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Sunday, February 07, 2010

Other

If you are an American and/or a Jew, there is something about meeting and being around Americans and/or Jews abroad that makes you feel immediately at home... among friends.

I have been in Israeli and American Embassies and Consulates in more than half a dozen countries around the world.  In nearly every case, once I was through security and inside, I felt like I was on home soil... among acquaintances, if not friends.

In nearly every case, that is, except in the American Embassy and Consulate facilities in Israel.

Zahava and I had to visit the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem (don't get me started on the fact that the U.S doesn't have its embassy in our capital) on Friday to renew Yonah's American passport.

The security to get inside is understandably tight.  Much tighter than boarding a plane for an international flight.

When you arrive, you present your proof of appointment and are allowed to go into a holding area where they search your bags, take away your cell phone (and any other electronic devices), empty your pockets and finally have you walk through a metal detector.

Once that is done you are allowed to enter.  But not really.

You are only allowed into a covered courtyard which is open to the elements; not a pleasant place to wait on a rainy, windy winter day.  There you wait for G-d knows what.  But after 20 minutes or so we were invited inside (one at a time) to be searched again, and for our bags to be fed through an X-ray machine, and finally for another walk through a metal detector before being shown through an armored door to the inside.  But not really.

At this time you are technically inside the building, but all of the people you need to see are on the other side of a reinforced concrete walls and bullet proof glass. 

First you check in at one bullet proof window and give them all your paperwork.  Then you take a seat and wait.

Finally you are called to another bullet proof window and have your private details squawked over a tinny speaker for everyone in the waiting room to hear.  Then you are sent to buy a mailing envelope upstairs and you wait to be called to another bullet proof window where you will be quizzed on the details of your application (again over a loud tinny speaker) to make sure you are who you say you are.

Once everything has been checked and verified, you are told that your passport (or whatever you came for) will be mailed in a couple of weeks.

The interview (and your visit) is over.  You leave through a different guarded door and collect your confiscated phones and assorted electronics via another bullet proof window and armored slot.

Stepping out onto the street I realized that there wasn't a single moment during the entire time I was inside that I felt like I was on U.S. soil.  All of the guards I encountered were Arabs (presumably from east Jerusalem), and all of the staff inside were either Arabs or Americans, both of whom seemed to be relating to me as a foreigner.  

I can't say that anyone was rude or openly hostile.  On the contrary there was a distinct politeness that prevailed.   But there was a certain air of unfriendliness and suspicion that surrounded the entire experience, and as I said, at no time did I feel as though I was among people with whom I shared so much as a spec of commonality.

I've had to visit other countries' Embassies to apply for visas and such, and have never felt the kind of cold distance that has been the hallmark of every visit to the U.S. facilities in Israel.

Of course, maybe it's me.

Posted by David Bogner on February 7, 2010 | Permalink

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Yankee Fans are just difficult to deal with. What can you do...

Posted by: Jack | Feb 7, 2010 1:53:13 AM

If you are a non US citizen applying for a visit visa for the States, just to CALL the Embassy to enquire costs a huge amount per minute. No one in the Embassy will actually talk to you, you have to phone the Consular (pay as you go) line. Yes, some of the information is online, but the tricky stuff isn't. I have found Consular staff cool at best, stroppy at worst. And I was enquiring on behalf of someone who I work for, not even myself. You get the feeling that the US doesn't want anyone to visit. And don't get me started on "transit" flights via the US. After my first stop in LAX (get off the plane whilst it is cleaned, get back on the same plane to go to your European destination), where I had to wait in a line to "clear" customs, even though it was to sit in a tiny room for 15 minutes until we all had to re-embark. Never, Never again. The entire plane was treated badly by the people who did the passport stuff. It doesn't take any more energy to be civil to people instead of hostile. I got better treatment (ironically) because the guy who checked my passport was Jewish, and I was wearing my Magen David. Grrrr. OK rant over. I really like Americans, honest!

