The man without a country
by Mark Feldman
The Man Without a Country is a celebrated short story written exactly 150 years ago.
It’s about an American soldier who renounces his country during a trial for treason and is consequently sentenced to spend the rest of his days at sea.
When Edward Everett Hale penned the story in 1863 for The Atlantic , his vivid creation of Lt. Philip Nolan at the treason trial of Aaron Burr resonated deeply within the US, deep in the middle of their Civil War.
Nolan was being tried as an accomplice, and during his testimony, he angrily shouts: “I wish I may never hear of the United States again!” An easier sentence had never been passed. The judge, in shock at Nolan’s announcement, upon his conviction, sentenced him to spend the rest of his life aboard US Navy ships, in exile, with no right to ever set foot on American soil again.
Fast forward to today and Edward Snowden, stripped of his US passport, has been traipsing the transit area corridors at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport, stuck in limbo. It’s been a month since Snowden exposed top secret US surveillance programs and hopped on a plane to Hong Kong to avoid certain arrest.
Persecuted or set to be prosecuted, after publicly acknowledging his giddy role in leaking the documents, he boarded a plane to Moscow aiming to catch a plan to Havana, Cuba, where he thought he could live out his days sipping rum and smoking cigars. US authorities stripped him of his passport, and President Vladmir Putin of Russia said “nyet” when Snowden showed up in Russia hoping to switch planes to a sunnier climate.
Presumably debriefed by Russian intelligence personnel to gain access to these sensitive documents, the beleaguered whistle blower was forced to spend his days and nights in a transit area at the Moscow airport.
Once Cuba said “no, gracias,” his hopes turned to flying to Quito and joining famed WikiLeaks whistle blower Julian Assange, holed up in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. But with US Vice President Joe Biden’s request that the country reject Snowden’s asylum bid and the subsequent backtracking by Ecuadorian officials, the countries willing to offer shelter to Snowden are dwindling away.
MOST OF us know that the pen is mightier than the sword, and one such ‘penned’ item is a passport.
A passport is nothing more than a document, issued by a national government, which certifies the identity and nationality of its holder for the purpose of international travel. The basic elements of identity contained in all standardized passports include information about the holder, including name, date of birth, gender and place of birth.
However, a passport does not of itself entitle the passport holder entry into another country. Yet it does normally entitle the owner to return to the country that issued the passport – where Snowden most likely will end up.
So when Jack contacted me with the plea of his stranded brother in the transit area of Heathrow Airport in London, historical references rushed into my mind. Like many expats residing in Israel, the surest way of having family members residing abroad visit is to plan a celebration in the Holy Land.
Be it a bar mitzva or a wedding, those life events are hard to avoid, and Jacks’ brother was no exception.
With a bar mitzva planned far in advance, Jack’s brother, Aaron, scoured the Internet, conspired with travel consultants and concluded that the least expensive, least cumbersome option was to fly British Airways from New York to Israel via London.
Big Brother and his family procured the tickets, postulating that the layover in London was worth the hundreds of dollars it would save them.
In JFK airport, at the BA ticket counter, their electronic tickets and passports were presented, bags were checked in all the way to Ben-Gurion Airport, boarding passes were printed – and up, up and away they flew. Upon arrival at Heathrow, they were herded into a transit area where their travel documents were inspected. Slowly turning the passports from side to side, the immigration official looked up and gravely announced that one of the passengers could not continue to Israel. Seems that Aaron’s passport was not valid for more than six months and thus he would not be allowed into the Jewish state.
Yes, Israel, that Light Among Nations, that democratic bastion, allowing all eligible to move to Israel under the Law of Return, had a clear and concise codicil in their law.
ALL TOURISTS entering the State of Israel must possess a travel document valid for more than six months from their date of entry. Failure to comply will result in immediate deportation.
Like a blow to the stomach, Aaron seemed shellshocked.
When he purchased his tickets online, no mention was made of this regulation. His credit card was gleefully charged and his e-ticket transmitted.
Sadly, this is not the first time my intercession has been requested. Too many customers naively give out their passport information, rarely asking if a visa is needed unless prodded, and even more rarely asking how long one’s passport will be valid for. Customers are stopped at airports throughout North America by keen airline representatives when the passport’s validity does not meet the State of Israel’s requirements. Their vigilance is based on the simple of tenet of aviation law: If an airline brings in someone who will be denied entry, the airline is financially liable to fly said client out of the country, with the cost to borne only by the airline.
It was a Friday morning in London; time was ticking away and moreover, the later British Airways flight that morning was chock full. The evening flight to Tel Aviv would arrive after Shabbat, something that Aaron, an observant Jew, would not consider.
I quickly pointed out two salient facts: Firstly, BA was legally obligated to either get him to Israel or back to New York, as they never should have permitted him to embark when legally he could not get into the country.
Secondly, I instructed Jack to somehow, some way contact the Israeli Embassy in London. What was needed was some type of permission allowing Aaron into Israel, with the caveat that he obtain a valid US passport prior to his departure. Embassy officials would need to quickly get his information to police representatives at Ben-Gurion Airport. Friday morning is not the best day to locate officials, but once more the Israeli Foreign Ministry came through and gave their one-time permission to allow him to enter the country.
British Airways, once made cognizant of their complicity, was kind enough to put him on an El Al flight that arrived in Tel Aviv a good two hours before the advent of Shabbat.
The simcha was stupendous, a new emergency passport was provided and his return flight was uneventful.
Clearly it is far better to have one’s country backing you, rather than declaring you persona non grata.
Mark Feldman is the CEO of Ziontours Jerusalem.