Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, August 2014, Pages 61-62

Waging Peace

Israeli Discrimination and the U.S. Visa Waiver Program

Several activist and religious organizations sponsored a May 21 briefing at the Russell Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill to examine proposed Senate legislation that would admit Israel into the Visa Waiver Program. If passed, the United States-Israel Strategic Partnership Act of 2013 (S. 462) would permit Israelis to enter the U.S. without having to acquire a 90-day U.S. tourist visa. More controversially, the legislation also exempts Israel from the Visa Waiver Program’s reciprocity agreement, meaning that Israel would be permitted to arbitrarily deny entry to U.S. citizens.

Speakers at the briefing opposed the legislation, fearing that this exemption would permit Israel to continue its discriminatory practices against some U.S. travelers, particularly those of Arab or Muslim heritage.

Congress must not allow Israel into the Visa Waiver program until it agrees to treat U.S. citizens equally and with respect, speakers maintained. “Having a political perspective that is not aligned with the Israeli government should not be cause for refusing entry into the country,” said Donna Nevel, a Jewish Voice for Peace board member. “That would not be acceptable anywhere else and should not be acceptable for Israel.”

Many of her fellow Jews oppose Israel’s discriminatory policies, Nevel said. “We do not support the entry of Israel in the U.S. Visa Waiver Program as long as it continues its policy of discrimination,” she explained.

Both blogger Nour Joudah and Sandra Tamari, a steering committee member of the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation, gave firsthand accounts of Israel’s treatment of U.S. citizens. Both women are Palestinian­ Americans and have been denied entry into Israel.

Tamari said that she was interrogated no fewer than five times at the Tel Aviv airport and, when she called on the U.S. Embassy for help, was told that, because of her Palestinian heritage, there was nothing that they could do.

“[The Department of] State claims that they have no power,” lamented Tamari, “and now Congress seeks to codify Israel’s racism into U.S. law by granting a visa waiver with loopholes to allow Israel to continue to discriminate against U.S. citizens like me.”

Tamari said that U.S. lawmakers must reject these policies and noted that some have proposed amendments to the bill that would call on Israel to provide equal treatment to all U.S. citizens. “I don’t see how this would be possible when Israel sees all Palestinians as a demographic threat,” she pointed out.

Joudah invited the audience members to ponder a fictitious scenario in which Israeli travelers were given the same treatment that some Palestinian-Americans face. What would happen, she asked, if an Israeli citizen approached U.S. customs and was denied entry based on his political affiliation, race or religion? “At no point during this process will the Israeli citizen have the support of the Israeli Embassy or government to advocate on his or her behalf. The arriving Israeli will be told that there is nothing the Israeli Embassy or government at large can do to help,” hypothesized Joudah.

“Is this starting to sound outrageous or offensive yet, that it would be OK for the United States government to treat the Israeli citizens that way?” she asked. “That is the tip of the iceberg of what American citizens endure at the Israeli borders or at Ben-Gurion Airport.”

Joudah concluded by saying: “The U.S. and Israel may hope to make Palestinians forget where we are from and who we are….But it is [clear] even after generations of exile that we will never forget and we will return.”            

Gabriella Patti

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