Mondoweiss

Posted by Mondoweiss on May 18, 2013 in News Clips

A bill pushed by the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) that critics say would codify Israeli discrimination against American travelers is still on the table. But Palestine solidarity activists and their allies are ramping up their campaign to thwart it.

The bill in question is a reciprocal visa waiver program with Israel. But the legislative language would effectively give Israel the go-ahead to continue its practice of pointing to security concerns when it denies Palestinian- or Arab-Americans entry to the country.

The U.S. Campaign to End the Occupation and a host of other groups are now making a concerted effort to make sure the proposal doesn’t become the law of the land. The campaign against the legislation is being spearheaded by a coalition of peace and justice, Palestine solidarity, and Arab and Muslim groups.

Yesterday, the group sent out an open letter to all senators that was signed by 52 other organizations. The letter blasts the United States-Israel Strategic Partnership Act, the name of the AIPAC-backed bill that includes the visa waiver program.

It reads in part:

Currently, all 37 countries participating in the Visa Waiver Program must grant reciprocity to U.S. citizens and allow them to enter their countries without a visa. However, S.462 would exempt Israel from this requirement, holding it to a lower standard than all other countries. Instead of guaranteeing all U.S. citizens a reciprocal visa, the bill would allow Israel to enter the program after the United States has certified that it “has made every reasonable effort, without jeopardizing the security of the State of Israel, to ensure that reciprocal travel privileges are extended to all United States citizens.”

As is well documented... Israel systematically discriminates against
Palestinian-Americans, Arab-Americans, Muslim-Americans and other U.S. citizens from all ethnic and faith backgrounds who support Palestinian human and national rights by frequently denying them visas to travel to Israel and Occupied Palestinian Territory. When denying these U.S. citizens entry, Israel often subjects them to humiliating searches, intensive interrogations, and invasions of personal privacy, including demanding access to private email accounts.

Rather than hold Israel accountable for its ethnic, religious, and political profiling of U.S. citizens, S.462 would codify into law U.S. acceptance of Israel’s discrimination and allow it to continue to deny visas to U.S. citizens through its unique catch-all “reasonable effort” and “security” loopholes.

The U.S. Campaign to End the Occupation is also urging supporters to write and call their senators to oppose the legislation. “Your calls, emails, and media activism are critical in our effort to ensure that Congress does not bestow legitimacy on Israel's apartheid policies,” wrote Mike Coogan, the U.S. Campaign’s Legislative Coordinator, in an e-mail today. Other provisions of the bill include making Israel a “major strategic partner”--a designation not granted to any other country. 

The renewed activist efforts come as the case of Nour Joudah, a Palestinian-American teacher denied entry by Israel twice on the basis of unspecified “security” concerns, has received more attention in the form of a Daily Beast article. As we have reported, Joudah was stopped, interrogated and denied entry by Israeli border authorities twice, despite the fact that the Friends School, where she taught, has been extensively funded by the U.S. government. Congressional officials tried to facilitate her entry to Israel, but it was to no avail. Currently, Joudah’s case is being handled remotely by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign of Affairs, a move that came after she fought with the Israeli bureacracy and appealed her denial of entry.

Yesterday, Open Zion editor Ali Gharib and Ma’an News’ George Hale authored a detailed piece that gives voice to opponents of the AIPAC-backed bill.

Under the pending bill, Joudah’s discriminatory experience at the hands of Israel would be blessed by the United States. Gharib and Hale point out that the office of Senator Barbara Boxer, the lead sponsor of the bill in the Senate, has said that the United States-Israel Strategic Partnership Act would “certify that Israel is taking appropriate action to ensure that Americans receive reciprocal travel privileges.”

But if that were the case, Gharib and Hale point out, it’s unclear why “the language specific to Israel's entry into the program remains necessary.” Indeed, as the Jewish Telegraphic Agency’s Ron Kampeas noted, the bill would grant Israel entry into the visa-reciprocity program, in which American and Israeli travelers going to those respective countries would not need a visa to enter.

But Boxer’s bill includes this provision: Israel would become a member of the program after the U.S. government certified that the country “has made every reasonable effort, without jeopardizing the security of the State of Israel, to ensure that reciprocal travel privileges are extended to all United States citizens.” No other country has that security-related language attached to legislation granting them entry into the visa-waiver program.

Here’s more from Gharib and Hale, including striking information that the Arab American Anti-Discrimination Committee shared with them:

The special language for Israel in Boxer's bill, critics contend, would codify this discrimination against American citizens. Abed Ayoub, the director of legal and policy affairs with the Arab American Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC), said his group tracked Israeli entry denials from 2007 until late 2011. "We were getting somewhere around 100 calls a year when we were tracking this," he said, noting that all the complaints were from Americans. "One of the main reasons to cut back on those efforts was that the State Department was not listening to us. We were collecting the information, but nothing was happening with it." Other prominent Arab Americans agreed discrimination was a major problem: "I personally have undergone this behavior at the hands of the Israelis and it's totally unacceptable," said James Zogby, the president of the Arab American Institute in Washington, who is campaigning on the Hill to get co-sponsors to withdraw support from the bill. "Members of Congress need to know what they're doing." A centerpiece of the influential pro-Israel group AIPAC's legislative efforts, the bill has languished in committee since early March. But just this month four new Senators added their names to the bill, bringing the total to 28 co-sponsors. "The question is: does AIPAC decide to make a full court press?" Zogby said.

Joudah's case is all the more fraught, and the discrimination more acute, because she's an American citizen of Palestinian descent. Her ordeal tugs at the loose threads not only of the Israeli-American relationship, but at the core of the very conflict with the Palestinians. Palestinian Americans, though their families originate from the area, frequently complain of ethnically-tinged questioning and being denied entry to Israel or the Occupied Territories. U.S. citizens with Palestinian identification don't enjoy the same freedom of movement their American compatriots do in Israel and the land under its control. For all Palestinian Americans, Congress seems to heap favor on Israel at their expense.

Reham Barghouti, another Palestinian-American teacher at the Friends School and a friend of Joudah’s, told me last month:

“This is the only place in the world where I feel that it means nothing to be an American. It means absolutely nothing. If there was any other place that dealt with American citizens in this kind of way, there would be this whole giant uproar, right? But because it’s here, I guess, it doesn’t really matter.”

The Boxer bill is the clearest sign that Barghouti is right. Israeli discrimination against Arab and Palestinian travelers is routine--but that fact, as Barghouti notes, "doesn't really matter."

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