Posted by: Noa | Feb 7, 2010 6:20:08 AM

"If you are a non US citizen applying for a visit visa for the States, just to CALL the Embassy to enquire costs a huge amount per minute. No one in the Embassy will actually talk to you, you have to phone the Consular (pay as you go) line. " (Noa)

Yup, just be thankful you're a US citizen. You should see how the US embassy in Mexico City works..

Posted by: zemirah | Feb 7, 2010 7:24:13 AM

HI Zemirah - I'm not a US citizen, I'm a Brit. I think I can imagine what you mean though for Mexico City. Sadly, all three times I have visited the US, I have had a terrible experience at the airport. The first time was Newark, eight months after the attack in New York, because when I was asked what my profession was, I had the "misfortune" of working in the aviation business. The second time was Atlanta where I was threatened with arrest for having a smudge on my passport (?). The official reduced me to tears after 40 minutes of shouting at me, and the third time was LAX. Sigh. When my husband was invited to go there recently, I told him he would be travelling alone because I'm not sure I'd survive trip four. But like I say, I really like Americans:-)

Posted by: Noa | Feb 7, 2010 7:57:26 AM

Oh sorry Noa, I didn't make myself clear! I assumed you weren't a US citizen, I was just quoting you to say I agree and that David should be happy that he is! (Not that I'm not sorry you had a difficult time at the embassy David).

I'm actually Australian (my partner is Mexican), and the last time I travelled through LAX to get to Mexico I had a 30 minute interrogation about whether my son was really mine or whether I was stealing him from Mexico for illegal adoption. Which is nothing compared to what my partner has to go through!

Posted by: zemirah | Feb 7, 2010 8:27:30 AM

Poor you Zemirah - that's terrible!

Posted by: Noa | Feb 7, 2010 10:46:09 AM

Oh boy. I have to renew my passport there this month and from all the stories I've heard about the place I'm starting to dread going there. This is a personal question and I don't mind if you choose not to answer it - did you feel that you needed to hide your Jewish appearance (kipa, tzitzit, kisui rosh for your wife)while visiting the consulate?

I have no problems with angry stares and threats from Arabs, but if there is a chance that some nameless and unassailable clerk is going to make bureaucratic problems for my family because of my appearance I think I'll go to the embassy in Tel Aviv instead.

Posted by: benjamin | Feb 7, 2010 11:12:14 AM

Aren't they moving the consulate to Talpiot soon?

Posted by: Nachum | Feb 7, 2010 1:48:10 PM

Makes me glad I don't have to visit embassies regularly. The only time was about 16 years ago. I was in Rome and had been robbed of my wallet and its content. As far as I can remmeber I was treated like a decent and honest human being.

Posted by: Ilana-Davita | Feb 7, 2010 2:00:03 PM

The US consulate in Jerusalem is mostly there to deal with Arabs. That must explain the security.

The US embassy in Tel Aviv is said to be better at dealing with Jewish Israelis. I've never been inside either place, I speak from 2nd hand information.

Posted by: Fred | Feb 7, 2010 4:06:46 PM

I have been inside the Tel Aviv embassy. When we lived in Ra'anana I had to go there once to renew my passport. I was heavily pregnant, and while they weren't the friendliest, they were certainly less "suspicious" than David's account. The second time I was there was to register my son as American. Since I am married to a non-American the process was a bit lengthier and involved that David's. Like David's case they were "suspicious", but friendlier than David's tale. Recently I had a family emergency and I almost flew to America at short notice, except the baby doesn't have an American passport. I sent them an email explaining my story and receved an immediate response telling me to come that day for an expedited passport.
However, now that I am a "settler" I no longer have the option of the Tel Aviv embassy, which is why my daughter still hasn't been registered.

Posted by: Bryan | Feb 7, 2010 6:33:25 PM

This reminds me of the last time I had to go to the consulate in Jerusalem. (I don't understand why we can't go to the one on Agron Street.) I passed through security, which was a bit more lax then, and the Arab guard, who spoke fluent English, gave me directions to the proper room, ending his spiel with the phrase "Roohi le-jehenna."

I turned to him after a few incredulous moments and said, "What did you say?!"

He said, "I said, 'Te-fadli' -- welcome."

