“When asked if documentation of Aslan's interrogation could be seen to verify their claims that he was not threatened or asked political questions, the organization said such a documentation does exist, but is classified material that cannot be published." https://t.co/EVMaA2NDpr— Reza Aslan (@rezaaslan) August 16, 2018
Iranian-American author Reza Aslan tweeted Tuesday that he was detained and separated from his family for hours while trying to cross into Israel from Jordan two weeks ago.
Aslan arrived in Israel with his wife, three children and his in-laws as part of a family trip. The former CNN host told Haaretz that when they landed at Ben-Gurion Airport, they did not encounter any problems entering the country initially. After a few days in Israel, they went to visit Petra in Jordan. However, when they came back 48 hours later from the border crossing in Eilat, his entire family was allowed to re-enter Israel — except for Aslan himself who was detained by the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service.
Aslan said he was “floored” when a female Shin Bet officer — who apparently knew all about him — started an increasingly aggressive line of questioning.
“We can make it so you don’t see your kids for a long time,” Aslan said the woman told him. “You think because you’re a public person I can’t do whatever I want with you?”
She asked Aslan about his views on President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“The fact that I don't like Netanyahu seemed to be a threat in her eyes,” Aslan later told Haaretz.
“Why do you hate Israel?” She asked.— Reza Aslan (@rezaaslan) August 14, 2018
“I don’t hate Israel,” I replied.
“But you hate our Prime Minister.”
“I’m sorry is your Prime Minister Israel?”
“He was democratically elected!” (No he wasn’t but let’s just drop that)
“So was Trump and I hate him and still love America.”
“Oh I know all about you and Trump,” she spat.— Reza Aslan (@rezaaslan) August 14, 2018
I forgot the Israeli Right Wing’s affection for our racist Neo-Nazi loving president.
“You don’t think Israel should exist yes?”
That’s absurd. I’m against the occupation not Israel.
Then the police state part began in earnest
The Shin Bet officer soon started questioning Aslan as if he were a terror suspect. He was told to list down the names of all the Palestinians he knew, all the journalists he associated with and all the Palestinian organizations he lends his support to — a seemingly impossible task since Aslan, being a journalist and a person who frequently visits the Middle East, probably has a large number of all of the above.
“If you don’t cooperate it will be a long time before you see your kids again,” the Shin bet officer replied. However, Aslan’s task was made even more difficult by the fact the officer kept accusing him of lying.
I tried to cooperate the best I could. It was 104 degrees. My wife, my two 6yr olds, my 3yr old, and I my two elderly in-laws had been waiting for me in the sun for hours.— Reza Aslan (@rezaaslan) August 14, 2018
But (again the police state tactic): every answer I gave she told me was lie.
“Stop lying!” She’d yell.
At one point during the interview, the woman asked him why he hadn’t visited Iran since 2005. He answered he cannot do so since he was critical of the current Iranian regime, especially of its violent reaction to the 2009 “Green Movement” protests.
Aslan who was born in Tehran, fled the Iranian revolution in 1979 with his family when he was only 7 years old. However, the woman thought fair to ask him, “Who did your father work for in Iran?”
Naturally, being only 7 at the time, Aslan did not know the answer to that question. He was taunted for that.
The questions got dumber and more surreal:— Reza Aslan (@rezaaslan) August 14, 2018
“Who did your father work for in Iran?”
I don’t know. I was 7 when we left
“Oh Mr Scholar! You can tell me everything about the Ottoman Empire but you don’t know your own father’s history?”
For the record I am not an Ottoman scholar.
After hours of the surreal questioning, he was once again threatened that he would be separated from his family.
In the end, after hours of this, she warned “I may let you into Israel but, who knows, I may not let you out. I will keep you here and kick out your family. It depends on you. You would miss your kids yes?”— Reza Aslan (@rezaaslan) August 14, 2018
That my friends is the classic police state trick. Iran has perfected it
The Shin Bet woman ultimately let him go but not before a final warning.
Her final warning was not to visit the Palestinian Territories. Not to meet with or speak to any Palestinians or any Israeli trouble makers.— Reza Aslan (@rezaaslan) August 14, 2018
“We are watching you.”
