My middle name, the last name of one of my moms, is Azizi, a common Muslim surname. But we aren’t Muslim. During the late 1800s, Jews in Iran were heavily persecuted and suffered religious discrimination. Known as the Crypto-Jews of Iran, they were forced to convert to Islam and change their names to quintessentially Muslim names. This community practiced Judaism underground, while presenting themselves as Muslim. In the case of my mother’s family, the Cohens became the Azizis. My mother’s father even went on a pilgrimage to Mecca to convince the larger society that he was Muslim.
The mom I am referring to, however, is not my biological mom. I’m not even Iranian myself. It’s not in my blood or visible in my skin. We aren’t close to my mom’s family, and aside from eating Persian food once in a while (when I’m lucky) I have barely grown up with Persian influence. My mom speaks Farsi fluently, but none of it has been passed to me other than my brutally mispronounced “سلام چطوری؟” (“Hi, how are you?”) which I use seldom except as a party trick. The only thing that could point to this part of me is my name. And at the Ben Gurion Airport in Israel, they noticed it.
The airport has many complex security measures, including individual interviews with each traveler. On my way home from Israel with my camp, all my friends walked right through after being asked only a few questions. I, however, was held back. They were focused on my middle name. The highly trained security guard scanned me up and down as she asked me questions about it. I could see her confusion while eyeing my star of David necklace, matching group t-shirt, and the surname Rosenfeld on my plane ticket. Everything about me screamed American Ashkenazi Jew except the middle name on my passport.
While it was jarring at first to get this treatment, I soon realized I wasn’t worried. I knew I would be let past her, even with the extra screening. My confidence stemmed from the privilege I’m used to experiencing. Society, including people in powerful positions, gives me this treatment because of the color of my skin. It is easy to see my privilege and the innumerable steps-up it has given me in my life.
Before all of these security measures, an attendant puts a neon sticker with a ten-digit number on the bottom of your passport. The first of these ten digits ranges from one to six. The number signals the perceived threat you pose to the security on your flight. The attendants do this from just looking at you. She didn’t even glance at my passport while my number was being printed out. The first digit was a one, I knew it almost without looking. While a one rating is generally given to white Jewish Israelis, a six rating is almost always saved for Palestinians, Muslims, and “hostile internationals.” To Jews with critiques of the Israeli government and policy like me, this screams of blatant racial profiling. Israel is not alone when it comes to this kind of discrimination. We see many examples of racial profiling in the United States as well, despite the fact that it violates the Constitution's “equal protection under the law”.
This five-minute interview with the attendant did not change my outlook on life or give me a new perspective. Despite the unexpected but brief experience, I still felt safe going through security at the airport. Having a Muslim name at the Israeli airport didn’t delay me for very long, because it was my white skin that ultimately determined how I would be treated. And that was what stuck with me: Even 6,000 miles from home and in a Jewish country, white privilege doesn't just shape our experiences in the United States, but follows us everywhere.
This piece was written as part of JWA’s Rising Voices Fellowship.
How to cite this page
Rosenfeld, Sasha. "Airport Insecurity." 9 December 2019. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on August 3, 2020) <https://jwa.org/blog/risingvoices/airport-insecurity>.