"No," I told him. "You just told me to go to hell in Arabic." He denied it. There were no witnesses, and I don't remember whether he was wearing a name tag.

I reported the incident and got an email from the consulate expressing distress over the incident and willingness to deal with it, but because I didn't know the guard's name, there wasn't much to be done.

Posted by: Rahel | Feb 8, 2010 12:33:22 AM

To Rahel:
<< ending his spiel with the phrase "Roohi le-jehenna."

I turned to him after a few incredulous moments and said, "What did you say?!"

He said, "I said, 'Te-fadli' -- welcome."

"No," I told him. "You just told me to go to hell in Arabic." He denied it. There were no witnesses, and I don't remember whether he was wearing a name tag.>>

Coincidently, I just saw a post in another blog and the Arabic phrase for Heaven is very similar to the phrase for Hell. Both look like they are related to Gehennim. Is it possible that htis was the case?

Shoshana

Posted by: Shoshana | Feb 8, 2010 4:26:42 AM

Heaven for the guy, Hell for the virgins. Same place.

Posted by: Barzilai | Feb 8, 2010 7:35:50 AM

US Consulates and Visas - do not get me started.....

Posted by: Hadassah | Feb 8, 2010 1:09:09 PM

No, it's not just you. I have in my files a nice long complaint letter for the consulate about an incident that took place two years ago:


December 31, 2007

To the Honorable Consul, J.W.:

Firstly, we would like to thank the consulate for the patient assistance we received at the hands of Ms. J. D. She is truly a credit to the foreign service, and demonstrated admirable patience helping us process a number of forms for our considerable family.

Unfortunately, we did experience one bit of unpleasantness during our morning at the consulate in East Jerusalem today, and we would appreciate your attention to the complaint.

There was a delay during our forms processing (entirely due to our own failure to correctly fill out the forms early, we admit), and to make it easier on the staff, we thought it would be best to have the children sit with one parent in the hallway rather than the actual waiting room.

The children were not making an undue amount of noise, at least we did not find that any of the staff or other persons waiting in the office felt there were grounds to comment, yet one of the guards on duty in the corridor markedly told them to keep quiet in the hallway. Since the intention of moving from the (heated) room to the (unheated) hallway was simply to allow the children to speak normally without feeling that they were disturbing the peace, I realized that there was no advantage remaining there if absolute silence had to be maintained. I remarked genially, “If you don’t want to let them speak here, we will just move back inside.” The guard suddenly began to shout at me and intruded menacingly into my personal space, “Don’t threaten me! Don’t threaten me!” He shouted this phrase perhaps a dozen times, without any apparent provocation. Needless to say, the children were worried and we were all terribly embarrassed. Perhaps this was the fellow’s intention, I really cannot say.

From within the waiting room, all could very clearly hear the guard shouting at me, “Who are you? You’re no one, you’re a zero, you’re nothing to me!” I calmly answered that I am a U.S. citizen. The guard bellowed, “So am I!” I stated calmly, “That’s correct, and I am going to return to the waiting room since you will not allow any noise here.” The guard continued to act in a very abusive manner, shouting loudly in a nonsensical way, “Stop threatening me! You have no right to threaten me!” It was quite obvious to all present that he merely sought a pretext to have me and, consequently, my children evicted from the consulate grounds. My wife was at that point in conversation with Ms. D. and was able to hear the guard’s part of the exchange from the far side of the room.

We returned to the waiting room and sat quietly in our seats. The guard returned with another guard, presumably his superior, and said, “Here is the man—he threatened me, and he should be removed.” I remained very calm and stated, “That’s not true. I am sure there is a videotape for what transpired in the hallway; by all means, please examine it. I have nothing to be ashamed of. And there are several people here who saw that I did nothing of the sort. What you say is untrue—you were shouting, not I.”

The two guards left and we concluded our business with the assistant consul, Ms. Davis.
As we left, I asked the guard for his name, because I decided that I would like to lodge a complaint. The guard had no identifying badge in view, and refused to provide his name. After repeated requests, always made in a polite and calm manner, the guard said, “Go and ask my supervisor.” I approached the apparent supervisor and requested the man’s name, and was denied. The supervisor said, “His name is unnecessary—if you want to lodge a complaint, just say, ‘the guard who was working at such-and-such a time.’”

