Last week, an Israeli liberal daily newspaper, haartz, cited a senior US official in Jerusalem who said concern about Israel’s discriminatory treatment of Palestinian Americans wishing to enter the West Bank was not related to Israel’s petition to enter the US Visa Waiver Program. They were two different issues, the official said.
The article bothered me so much that I wrote Secretary of State Antony Blinken demanding an explanation. I reminded him that the two issues are indeed related: The essential condition for joining the US Visa Waiver Program (VWP), which allows foreign nationals to enter the United States for up to 90 days without a visa, is reciprocity. Any country participating in the VWP must agree to provide non-discriminatory treatment to US citizens, just as they expect their citizens to be received by the US.
In 2014, the last time Israel sought entry into the program, the State Department rejected its application, citing Israel’s history of discrimination against American citizens of Arab descent, especially Palestinian-Americans, as a reason.
Over the years, I have received hundreds of complaints from Arab Americans, who have provided us with sworn statements of their treatment while trying to enter Israel-Palestine. They were pursued 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 did not recognize them as Americans. They were considered Palestinians and therefore had to leave the country, obtain a Palestinian identity and enter through Jordan. Here at the Arab American Institute, we complain to the State Department demanding that our government insist that our rights as American citizens be protected.
Former secretaries of state – most notably Madeleine Albright and Condoleezza Rice – have vigorously raised this issue with the Israelis, to no avail. The best we could 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 from 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 be afforded the same protections that our government offers all other citizens. The first page of the US passport says that the Secretary of State “requests all interested parties to allow the citizen/national of the United States mentioned herein to pass without delay or impediment and, if necessary, give all legal assistance and protection.” And in the 1951 US-Israel Treaty on “Friendship, Commerce and Navigation”, both parties agree to guarantee the rights of each other’s citizens when visiting their countries, including the right to “travel freely; and to reside in places of their choosing, to enjoy freedom of conscience… free from unlawful harassment 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 is clear that the commitments found in our passports and in the treaty are, as the phrase goes, “honored more in violation than in observance.” .
While we assumed that the State Department had closed the issue of Israel’s admission to the VWP in 2014, it is once again center stage. Israel has renewed its application for admission and the Biden administration, at least in its public statements, seems inclined to grant its application.
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 kids. She took them to her ancestral home in Lebanon while she was in the region for work-related meetings. As 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 in 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 has turned into a nightmare – one that is tragically all too common for Arab Americans visiting her sacred land.
Berry and his two college-age sons spent hours being rudely interrogated by Israeli border control officials at the Allenby Bridge, which crossed Jordan into the West Bank. They were given invasive questions about their Lebanese ancestry – with one of the staff even correcting Berry’s pronunciation of his own name – while being reprimanded for responding to the guard in English instead of the Arabic requested. She was separated from one of her children who was asked about her middle name, her ethnicity and her faith. The Israeli officer even took out her phone and looked at pictures of her.
After all this, they were finally able to get inside and were able to head to Jerusalem, where Berry and his sons would fulfill their dream of praying in Al-Aqsa. But then they left 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, a third of his entire visit was spent being subjected to humiliating treatment at the hands of Israelis.
In Hebron, just outside the mosque where an extremist Jewish settler massacred 29 and wounded more than 100 Palestinians praying during Ramadan in 1994, they were approached by armed 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 other Arab Americans are sure to be during the summer travel season — it doesn’t seem like Israel is ready to ensure that the rights of Arab Americans are respected and protected by Israel. They treat us as if we are second-class American 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 American Arabs under the bus, and deny us the equal protection we deserve as American citizens?