Following the terrorist attacks on September 11th 2001, (“9/11”) and the new awareness to the threat of terrorism, much discussion has taken place regarding the steps to be taken. Much concern has been expressed in the US regarding “racial profiling”, that is the singling-out of individuals as suspects based mainly on their racial features. A problematic concept laden with ethical problems, racial profiling has even been defined (for example by wordnet.princeton.edu/perl/webwn ) as “a form of racism consisting of the (alleged) policy of policemen who stop and search vehicles driven by persons belonging to particular racial groups “. Note that the policy is “alleged” while the racism attributed is not. Wikipedia, the on-line open-source encyclopaedia is less partisan in its treatment of racial profiling (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Racial_profiling), and cites police abuse in the US during the 1990s a source of much of the criticism against racial profiling. Be it as it may, I believe that racial profiling is an active factor in any screening performed in the West today. In the best of cases, it might be silent or called differently. It could be that it's implemented in a parametric way, allowing systems to be fed with, say, racial features of Anglo-Saxons from Oklahoma in case they become a threat in some future crazy scenario.
In Israel the problem is practically ignored. For Israeli Jews and the Israeli government, the “other side” (known in academic circles as “the Other”) is well-defined. It's the Arabs. If you're an Arab, you are at risk of being seen as a suspect. This creates a host of ironic, ridiculous and painful situations.
Israel, living under constant threat of suicide bombers and other types of attacks has devised a “security culture” which permeates our daily life. You're checked at the entrance of public places – malls, post-offices, cinemas etc., both if you come on foot or in a car. At the entrance to any public parking lot, your car is checked and a guard looks at you.
In some cases, most notably in Jerusalem's main mall, when you approach with your car, the guard (who in many cases is an immigrant from the ex-Soviet Union or from Ethiopia) asks you “How are you?” No. He (or she) has no real interest in your personal ups-and-downs or in knowing on what side you woke up in the morning. The idea is to make you utter a sentence, short as it may be. Israelis are usually blunt and our Hebrew is short and harsh, but one or two words will give away your accent, especially if you have an Arab accent, known to be almost impossible to conceal. Just like the famous biblical shibboleth. Each time I am asked “How are you?” by one of those guards, an imp appears on my shoulder and whispers in my ear to answer most naturally: “Al-hamdu-li-llah, ana bikheir” (“Praise Allah, I am well”, in Arabic), just to see what happens. Or at least to answer in Spanish and leave the poor guard dumbfounded. This ancient, biblical type of racial profiling is hardly noticed by most Israelis. During Muslim holidays the Jerusalem Mall teems with Palestinians from Israel and even Jordanians from across the borders, doing their shopping. But they always speak softly, walk in groups of whole families, sharply dressed, careful not to call attention after having succeeded in gaining access to the mall.
Racial profile is not always theoretical or semi-hidden. During my university days, I had a friend who'd immigrated to Israel from Azerbaijan. Not only was he a Jew, of course, but his last name was blatantly Ashkenazi. But his mother was a Sepharadic Jew from Azerbaijan, and it is from her he must have inherited the dark frizzled hair and black eyes. In addition, he didn't have a Russian accent since he grew up speaking Azeri as well – which imprinted his speech with a Turkish accent. His fate was sealed: the Israeli racial profiling filter was bound to pick him up. And it did. More than once he'd walk in the centre of town and be stopped by the Border Guard, the military branch of the Israeli Police, known for their tough and sometimes brutal treatment of Arabs. He'd be stopped, his “strange” accent wouldn't fit any pattern the soldiers could catalogue and he'd be pressed unto a wall. They'd ask him for his ID card, in crude Arabic and when he'd produce it they would accuse him of having forged it. Time and again he had to display all his papers: student card, university notes, new-immigrant card and be careful not to make them angry for claiming he knew absolutely no Arabic.
At the time, I was living in Abu Tor, in Jerusalem. An Arab village with a wonderful view of the Old City whose entrance has become a Jewish neighbourhood. So I lived in number 6 and Intifada (it was the first one) started at number 10 – where cars were torched. Farther down the street full-blown disturbances would take place every now and then. Naturally, the same Border Guard was very active in the vicinity of my house. This force incorporates not only Jews but Druze and Bedouin soldiers who sometimes stay on for years, as career men. Their knowledge of Arabic and Arab culture is invaluable in a force whose main task is to deal with Intifada and to secure the areas where friction between Jews and Arabs is a problem. So one fine morning I go out to my car, intending to drive to Mt. Scopus for the day's lectures. Coming out of the parking lot I am stopped by a couple of armed Border Guards. Druze, native speakers of Arabic. They ask me for my ID card, in Arabic, using the Arabic phrase almost no Israeli misunderstands: “Jibb hawiyya” (bluntly: “Let's have your ID”). I answer in Hebrew, producing the blue document. They inspect it, look at me and using a mesh of Arabic and Hebrew they radio the control at the entrance to the neighbourhood “This one's OK, he's Jewish”.