This past week, a liberal Israeli daily newspaper, Haartz, quoted a senior US official in Jerusalem who said that concern with Israel’s discriminatory treatment of Palestinian-Americans seeking to enter the West Bank was unrelated to Israel’s petition to enter the US Visa Waiver Program. They were two different issues, the official stated.
The article upset me so much that I wrote to Secretary of State Antony Blinken demanding an explanation. I reminded him that the two issues are indeed related: The essential condition for admittance into the US Visa Waiver Program (VWP), which allows foreign citizens to enter the United States for up to 90 days without a visa, is reciprocity. Any country entering into the VWP must agree to provide US citizens nondiscriminatory treatment, just as they would expect their citizens to be received by the US.
In 2014, the last time Israel sought entry into the program, the State Department rejected their request, citing Israel’s history of discrimination of American citizens of Arab descent, especially Palestinian-Americans, as their reason..
Over the years, I’ve fielded hundreds of complaints from Arab Americans, who’ve provided us affidavits of their treatment while trying to enter Israel-Palestine. They have been harassed and interrogated for hours. Some were detained for a day, denied entry, and deported. Israeli officials told Palestinian-Americans, even those born in the US, that Israel didn’t recognize them as Americans. They were considered to be Palestinians and therefore had to leave the country, secure a Palestinian ID, and enter through Jordan. Here at the Arab American Institute, we’ve complained to the State Department demanding that our government insist that our rights as American citizens be protected.
Past secretaries of state—most notably Madeleine Albright and Condoleezza Rice—have forcefully raised this issue with the Israelis, to no avail. The best we were able to get was a State Department “Travel Advisory” warning that American citizens of Arab descent, especially those of Palestinian descent, can expect to be treated differently than other US visitors. This acknowledgment of a problem, without doing anything to correct it, only added insult to injury.
An additional concern, unrelated to the VWP, is the fact that Arab Americans, as citizens, should receive the same protections our government offers to all other citizens. The first page of the US passport says that the secretary of state “hereby requests all whom it may concern to permit the citizen/national of the United States named herein to pass without delay or hindrance and in case of need to give all lawful aid and protection.” And in the 1951 US-Israel Treaty on “Friendship, Commerce, and Navigation,” both parties agree to guarantee to the rights of each other’s citizens when visiting their countries, including the rights to “travel therein freely; and to reside at places of their choice, enjoy liberty of conscience…free from unlawful molestations of every kind…the most constant protection and security.” From our 40 years of work dealing with the discriminatory treatment of Arab Americans traveling to Israel-Palestine, it’s clear that commitments found on our passports and in the treaty are, as the phrase goes, “honored more in the breach than their observance.”
While we assumed that the State Department had put to rest the issue of Israel’s admission into the VWP in 2014, it is once again center stage. Israel has renewed its request to be admitted and the Biden administration, at least in its public statements, appears inclined to grant their request.
Has anything changed? Given the recent experience of Maya Berry, executive director of the Arab American Institute, the answer seems to be a resounding “No!”
A few weeks ago, Berry was in the Middle East with her children. She had taken them to her ancestral home in Lebanon while in the region for work-related meetings. Since she had a free day in Jordan on June 11, she planned a 24-hour visit to the West Bank and Jerusalem where she hoped to pray at Al-Aqsa, go to the Ibrahim Mosque in Hebron, and then spend the night in Bethlehem. What should have been a quick and rewarding trip turned into a nightmare—one that is tragically all too common for Arab Americans visiting their holy land.
Berry and her two college-age children spent hours being rudely interrogated by Israeli border control officials at the Allenby Bridge crossing from Jordan to the West Bank. They were asked invasive questions about their Lebanese ancestry—with one of the officials even correcting Berry’s pronunciation of her own name—all while being scolded for responding to the guard in English rather than his requested Arabic. She was separated from one of her children who was questioned about his middle name, his ethnicity, and his faith. The Israeli official even took his phone and looked through his photos.
After all of this, they finally gained entry and were able to proceed to Jerusalem, where Berry and her children would fulfill their dream of praying at Al-Aqsa. But then they set out for Hebron, where the nightmare continued. There they spent another three hours dealing with the same indignities at a checkpoint near the Ibrahim Mosque. In all, one-third of their entire visit was spent being subjected to humiliating treatment at the hands of Israelis.
In Hebron, right near the mosque where an extremist Jewish settler massacred 29 and wounded more than 100 Palestinians who were praying during Ramadan in 1994, they were accosted by both gun-toting settlers and foreign Jewish pilgrims who threatened and harassed them. Ubiquitous armed Israeli patrols stood by and did little to protect them. The experience was traumatizing and infuriating.
From the way Maya Berry and her children were treated—and the way in which other Arab Americans will surely be during the summer travel season—it doesn’t seem that Israel is ready to ensure that the rights of Arab Americans will be respected and protected by Israel. They treat us as if we are second-class US citizens.
The question I have for the Biden Administration is: Will you honor the terms of the VWP and deny Israel’s request? Or will you give in to Israel, throw Arab Americans under the bus, and deny us the equal protection we deserve as American citizens?