The Electronic Intifada
30 April 2014
On 13 September 2012, an Israeli soldier pointed his gun at an American college student and ordered her to board a bus back to Jordan.
The student, Yara Karmalawy, was attempting to travel to the occupied West Bank and present-day Israel as part of a university-sponsored trip with other students from the University of California, Santa Cruz. Instead of being admitted like the other thirty students, Yara was disparaged, threatened and denied entry because of her ethnicity.
Unfortunately, this type of treatment by Israel is all too common for Americans of Arab and Muslim heritage, as well as those critical of Israel’s policies toward Palestinians. Those affected by Israel’s policies include college students, world-renowned university professors, teachers, architects, clergy, people visiting sick relatives, married couples giving birth, humanitarian workers and human rights monitors.
Even those who can trace their ancestry to signers of the US constitution have not been spared from Israel’s discriminatory policies. George Bisharat, a law professor and descendant of William Samuel Johnson, has been routinely mistreated by Israeli officials, an experience he shared in a powerful 28 April piece for The Los Angeles Times.
In the last year, Israel’s discriminatory policies have come under increased scrutiny as it attempts to join the US Visa Waiver Program. This program allows citizens from participating countries to visit the US for up to ninety days without a visa and requires that the same privileges be afforded to American citizens visiting countries in the program.
The program has a number of requirements for participating countries, and Israel’s inability to meet at least two of the requirements has thus far thwarted its inclusion.
The main obstacle has been Israel’s violation of the reciprocity requirement, which requires Israel to admit Americans, regardless of their religion or ethnicity.
In recent weeks, the State Department has reiterated that Israel is in violation of the reciprocity requirement, and its spokesperson stated at an 18 April press briefing that “the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of State both remain concerned with reciprocal travel privileges for US citizens due to the unequal treatment that Palestinian Americans and other Arab Americans receive at Israel’s borders and checkpoints.”
Last year, a number of lawmakers introduced legislation, backed by the major Israel lobby group AIPAC, known as the United States Israel Strategic Partnership Act of 2013.
It called for Israel’s entry in the Visa Waiver Program but exempted it from the reciprocity requirement, prompting journalist Glenn Greenwald to observe in The Guardian that the bill’s sponsors, including California Senator Barbara Boxer, were seeking to “codify Israel’s discrimination against Palestinian-, Muslim- and Arab-Americans into US law.”
Drafts of the legislation included a reciprocity exemption in both the House and Senate versions, but after wrangling among lawmakers, the reciprocity exemption was removed from the House version.
Over the last year Israeli officials have proffered a multitude of explanations for Israel’s discrimination against and mistreatment of US citizens. At various times the Israeli government has claimed that its discriminatory policies are for security purposes; are necessitated by the 1993 Oslo accords; only occur at Ben Gurion airport; and can be eased if Israel is allowed into the Visa Waiver Program.
Although exact figures are hard to come by, the scale of Israel’s discrimination is by all accounts substantial. According to the Arab American Institute (AAI), an organization that has been challenging Israel’s discriminatory policies for decades, the number of US citizens denied entry could be as high as 120,000. AAI has been collecting testimonies from US citizens who have been mistreated and has been following up with members of Congress and the State Department. A number of the testimonies AAI has collected are also listed on their website.
In New York, lawmakers like Senator Charles Schumer and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand have done nothing to challenge Israel’s appalling mistreatment of constituents like Najwa Doughman and Sasha Al-Sarabi.
Instead, many lawmakers have demanded a review of how US tourist visa applications from Israelis are processed, and have pressured the State Department to show more flexibility on the requirement that Israel treat all Americans equally.
While various federal agencies have expressed their concern over Israel’s possible entry into the Visa Waiver Program, state lawmakers should also be concerned that Israel’s treatment of their residents violates local civil rights laws and the terms of economic cooperation agreements that at least 33 US states have signed with Israel.
Israel’s treatment of Missouri resident Sandra Tamari — who was denied entry and deported — would appear to be in direct contravention of that state’s pact with Israel, known as the Missouri-Israel Cooperative Agreement.
Part of that agreement’s purpose is to improve tourism between Missouri and Israel. Given Israel’s systemic discrimination against US citizens, providing Israel with beneficial treatment under the terms of this agreement directly contravenes state lawmakers’ duty to uphold residents’ rights under the Missouri Human Rights Act.
Article five of a similar agreement between Massachusetts and Israel specifically states, “each party shall accord fair and equitable treatment to the individuals, government agencies, and other Entities of the other party engaged in the pursuit of activities under this Agreement.”
Other state officials, including California Governor Jerry Brown, have also enabled Israel’s policies by signing tourism and economic cooperation agreements without first ensuring that the civil rights of California residents are being upheld by Israel.
As US citizens like Yara Karmalawy, Sandra Tamari and George Bisharat continue to face discrimination, Israel should not only be barred from entering the Visa Waiver Program, but state lawmakers should also consider suspending agreements with Israel until its policies comport with local and federal civil rights laws.
Mike Coogan is the legislative coordinator with the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation.