The Consular Official called us, his voice severe. What were we up to, he wanted to know. Why did we lie to him?
“What’s he talking about?” we wondered.
“You told us you were the Department of Education,” he accused.
There were 5 of us, all on official government travel. We had indeed told him the day before that we were from the United States Department of Education. Now, he’d read in a newspaper that we were really the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) sneaking into the country under false pretenses.
A great beginning to a novel? No, a true story of an official government trip. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
We’d spent months planning this trip to Israel, taking care to keep it under wraps. We’d applied for our official government passports from the same U.S. Department of State that now challenged our identities. We’d arrived in the country quietly, the day before, and proceeded to the Embassy where we enjoyed the comforts of the Ambassador’s office while he was away skiing. The Consular Official had been gracious to us then. He had even offered us a driver to show us buildings we would be visiting later in the week. And that is where something went terribly wrong. Outside one of those buildings, a man stood staring as we drove past. A man who must have recognized the Embassy car and one of its occupants.
Perhaps it was the same person who took the briefcase. The first briefcase that is, the one that disappeared in the airport. Whoever he was, he was almost certainly responsible for getting that story into the newspaper.
In New York, it was not unusual for our people to be followed by men with cell phones. But in New York, our team was on its home turf. Here in a foreign country, we not only had to deal with the habits of the locals, there were protocols governing our every step. The West Bank was almost entirely off limits. To go to the West Bank on an official U.S. government trip to Israel could be (mis)construed as United States recognition of the West Bank as a legitimate part of Israel. This Jordanian territory invaded by Israel in the 1967 war and hotly disputed ever since is a political no man’s land in the eyes of the U.S. government. So we were as much as forbidden to go there.
Anything over the Green Line had its own special vocabulary. Going there required special notice and the use of an “LAV” or light armored vehicle. It was strongly discouraged. Although nothing dangerous was going on in Gaza at the time of our visit, going there was discouraged as a general precaution because of the unpredictability of trouble erupting in the region.
Yet what seemed to us to be the most immediate potential threat didn’t bother the diplomatic officials at all. As we sat in the Ambassador’s office in Jerusalem, word came in that President Clinton, freshly inaugurated, had authorized resumption of the bombing in Iraq started by his predecessor. Baghdad was but 565 miles away, we reasoned. Its government might get a little irritated that the United States was dropping bombs on it; and as its leaders looked around for nearby targets they could attack in revenge, we suspected they might spot Israel. During the Persian Gulf War, Iraq seemed to have zeroed right in on it with its scud missiles. And Israel would be a two for one target, providing the Arab population of Iraq not only with a U.S. ally to retaliate against but a long-hated Jewish neighbor to torment as well. Neither our diplomatic guides nor the local population seemed worried though. The Ambassador wasn’t even called back from vacation.
Jerusalem was another politically touchy area. Unwilling to recognize the city as the political capital of Israel, the United States maintains an Embassy there but the official diplomatic tie to Israel is established through the Consulate in Tel Aviv. It was that Consulate where we spent half of the second day of our trip, defending ourselves against carefully placed allegations that we were undercover FBI agents, not Education representatives. The party who arranged the publication of that information recognized the Consulate’s vigilance in monitoring news from the New York Jewish press. A clever action indeed to place the article in a New York newspaper, much more believable than an article suddenly appearing in an Israeli newspaper and much less likely to lead to unwanted repercussions to those who arranged its publication.
Proving a negative is harder than proving a positive. We had IDs, of course. But did they prove we were who we said we were, once someone alleged we were really undercover operatives? We had an office back in the United States. But wouldn’t an FBI agent posing as an Education official be smart enough to establish a connection with the office used for cover? Of course, the paperwork all bore the Department of Education letterhead. Wouldn’t it, either way? As for the FBI, they would deny we were theirs if they were trying to keep our identities secret, no?
We unruffled the Consular feathers as best we could before setting about our mysterious work. Our work might not have been quite so mysterious if sudden panic in the regional office back home hadn’t canceled out the budget for our Hebrew translator. We perused banks of mailboxes, guidebook open to the alphabet page, matching symbols like spy-crazed ten year olds intent on cracking a code. Only in our case, we were looking at dozens of mailboxes, trying to make a match between initial letter sounds. Once we found all the boxes with that initial letter sound, we studied the rest of the Hebrew symbols on each mailbox to see which ones would most likely produce a sound similar to the English name. One of our party spoke some Yiddish. When the task of decoding proved insufficient or too time consuming, she knocked on doors and asked in which apartment we might find our interview subjects. We trudged up and down stairs to find them, wondering who would speak fluent English, who Yiddish, and who none of the above.
This language exercise was excellent preparation for what lay ahead. For in a few days time, we found ourselves passing Hebrew language destination signs at highway speed. When we had driven the approximate distance to our destination, we scrutinized the passing signs. We selected our turnoffs by comparing the initial Hebrew letter in the city name on the sign with its English language equivalent. Once, when a sign announced turns in two different directions for two different cities beginning with “R,” we made our decision based on the length of the word.
Whether we started out in the sleuthing business or not, we had ended up in it.