2 days later I went to Bethlehem, to the wall, and took this picture: pic.twitter.com/9RZyUjPVmo
Aslan said when he was released, his in-laws were stunned at the mistreatment.
And it can’t last.— Reza Aslan (@rezaaslan) August 14, 2018
When I was released my evangelical in-laws were in shock.
“I had no idea it was like this,” they said. Now they do. So do more Americans each day. And if Israel loses them, who will continue to shield it from pressure to change course?
The clock is ticking
The journalist said he did not immediately write about his incident. However, a Jewish-American journalist Peter Beinart’s similar detention at the Ben-Gurion Airport pushed him to share his own experience.
Beinart told The Forward he was asked “Was I involved in any organization that could provoke violence in Israel? I said no. Was I involved in any organization that threatens Israel democracy? I said no -- that I support Israeli organizations that employ non-violence to defend Israeli democracy.” These questions were pretty similar to what Aslan had to go through.
Aslan said this was the fourth time he had visited Israel and every time, the situation is getting more draconian. He said that in the past he has been interrogated by Israeli security but they had all focused on security questions.
“Every time I've visited Israel before, I was pulled aside, asked some security questions, or asked to open my suitcase. Once I was even strip-searched,” Aslan said. “But I always understood why it happened. Whether it's fair or not, the fact that I was born in Iran that I'm Muslim, that I usually travel alone – I get that Israel has some security concerns that this relates to. I fit a certain profile. I have never complained about this 'extra treatment' in the past. I even wrote that this is actually somewhat justified.”
However, this time around, Aslan said the questions focused more on his social activism, his journalism and his political views.
“I've never experienced something like this in Israel before,” he said. “Never had explicit threats and warnings about what I can do and where I should go. Never been asked to write down names of journalists that I know and Palestinians that I support. Usually I get asked questions like why did you come here, what's the purpose of your visit – legitimate questions. This was different.”
In response to his allegations, the Shin Bet said Aslan was “a foreign national who was born in Iran” and whose behavior “raised suspicions.” They also denied they had asked political questions or threatened the author.
When asked by Haaretz if a documentation of Aslan’s interrogation exists that could verify these claims, the Shin Bet said they do exist but cannot be published as the material was classified.
According to the chief legal counsel of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), Attorney Dan Yakim, the Shin Bet are only allowed to conduct such “warning conversations” if they fulfill several conditions. They need to get approval of the Attorney-General’s Office for such interrogation, summon the individual beforehand and let them know they have the right to refuse the summons. These conditions apply for all Israeli citizens and should apply for non-Israeli citizens as well, said Yakim.
However, it does not look like these conditions are being fulfilled by the Shin Bet in recent interrogations against activists.
Visitors from Muslim and Arab states are often detained and questioned at the Israeli border. But recently, numerous reports have emerged concerning the detention of prominent Jews and Israelis who have also been meted this treatment.
In addition to Beinart and Aslan, Israeli activist Tanya Rubinstein, general coordinator of the Coalition of Women for Peace, was also held at the airport after she returned from a conference at the Swedish foreign ministry.
The Shin Bet said she was held because of some information she received but was released after half an hour without an interrogation.
On Aug. 5, left-wing American Jewish activists Simone Zimmerman, founder of an anti-Israeli policy group, IfNotNow, and her friend Abby Kirschbaum, were stopped at at Taba Border Crossing on her way back from Egypt. They were questioned for three and a half hours, had their phones inspected, asked a plethora of questions relating to their opinion on Netanyahu, the human rights groups they supported and the names of Palestinians they associated with.
And in July, 28-year-old Israeli activist Moriel Rothman-Zecher was questioned at Ben-Gurion Airport about his involvement in non-violent, non-extremist demonstrations and his participation in anti-occupation groups, All That’s Left and Breaking the Silence. He was also asked about his refusal to join the Israeli army on moral grounds. Israel makes it mandatory for all Jewish citizens who have turned 18 (and some minority groups) to conscript in the Israel Defense Forces.
According to Kan 11 News, the Shin Bet has stopped 250 people from entering Israel in 2018, most of them Arabs or Muslims from Western states, on the grounds of being involved in political espionage, terrorism or subversion.
Thumbnail/Banner Credits: Charley Gallay/Getty Images for Turner