I responded, “I am very surprised at this—in the United States, security personnel and officers are required to display identification so that the citizen is not at the mercy of anonymous agents immune to legal action. Are we living in some totalitarian regime? Why can’t I have the man’s name?”

The “supervisor” answered, “Don’t bring politics into it.” The guard said dismissively, “You’re not in the United States, you’re in Israel.”

I asked, “Am I not the public that you’ve been hired to serve?” The guard answered, “We are not here to serve you.”

I answered, “I disagree—I think that this place is like being in the U.S., and I should be able to get your name.” Suffice it to say, I did not receive the name or identification number.

Honorable consul, we were very shocked to be informed on consulate grounds that the security staff feels that they are some sort of authority unto themselves, not subject to common norms of public service or decency. Eventually, the “supervisor” provided his own name—B.G, I.D. # -------. But he would not provide his fellow guard’s name. This episode took place on Monday, December 31, 2007, at approximately 10:00 AM. We were on consulate grounds from approximately 8:05 AM until 10:30AM.

Mr. W., please forgive me if I have failed to record the events in exact order or with the exact language used. Although I generally have a very good recall, you can imagine that such treatment at the hands of a person in a position of authority and power in the consulate, the public thrashing in full view of my young and impressionable children, has left me quite shaken.

Thank you very much for your time and attention. I hope to hear from you regarding the consul’s view of the events that took place today. Although we don’t plan to return anytime soon, it seems that other U.S. citizens such as ourselves should not be subject to such abuse, especially while on consulate grounds.


Happy New Year,
Rabbi M.G

Posted by: yehudis | Feb 8, 2010 3:24:22 PM

No, it's not just you. I have in my files a nice long complaint letter for the consulate about an incident that took place two years ago:


December 31, 2007

To the Honorable Consul, J.W.:

Firstly, we would like to thank the consulate for the patient assistance we received at the hands of Ms. J. D. She is truly a credit to the foreign service, and demonstrated admirable patience helping us process a number of forms for our considerable family.

Unfortunately, we did experience one bit of unpleasantness during our morning at the consulate in East Jerusalem today, and we would appreciate your attention to the complaint.

There was a delay during our forms processing (entirely due to our own failure to correctly fill out the forms early, we admit), and to make it easier on the staff, we thought it would be best to have the children sit with one parent in the hallway rather than the actual waiting room.

The children were not making an undue amount of noise, at least we did not find that any of the staff or other persons waiting in the office felt there were grounds to comment, yet one of the guards on duty in the corridor markedly told them to keep quiet in the hallway. Since the intention of moving from the (heated) room to the (unheated) hallway was simply to allow the children to speak normally without feeling that they were disturbing the peace, I realized that there was no advantage remaining there if absolute silence had to be maintained. I remarked genially, “If you don’t want to let them speak here, we will just move back inside.” The guard suddenly began to shout at me and intruded menacingly into my personal space, “Don’t threaten me! Don’t threaten me!” He shouted this phrase perhaps a dozen times, without any apparent provocation. Needless to say, the children were worried and we were all terribly embarrassed. Perhaps this was the fellow’s intention, I really cannot say.

From within the waiting room, all could very clearly hear the guard shouting at me, “Who are you? You’re no one, you’re a zero, you’re nothing to me!” I calmly answered that I am a U.S. citizen. The guard bellowed, “So am I!” I stated calmly, “That’s correct, and I am going to return to the waiting room since you will not allow any noise here.” The guard continued to act in a very abusive manner, shouting loudly in a nonsensical way, “Stop threatening me! You have no right to threaten me!” It was quite obvious to all present that he merely sought a pretext to have me and, consequently, my children evicted from the consulate grounds. My wife was at that point in conversation with Ms. D. and was able to hear the guard’s part of the exchange from the far side of the room.

