INTERVIEW: Jew-Baiting at JFK?
By Reuvain Borchardt
Liz Mair, a Republican political strategist and commentator, discusses a viral Twitter thread she posted last week alleging antisemitic behavior by officials at JFK airport in New York.
Mair wrote that while visibly Orthodox Jews are the most mistreated, anyone with Jewish-sounding names — including herself, a Scottish-American Catholic — were also subject to rude treatment.
Mair has done communications for the Republican National Committee, and for elected officials and political candidates including Carly Fiorina, Rick Perry, Rand Paul, Scott Walker and Roy Blunt.
Tell us about your experiences with TSA agents that led you to post this Twitter thread.
It was not only TSA agents, I would hasten to add.
This is the third time I’ve flown out of JFK within the last year that I’ve witnessed antisemitic behavior. People who check in passengers have been obviously rude to people who were identifiably Jewish — those who are obviously ultra-Orthodox.
They yell at them, order them around, point at them, and are uncourteous. No “please” or “thank you.” Anybody who does not look like an Orthodox Jew is treated very kindly: “please,” “thank you,” “sir,” “madam.” The discrepancy in behavior and treatment was really obvious, and borderline harassing. The last time we flew out to Heathrow, in January, I said to my husband, “The antisemitism situation in New York is getting ridiculous.” It was evident then, but that was kind of small fry compared to what we witnessed earlier this week.
You wrote that Jews were put into different lines than others.
You know how the security line at JFK Terminal 1 is like a huge rugby scrum.
There were three lines. One was very long, and two were shorter, for those flying in business or first class. We were flying business class, and we asked to be put into one of the shorter lines.
Basically, what was happening was, you had ultra-Orthodox Jews in one of those two lines and a bunch of blonde people in the other. She opened up our passports and our boarding passes, looked at our names, and put us in the line with the ultra-Orthodox Jews. And then the people who came behind us asked the same question. She opened up their passports. They had a Jewish name. And magically, they ended up in the same queue as us.
People who didn’t appear to be Jewish or who had the last name Smith or whatever seemed to be in a different line, which was moving twice as fast, by design.
Are you often mistaken for a Jew?
Oh, everybody thinks my name is Jewish. When I was growing up, my dad would tell me stories about how he would encounter antisemitic professors. He was once suspended from class; my dad gave some answer to a question that a professor didn’t like, and he turned around and said something to the effect of, “What are you, Mair — Jewish?” And my dad’s response was, “No, I’m the next best thing — I’m Scottish.” And the professor suspended him!
People ask my name, then they often ask where my family comes from, which, I think, in America is a relatively common thing. People are generally floored to find out that we’re Scottish. They always think “Mair” is like “Meyer” and that we’re German Jews.
Is your last name common in Scotland?
It’s pretty common. When I moved back to Scotland when I was 18, nobody thought I was German or Jewish or Spanish or any of the other things that I was confused for elsewhere. The name is actually derived from the same French word that “mayor” comes from. My family originally came over to Scotland from France in 1066. We were part of the Norman Conquest.
Anyway, everyone knows about the rise in antisemitism on Twitter. For years, I’ve been subjected to that, too. I get antisemitic hate mail all the time. So this wasn’t the first time I was mistreated because people thought I was Jewish. And, frankly, I wasn’t treated as badly as the obviously Orthodox Jewish people who were in the queue. I’m far more concerned about them than I am about my own treatment.
Did you confront any of the staff at the airport and ask, “Why are you treating people differently?”
I pointed out to the woman who appeared to be the TSA manager that the person who was supposed to be pulling from both lines kept pulling people from one line and never from the line I was in, and she made some cursory offhand comment, “Make sure you alternate,” but it accomplished nothing. I didn’t do anything beyond that, because every time I have ever seen anybody challenge them on anything, the automatic response is, “Is that a threat? It’s illegal to threaten our staff, it’s illegal to harass our staff, we need to get the police involved here.” I’m traveling with a 9-year-old son and don’t want to deal with that.
I’m sure there have been a lot of times where people who have been subjected to antisemitic abuse and worse have not stood up and fought back or said anything, because they’ve got their kid with them, and they don’t want to deal with the police or any other form of government power being used against them, frankly.
So that was as far as I took it.
But I also know that I’m in the privileged position of having something in the range of 50,000 Twitter followers. I know some people who are leaders in the Jewish community in various forms. I know people who are involved in efforts to fight antisemitism. And so my thought was, I could make a big stink about this, and have the cops come and arrest me in front of my kid, or threaten to do so, or we miss our flight by causing a fuss because TSA are absolutely willing to wield their power in whatever way they can. I mean, I’ve always had a problem with TSA. I’m a libertarian, I don’t endorse their methods or tactics. Frankly, I don’t really think that the agency should even exist in the form that it does.
If I raise a fuss in the airport, they might stop treating people terribly — just for the five minutes that I’m passing through.
But I don’t think this is a one-off occurrence.
