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Friday, January 3, 2014

Why do Rabbis get the red carpet at the airport?

A curious thing happened at Ben-Gurion International Airport a few weeks ago. Rabbi Yaakov Ifergan, also known as the “X-ray rabbi,” was driven straight home from the tarmac after landing, bypassing the usual customs inspection. According to the daily Maariv, this was made possible thanks to a special procedure that applies to admorim (an honorific given to highly esteemed rabbis). It allows such personages to be picked up in their own vehicles as they step off the plane. However, the precise details of this procedure are unclear: Who exactly is entitled to this privilege and why?

An investigation conducted by Haaretz has determined that, actually, anyone can pay either of two private companies approximately $260 and receive VIP treatment at the airport, including bypassing the lineup at passport control. A company vehicle will pick you up at the plane and take you inside to the Masada Lounge, where a representative of the company will take care of getting your passport stamped, dealing with customs, bringing the luggage and driving you home. This system has been in effect, we were told, since 2004, when the new international Terminal 3 was completed at the airport.

Apparently, however, there are 47 rabbis who are entitled to even better preferential treatment: They can arrive with their private car and driver right up to the plane, and all the border inspection procedures are done right there, in the vehicle. On the list of these privileged ones are the admor of the Gur community, Rabbi Aharon Steinman, Rabbi Yoshiyahu Pinto and Rabbi Amnon Yitzhak, as well as lesser-known rabbis.

A spokesman for the Israel Airports Authority, who gave us the names of the 47 sages, said that the list was closed in 2008, but he didn’t know when it was compiled or what the criteria for inclusion had been. A source at the IAA told us that since 2008, heavy pressure has been exerted on them by different people wanting to be added to the list.

According to the IAA, the kid-glove procedure was implemented only after it received the approval of the attorney general. The office of the AG, however, denied any knowledge of such goings-on, even after we showed them the list and the response of the IAA.

“A preliminary investigation has found no authorization of such a procedure by us, nor have we found a request for such authorization. We would be glad to pursue investigating this issue after obtaining further documentation,” the Ministry of Justice told Haaretz.

It’s not by chance that it’s difficult to explain who is included and who is excluded from this list. “There are no objective criteria,” says a former senior IAA official. “It all boils down to relations between the authority and the United Torah Judaism and Shas religious parties. The duty-free shops are open on the Sabbath and hametz [leavened goods] is sold there over Passover. There are additional reasons why the authority wants to remain in good standing with ultra-Orthodox politicians.”

Private investigator and attorney Ilanit Mendelson recently contacted the company that offers VIP services at the airport. She claimed to represent a rock star about to visit Israel, in an attempt to learn more about the special perks. The conversation also turned to the so-called admor procedures, and who is eligible for them. “You have to really be familiar with the IAA,” said the company’s representative. “It is a list that’s really hard to get onto. It’s a tight-knit group and decisions are made at the highest levels.”

Dr. Aviad Hacohen, dean of Sha’arei Mishpat Law College, also recently tried to find out from the IAA about the special privileges accorded to certain religious figures. He is considering turning to the courts to outlaw these procedures.

“There is a serious issue here,” he says. “Why grant these privileges only to rabbis and not to priests or Muslim clerics? What’s special about a rabbinical sage? This is discriminatory and high-handed. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were shady considerations at play here.”

For its part, the IAA responded by saying that, “there are a variety of groups requiring special treatment [at the airport], including cabinet ministers, official guests, unaccompanied children, sports teams, rabbis and artists. To facilitate the handling of these groups, special procedures were drawn up at Ben-Gurion International Airport, with the approval of the attorney general’s office and without contravening any laws. 

They were created in coordination with other agencies such as Customs, the Interior Ministry, its Population and Immigration Authority and Border Authority and the police. All these groups pay for the extra privileges, but are still subject to the same treatment as all other passengers in terms of security checks, customs and passport control, upon arrival and departure.

“The only [additional] privilege that the rabbis alone get is that they don’t transfer to ground transportation vehicles, and can bring a driver and one attendant with them. The other [special] procedures are available to any passenger who wishes to use VIP services and go through the Masada Lounge. 

As far as the handling of Rabbi Ifergan goes, any company that does not follow correct procedures could lose its license.”

The Ministry of Transportation, and its minister himself, would not respond to Haaretz’s requests for a response to this article.

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