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Tuesday, January 30, 2007

There is no (right to) privacy in Israel

This is more of a 'life in Israel' story than the typical fare on this blog, but I think it's important enough that you all ought to be aware of it.

Israelis seemingly have no concept of privacy and private space. All of us westerners have had the experience of standing in front of the teller at a bank and having the next person in line (literally) breathing down your neck. I have often turned around and asked the person behind me whether they wish to make a deposit into my account, and if not, could they please move away. Unfortunately, they usually ignore me. Too many Israelis are completely lacking in common courtesy. One would have hoped that our 'civilian ambassadors to the world' at El Al would be a bit better since they fly all over the world all the time. Unfortunately, they are not.

Last Wednesday night and Thursday, I flew from Chicago to Tel Aviv via London. When I got to the ticket counter in Chicago, the agent was unable to check my bag beyond London, because El Al had decided on their own that I had another reservation (I did not) and canceled my reservation. Half an hour of calls from a resourceful ticket counter agent in Chicago to El Al's gate at JFK in New York (it was amazing how she got the number at 10:00 PM New York time!) and calls from me to my travel agent at 5:00 AM Israel time (Ziontours - I highly recommend them!) got my El Al reservation reinstated. But it was a bad sign....

We landed in London early, and having spent 45 minutes in a security line at Heathrow on my way to the US, I quickly proceeded from Terminal 3 to Terminal 1, arriving at the El Al gate at the very end of Terminal 1 an hour and a half before flight time. I went to the gate agent, handed in my ticket and passport and asked for a boarding pass (American could not issue one). He asked if I had checked bags from Chicago and I said that I had, and gave him my baggage tags so that he could scan them in. He gave me my boarding pass (a middle seat - I was supposed to have an aisle, but that actually worked out in the end because there was an empty seat), and I asked whether I needed to go downstairs and identify my bags for them (as I have always had to do when connecting to El Al in London and many other European airports). Surprisingly, his response was "no, we don't do that anymore."

All was quiet until we started to board the plane. I got to the gate and was shoved off to the side because my e-ticket number did not appear on the boarding pass. I told the gate agent that wasn't my fault and they said they would make sure that the person who issued the boarding pass (who turned out to be from security and not a gate agent) would be rebuked for that. Eventually, they let me get on the plane. I put my carry-on in the (fortunately still empty) overhead bin, took off my coat and sweater and steeled myself for the four and a half hour cramped flight. Then, all hell broke loose.

A security agent - the same one who told me that I did not need to identify my bags, and who had issued my boarding pass - came down the aisle and asked if I was Carl in Jerusalem. I said that I was, and he asked me to come with him to "identify something." I asked if he wanted me to identify my bags and reminded him that I had offered to do that an hour and a half earlier. He said I should just come with him.

When we got to the plane's exit there were five security agents standing at the end of the jetway right outside the plane. One of them was holding a red, white and blue plastic bag. Inside the bag were my toiletries kit and several items I had purchased at places like Target and CVS. Each item other than the toiletries bag was wrapped the way I always wrap things I buy in the US (when you've had enough liquids leak in your bags, you learn your lesson) - in a zip lock plastic bag that is taped shut with masking tape. At first I thought one of my suitcases had burst open, but it turned out that they had gone through my duffle bag (they even opened the sealed coffee maker box!) and had removed some apparently random items from it. I was mortified! They asked if these things were mine and I said that of course they were. They ordered me to look more closely and I shuffled through the bag (without really noting what was there other than the toiletries bag and a bottle of Tums - which was taped at the top with masking tape) and said it was all mine. Then they told me to get back on the plane. I suggested that I take these items with me since they said that the rest of my things had been "sent ahead to save time," but of course, they refused, promising that the red white and blue bag would be there when we landed in Tel Aviv.

The red, white and blue bag was not there when we landed in Tel Aviv - forty minutes behind schedule. After all the luggage had gone around, at nearly 11:00 PM Israel time, I went to the El Al lost baggage counter and complained (with absolutely NO evidence that I was missing anything - there was no baggage tag for the red, white and blue bag!). Fortunately, the lady said, "Oh, you're Carl in Jerusalem. We got a message about you. Your bag is being sent on the night flight. It will be sent to your house tomorrow morning" I told her that I was furious at El Al for violating my privacy by going through my bags without my being present. She told me that she had nothing to do with security, but that El Al has had a lot of complaints about this and that they may reconsider the policy.

In the end, my red, white and blue bag showed up and you can bet that El Al paid about what the items were worth to have it delivered to my Jerusalem home around noontime on Friday. But that's only the beginning of what this 'incident' is going to cost them. Hereafter, if I have to connect through London on the way back to Israel, it's going to be on British Airways. Even if I have to wait ten hours to do it.


At 3:54 PM, Blogger Lois Koenig said...


No proper comment can be made here.

In the end? At least you got your bag delivered, and everything was there.

I didn't think you were that ticked off for nothing. What a nightmare experience!

At 7:13 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


While your experience was bad, I have an El Al experience that is possibly worse.

Behold: POO on a PLANE!


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