I understand this has happened at other terminals at JFK. Since I wrote about it, I’ve heard from people indicating that this has happened to other people, mainly ultra-Orthodox, at JFK in different circumstances. I’ve also heard about it happening at LaGuardia. So I don’t think it’s an isolated occurrence. And, as much as part of me likes a good argument with government bureaucrats, I think probably the way that I handled it is actually better in terms of having people — who might be affected by this personally — become informed about it and be aware about it, and hopefully causing the TSA to actually do something about it. At least I got an email out of them. So that’s a good starting point.
Sen. Ted Cruz also responded to your tweet. He wrote, “Deeply disturbing and totally unacceptable if true. TSA please be ready to have some very candid conversations about this in the coming weeks and months.”
Oh, I did not know that he responded; thank you for telling me that. I’m in Egypt now; today I’ve been taking pictures of camels riding around in trucks.
But I did email with the TSA. To summarize what was a fairly lengthy email, the point that I tried to make to TSA was, the issue is not making it right with me. I’m not the 80-year-old guy who basically was being undressed down to his undershirt. I’m not the ultra-Orthodox, I presume rabbi, who’s sitting there where you can see his — I don’t even know the proper terminology —
I will rely on your knowledge. The fact that for 44 years people in America have been thinking that I’m Jewish has not actually resulted in me having a very good understanding of Judaism!
But there’s no security rationale for that. Also, in general, if somebody is 75 or older, there’s a whole bunch of TSA stuff that they don’t have to do, like removing whatever articles of clothing.
But when I see an elderly ultra-Orthodox woman nearly have to take her wig off, that is not acceptable.
So I’m glad if Ted Cruz is going to look into it — though frankly, I think it would be probably more useful and valuable if we didn’t have a senator from Texas focusing on that, but some elected officials from New York, New Jersey, or Connecticut focusing on it, because those are the people who use that airport quite commonly.
Is Chuck Schumer going to reply to a tweet from a Republican strategist?
Chuck Schumer sure likes winning lots of votes upstate where there are Republicans. He probably should.
Have you ever gone public about this issue in airports before? And more broadly, whether as a TV commentator or political strategist, have you engaged in any activism related to antisemitism in the past?
On this specifically, I have not, because until relatively recently, I hadn’t witnessed what appeared to be an identifiable pattern of antisemitism. Though I have spoken out repeatedly about stupid stuff and bad behavior by the TSA.
I’ve worked for Rand Paul; that probably tells you more or less what I think about the TSA and the Department of Homeland Security.
With that being said, I can have all the complaints that I want about the body scanning machines, and about security theater; those are substantively different to talking about actual antisemitism that is on display, not just with the TSA, but with other staff working in other parts of the airport.
Something bigger and different is going on here. Nick Gillespie from Reason — a fellow libertarian whom I consider a friend and ally and love his writing, and with whom I agree on almost everything policywise — responded to the effect of, let’s get rid of the Department of Homeland Security.
And I sort of said, sure, I agree with that, but that’s not going to deal with people being antisemitic. I don’t know specifically who employs all of them. But the fact that I’ve seen this across three different terminals, and it’s been with check-in people and other people who are working in the airport who are not employed by TSA, is a problem.
It’s a problem specifically because they can ask people to disrobe and generally treat people in a very personal, demeaning fashion.
This is a problem that goes beyond TSA.
I guess Nick’s point would probably be that the government’s always going to be abusive, so the more agencies and the more power it has, the more opportunities it has to be abusive.
I think it would be really nice if we lived in a society and culture where when people were given power, at least a certain proportion of them didn’t feel the need to wield it to the detriment of others, just for fun and games, and for their own personal sort of quasi-sadistic pleasure. But, unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be the state of the human condition. So, generally, giving government power to be telling people to disrobe is a bad idea, but setting aside that bad idea, it’s a further bad idea when people decide to use that power specifically to target Jews.
There are a couple of different problems, so I think we need to be clear about which ones we’re talking about here. There’s a libertarian critique, and then there’s a fighting-antisemitism critique.
As to the second part of your question, I don’t think professionally our firm has really ever done any work that touches on antisemitism. But we have worked for some candidates who had pretty strong pro-Israel records, and were very outspoken about problems with antisemitism.
I’ve also done work for Rand Paul, and I know plenty of people take the view that the history of the Paul family is not necessarily what they would like to see on a number of related issues. I’m not making any comment on that; people can research it, decide what they want.
But I will say from my personal standpoint that having been born with a last name that in this country is confused for being Jewish — in France it’s understood to be French, even though that’s not totally true; in Scotland it’s understood to be Scottish; and in Spain, people think it’s Spanish; and in Germany, people think I’m Jewish — I have always been significantly more sympathetic than I think a lot of Americans are to the plight of Jewish people, here and abroad.
Having had that experience, it’s hard to ignore the extent to which we do have a problem with antisemitism in society.
I think the worrying thing from my standpoint is that, around the New York area, which I’ve been living in since mid-2019, I feel like in the last year or so, it’s gotten way worse, and that’s part of the reason also that this needs to be treated seriously. I don’t know if this is a JFK-specific problem. I feel like there’s something more broad than this going on in the New York area.
It does need to be addressed specifically at airports because there are people who work in them who have the power of government backing them, and they can force people into very humiliating, demeaning, and stressful and scary situations. But we also have a real issue with violence being directed against Jews, like on the streets of Brooklyn. And that all needs to be addressed as well.
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