and go. Their main client is Taglit-Birthright, and, many hours later, a SMILE representative offers me some chocolate chip cookie cake left over from an earlier Birthright trip arrival, and since I’ve hardly eaten all day, I take a few bites. Heck, if you can’t have peace, you might as well have a piece of chocolate cake, right?!
In the baggage claim area, I watched streams of Birthright kids and ‘black hats’ and ‘bubbies’ flow through customs effortlessly.
I recalled my first trip to Israel in the summer of 1998, with the Jewish Israeli organizations, Young Judeah and Haddasah. I was one of those carefree kids in shorts and a t-shirt laughing and prancing my way through customs with a big suitcase and an even bigger smile. Back in those days (listen to me sounding so old!), when planes landed on the Ben Gurion Airport tarmac they often deplaned with stairs. I remember walking down those stairs and kneeling to feel the asphalt runway meet my palms and cheek, feeling like I had finally set foot on my ancestral soil. Now, 16 years later, I’m ever more aware that while my ancestors walked these holy grounds, so too did the ancestors of many people – Jews, Christians, and Muslims, and most historically recent, the soles of my Palestinian brothers and sisters, many of whom were forcefully pushed out of their homes and farm land by Israeli military invasion and occupation. In 1948. In 1967. And in recent years ongoing…
I remember back then having this feeling that if I was every persecuted as a Jew I could be safe here in Israel from persecution. But now, understanding how that safety is built on the persecution of others, I can’t rationalize how my life and safety could be more important than another human being’s. And so it is that I find myself returning to a place of “homeliness” while holding an acute realization of how this sense of place identity was born on the backs of oppression.
It’s an irreconcilable paradox, and I’m holding all the emotions jettisoning out from it like an octopus. (Incidentally, my friend, Sariyah Idan, wrote a one-woman play about this very feeling called “Homeless in Homeland”.
Sitting in baggage claim just beyond the passport security barriers for one hour- and then two, and then four- I remembered Hugh Grant’s quote, and began to look for “love, actually,” even here -in this fluorescent-lit giant baggage claim area. The love I felt was for the Palestinian people who have to live daily under this kind of police state oppression and who engage in bold acts of resistance by simply living. And I felt love for the world of change making that is happening all around the planet to stop occupation and promote a more just and equitable solution to the conflict here. And, yes, also for the SMILE representative, who went out of his way to deliver notes and chocolate bars to the detained delegates for me, and continuously expressed his remorse at the terrible situation. Sometimes resistance is small acts of support and simple acts of generosity and kindness.
After nearly nine hours of waiting, I’m informed that the two delegates I’m traveling with are being transferred to be deported. With no specific rhyme or reason given other than “Security”. My heart sinks. I think of these two brilliant people and all they have to offer on this delegation, and all they could have had to offer to their communities back home after witnessing, listening, and learning on this meeting-packed trip. I think of their goals and aspirations for coming and how hard they have both worked to get here, only to be turned away now. But my heart is also buoyed by the resolve that I know these two activists have. As the old civil rights song says, “Ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around, turn me around, turn me around…” They may be flying back home, but their courage at understanding the truth of what’s going on in the Middle East, and taking action for a just peace, is unwavering. And as we know, there is no visa required to work for justice.
I also think about the hundreds of Palestinians who are denied entry into Israel, who were stripped of their homes and identities. Yes, it’s heartbreaking that two American friends can’t get into Israel. But the real tragedy is that of the masses of Palestinian refugees who can’t return. (While, of course, the Israeli Law of Return extends entry and even citizenship to Jews regardless of whether they or their ancestors have ever stepped foot in the “Holy Land”.)
There was some baggage that I didn’t wish to claim as I left Ben Gurion airport tonight. This was the baggage of ancestral trauma, from generations of persecution, most recently the Holocaust, which, unhealed, helps ferment an ongoing cycle of violence. The gnawing awareness of all I have seen tonight and in the past several years of exploring this conflict in more detail — wouldn’t it be easier to keep the blinders on as they were when I first came on that whirlwind ‘Disneylandesque,’ young Judea trip here 16 years ago? But I will pick up my laptop and my carry-on bag and also this “Invisible Backpack” and I will use my privilege to stand up in the face of this outrageousness.
In the midnight hours I finally take a cab from the airport up through the winding hills and arrive in Jerusalem to join the 22 members (and one now sleeping baby!) of the Interfaith Peace Builders delegation. My hotel room has a balcony view of the Old City, a very sacred and special place in my heart and for my faith, as for many others. Tonight, on Shavuot, I imagine that this ancient city and Mt. Olives rising behind it will be filled with Jews staying up all night to learn, inspired by the holiday’s origin: Moses’ receipt of the Ten Commandments on this day in the Hebrew calendar. And as I fall asleep, I am thinking about one of those commandments in particular: “Love thy neighbor.” Yes, even at the arrivals gate.