Daily life is full of challenges. How will you react to someone cutting the line in front of you at the bus stop, the supermarket cashier obviously giving you back too much change, or a friend of yours throwing trash out of his car window? Most of these challenges are innocuous.
But this past week I found myself challenged by institutionalized antisemitism. Living in Israel, I never thought I would be confronted by a direct assault against my religious practices. And I had to decide what to do on a moment’s notice.
The week started on a high note. After my having completed a long six months of demanding yeshiva studies, my wife and I took advantage of Bein Hazemanim (intersession) to take a two-day bus trip from Jerusalem to Eilat and from there on to Petra. She had always been fascinated by Petra and we were looking forward to visiting there and seeing its amazing sights.
We booked the trip with Tanach Tiyulim, headed by veteran tour guide Ezra Rosenfeld, assisted on this trip by Shani Taragin, an erudite Torah scholar of Scriptural lore and especially well prepared to tell us all about Jewish history in Southern Israel and nearby Jordan.
Our first stop was at Tel Arad where we viewed the remains of a fortress that was garrisoned thousands of years ago by King David’s forces. From there we made our way to the hotel in Eilat where we were to spend the night before entering Jordan in the morning for our bus drive to Petra.
That night we were given an orientation by Ezra of what to expect at the Jordanian border crossing. There exists a cold peace between Israel and Jordan, and while Israeli Jewish tourists are welcomed in Jordan, there are elements of the population that aren’t overwhelmingly friendly towards their neighbors to the west.
Rather than possibly incite any anti-Jewish feelings, we were told that the men should wear baseball caps rather than kippot (skullcaps) and that anyone who wears tzitzit (ritual prayer garments) under their shirts should make sure to keep the fringes of those garments in their pants and not to let them hang out (as some, including me, normally do).
We were bused early the next morning to the Israeli side of the border crossing, where we passed through quickly and without incident. On the Jordanian side we, and our bags, passed through airport-type scanners and then individually approached passport control counters to enable them to match our countenances to our passport pictures. One man was instructed to remove his cap so that the computer camera could better scan his visage.
But when he took his cap off, the kippa he had inadvertently left underneath was exposed. The Jordanian security officer appeared angry and asked him to step away and follow the officer to another room. As he started walking, I said, “nice knowing you, Steve,” and he nervously laughed in reply.
Nothing untoward happened to Steve for his ‘infraction’. However, the security personnel decided that they needed to check us all again. But first Ezra circulated among us and asked us for our kippot from our bags so that he could keep them away from outside hands.
We were all marched back through the scanners and our bags were searched again for religious ‘contraband’. The first few men through were asked to raise their shirts and when tzitzit were found beneath them, they were told to take them off and they were confiscated.
I approached the security person and when he made a motion towards my shirt, I notified him that I indeed was wearing tzitzit, but that I would not take them off and would rather return to Israel instead. He was surprised and asked, “But don’t you want to visit Petra?” I answered “I do wish to visit Petra, but if I have to take off my tzitzit in order to visit Petra, then I would rather not go, but will return instead to Israel”.
He went back to consult with the other border personnel. One came back and apologized, saying “We don’t mean any disrespect, but these are our rules”. I answered “I understand, and I am not angry with you, but I have rules in my life as well, and I would rather return to Israel than disobey the rules I live by.” He went back for further consultations.
Meanwhile the women were also having their bags checked again and prayer books and religious items were taken from them. My wife made as if she didn’t hear them asking for her bag to be checked and was able to walk by without them searching her bag and finding her prayer book. At one point the women were told that they would be patted down by female security personnel, but thankfully that never happened.
Finally, I was asked to go through the scanner by myself for a third time, and my bag was checked very carefully by hand. The border officer said “I am looking for your small cap (i.e. my kippa)”, but I replied “I don’t have one” (as Ezra had already taken all the kippot and sent them with an associate back to the Israeli side). The officer was skeptical, but after an intensive search turned up nothing of interest to him, he said “You are free to continue on to Petra as you are”. I shook his hand and thanked him as the security man glowered at me and stalked away.
I’m not sure why the border officer let me go unimpeded. Behind the scenes, Ezra was in contact with an Israeli official who said he would try to reach his Jordanian counterpart to press for a termination of our harassment. And perhaps that is what eventually did the trick.
In any event, we had a wonderful trip to Petra, reveling in its wonders without further incident, and all confiscated materials were returned to us as we left Jordan later that night.
I don’t consider myself a hero of any sort, and more likely my stubborn nature played a considerable role in my actions that day. But I do know that each of us needs to draw a red line and say to ourselves “Beyond this I will not cross”. Each of us needs to determine for ourselves where that red line lies.
I am not trying to be overly dramatic, but when I saw the border officials lifting Jewish mens’ shirts searching for religious items, I had a vision of the infamous ‘selections’ of defenseless Jews during WWII, and the airline passengers hijacked to Entebbe being divided into Jewish and gentile groupings, and I instinctively knew that my red line was in front of me, and crossing it in order to visit Petra just wasn’t worth it.
I’m glad I made the decision I did, and I hope that in the future I will continue to act with the courage of my convictions.