We returned to the waiting room and sat quietly in our seats. The guard returned with another guard, presumably his superior, and said, “Here is the man—he threatened me, and he should be removed.” I remained very calm and stated, “That’s not true. I am sure there is a videotape for what transpired in the hallway; by all means, please examine it. I have nothing to be ashamed of. And there are several people here who saw that I did nothing of the sort. What you say is untrue—you were shouting, not I.”

The two guards left and we concluded our business with the assistant consul, Ms. Davis.
As we left, I asked the guard for his name, because I decided that I would like to lodge a complaint. The guard had no identifying badge in view, and refused to provide his name. After repeated requests, always made in a polite and calm manner, the guard said, “Go and ask my supervisor.” I approached the apparent supervisor and requested the man’s name, and was denied. The supervisor said, “His name is unnecessary—if you want to lodge a complaint, just say, ‘the guard who was working at such-and-such a time.’”

I responded, “I am very surprised at this—in the United States, security personnel and officers are required to display identification so that the citizen is not at the mercy of anonymous agents immune to legal action. Are we living in some totalitarian regime? Why can’t I have the man’s name?”

The “supervisor” answered, “Don’t bring politics into it.” The guard said dismissively, “You’re not in the United States, you’re in Israel.”

I asked, “Am I not the public that you’ve been hired to serve?” The guard answered, “We are not here to serve you.”

I answered, “I disagree—I think that this place is like being in the U.S., and I should be able to get your name.” Suffice it to say, I did not receive the name or identification number.

Honorable consul, we were very shocked to be informed on consulate grounds that the security staff feels that they are some sort of authority unto themselves, not subject to common norms of public service or decency. Eventually, the “supervisor” provided his own name—B.G, I.D. # -------. But he would not provide his fellow guard’s name. This episode took place on Monday, December 31, 2007, at approximately 10:00 AM. We were on consulate grounds from approximately 8:05 AM until 10:30AM.

Mr. W., please forgive me if I have failed to record the events in exact order or with the exact language used. Although I generally have a very good recall, you can imagine that such treatment at the hands of a person in a position of authority and power in the consulate, the public thrashing in full view of my young and impressionable children, has left me quite shaken.

Thank you very much for your time and attention. I hope to hear from you regarding the consul’s view of the events that took place today. Although we don’t plan to return anytime soon, it seems that other U.S. citizens such as ourselves should not be subject to such abuse, especially while on consulate grounds.


Happy New Year,
Rabbi M.G

Posted by: yehudis | Feb 8, 2010 3:24:28 PM

Nothing has changed in 35 years. When I was a student at Hebrew U in 1975, my passport was stolen. I can't describe the nightmare it was getting it replaced. It took at least five visits to the consulate. Miserable experience; in fact my only really bad one from the whole year.

Posted by: moC | Feb 8, 2010 5:24:39 PM

Is the consulate under the jurisdiction of the Embassy in TA,or does it report direct to Washington?

Posted by: Ed | Feb 9, 2010 9:57:09 AM

Shoshana -- no, the guard did not tell me to go to Janna (Paradise). He said, distinctly, "Roohi le-jehenna." I heard those three syllables and knew instantly what they meant.

Posted by: Rahel | Feb 9, 2010 11:48:26 PM

Despite being a settler, the last few times we've needed Embassy/Consular 'stuff' (RoBAs and new passports for our Sabras) we went to Tel Aviv and they never made an issue of us being at the 'wrong' place.

However in TA, you have to check your bags (they charge 10NIS/bag), only people with actual business can get inside (people there acting as translators or helping their elderly mother were barred from entering), no carriages/strollers are allowed nor is food... although if you show up with kids they let you take a diaper and some wipes and a bottle..

Posted by: Devo K | Feb 10, 2010 11:04:33 AM

The humiliation. This would seem a good reason to riot.

:-)

Posted by: soccer dad | Feb 12, 2010 6:17:55 PM

For what it's worth, I doubt this is specific to the American embassy in Israel. Our overseas embassies and consulates are all dreadful and our immigration and/or border patrol personnel have gone mad with power. It's an embarrassment to this nation, but hey, foreigners can't vote so who cares?

Posted by: M. | Feb 14, 2010 11:49:28 PM

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