It took a mere 45 minutes to fly from Tel Aviv to Amman on a recent family vacation. For those of us old enough to remember when Israel and Jordan were mortal enemies, the sheer normalcy of boarding an airplane in one country and landing in another in the same amount of time that it can take to go by subway from Manhattan to Brooklyn is nothing short of remarkable.
It took six hours to travel the roughly 70 miles in the opposite direction, from Amman to Tel Aviv, over land. This is where “normalcy” assumes a different definition, in which inexplicable delays, confusion, roadblocks and security searches are the rule.
On an airplane, the cold peace that has characterized relations between Israel and the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan since the treaty of 1994 is a barely noticed chill. On the ground, it is a frigid blast.
From the start, it was clear that few Western tourists do what we tried to do. The staff at our upscale hotel in western Amman stared blankly when we asked for help in arranging the passage. They had no idea what would happen on the other side of the King Hussein Bridge, as they call it.
Tourists who don’t fly are more apt to cross the border to the south in Eilat or up north, where the route does not enter the complicated patchwork that is the West Bank, and Arabs are more likely to head toward Jerusalem. But trying to go from Jordan’s largest city to Israel’s largest city? Mejnun! Meshuga!
Neither nation makes this easy. Had we not had the Arabic-speaking services of my daughter to help us through the maze on the Jordanian side of what we thought of as the Allenby Bridge, we’d still be trying to decipher the process. Passports are taken without explanation, rules are unspoken and the buses ferrying passengers across the demilitarized zone seem to arrive and depart when they want to.
The Israeli side is better landscaped, with bright green grass and palm trees that nearly glow in the desert, but the bureaucracy is no more fathomable. We had to wait in line for two long hours before a curt, but pleasant officer asked a few questions and stamped our passports. Mid-day on a Thursday, with no holiday or crisis looming, I have no idea why it took so long.
But the more aggravating experience was when our taxi was inexplicably stopped at a checkpoint near the settlement of Ariel and we were detained there while our luggage was scanned and searched by Israel Defense Forces officers who wore their arrogance proudly.
They found nothing, of course, and finally waved us through, but the scene left us feeling angry and violated.
I understand the need for security in this dangerous terrain. There’s a reason the IDF soldiers have to don bulletproof vests and special gloves to do their jobs — I understand why they are trained to expect the worst, suspicious of people doing something unusual, like trying to drive from Amman to Tel Aviv. In many ways, they are the first line of defense.
I’ve never had a problem with the intense questioning that precedes flights to and from Israel because I know it is necessary. I was once in London’s Heathrow Airport when Israeli security smartly foiled an attempt to bring a bomb onto a plane bound for Tel Aviv, a plot that managed to get by all the other security apparatus in the airport. So go ahead. Ask me what synagogue I belong to, and where I learned to speak Hebrew. Just keep me safe.
And, truth is, I knew we were safe — even as we waited in line or watched as our luggage was taken apart — because our skin is white and our passports bear the dark blue cover of the United States.
But the experience gave me a glimpse into the frustration, the gnawing powerlessness and sometimes the fury that is felt by those not lucky enough to be born with our privilege. I could imagine the anxiety of confronting an unpredictable security machine that controls the movement of people and goods between two nations that supposedly are friends.
The episode at the checkpoint tainted my view of entering Israel in a way I’d never experienced in the dozen or so times I’ve arrived at Ben Gurion Airport. It was a hostile greeting, not a welcoming shalom.
And the entire experience of simply trying to travel this way illustrated how very far Jordan and Israel are from realizing the promise of a partnership begun 16 years ago and stuck now in a hard, unforgiving time.