Posted on March 27, 2014 in Countdown

State Department Says Israel Doesn’t Qualify For the Visa Waiver Program

Our community knows all too well what it’s like to travel to Palestine and Israel and be treated horribly at the border. Many of our friends and family have been subjected to harassment, detainment, and deportation when traveling through Israeli checkpoints. For years we have brought this up with the State Department and last Friday State department spokeswoman Jen Psaki showed us the fruits of our advocacy campaign to raise awareness about the unjust treatment Americans receive when entering Israel. In response to a question about granting Israel entry into the U.S. Visa Waiver  program, Psaki said “The Department of Homeland Security and State remain concerned with the unequal treatment that Palestinian Americans and other Americans of Middle Eastern origin experience at Israel's border and checkpoints, and reciprocity is the most basic condition of the Visa Waiver Program." Booyah! This should have been the message all along - not just from the Administration but from Congress as well. Congress should not be proposing legislation that would reward Israel for discriminating against Americans; instead it should be protecting our rights. The State Department should be commended in this case for its commitment to protecting American civil rights because that is always what our issue with these bills has always been about. 

Thankfully, Alice is Not Going to Arabia Afterall

Coming to a TV near you (or not): “Alice in Arabia.” The show was sold as a “high-stakes drama” about an American teen kidnapped by her royal Saudi Arabian family and “forced to live behind the veil.” Yeah, right. Shortly after the tagline for this pilot got the stamp of approval from ABC execs and the pilot script was released, someone came to their senses realizing that the premise of the show is actually rife with racism, and probably not suitable for family audiences. While the pilot will never see the light of day, the show’s writer, former U.S. Army cryptologic linguist Brooke Eikmeier, had “noble intentions,” tweeting that the show was meant “to give a voice to Arabs and Muslims on American TV.” We will take Ms. Eikmeier at her word, but what does it say about our current state of affairs that someone thinks the kidnapping of an Arab American in an Arab country is the way to go? Eikmeier would have had to incorporate an M. Night Shamalan-esque plot twist to overcome the innate anti-Arab sentiments behind Alice’s circumstance. In light of all the controversy surrounding Alice in Arabia, a new mini-series that actually portrays Arab Americans as we really are, “Arab American Stories,” will be coming to public broadcasts around the nation, and can also be viewed online here

End ALL Bulk Data Collection, Not Just Some

The Obama Administration will release a legislative proposal on Friday that is expected to call for an end to the NSA's bulk collection of Americans' phone records. Earlier this year, the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board (PCLOB), an independent agency within the Executive Branch advising the President on the need for a balance to privacy and civil liberties in our counterterrorism programs, slammed the NSA's phone records program as illegal and called for it to be shutdown. The President's proposal is expected to fall short by likely only ending only the bulk collection of telephone records, which leaves the potential for bulk collection of many other types of data under Sec. 215 of the Patriot Act as well as bulk collection under other FISA authorities. We have serious concerns with the Administration's proposal as do other privacy advocates. The President appears to be fixing an abusive program but not the broad legal authorities that led to this abuse and will likely lead to others. AAI has endorsed the USA Freedom Act, a bill authored by Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) in the Senate and Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) in the House, which contains vital reforms to our intelligence apparatus and is the sole legislative proposal that will put an end to the bulk collection of Americans' records by the NSA and other government agencies and will protect our privacy rights as guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment.   

Upholding Pluralism in the Middle East

Arab Americans are all too familiar with the plight of Arab Christians as a result of political unrest and violence plaguing the Middle East. From the occupation in Palestine, to unrest in Egypt, to the war in Syria, to perpetual violence in Iraq, the Christian population in the region is dwindling at a rapid rate. Yet, despite the situation on the ground, the issue receives little attention from the U.S. public, American lawmakers, and the international community. Some people, unfortunately, don’t even know Arab Christians exist. Somehow they missed the more than two thousand-year-old memo that Christianity actually started in the Middle East. When U.S. lawmakers do weigh in on the situation facing Christians in the Middle East, they too often view the crisis through a narrow scope and neglect the nuances of the issue. Many are quick to place blame for the decline of Christian populations in the region solely on discrimination by Muslims. In reality, the situation is far more complicated. So, Arab American Institute President Jim Zogby and AAI National Policy Council member and Villanova professor, Marwan Kreidie set out on a two-day initiative at the Center for American Progress and Villanova University to raise awareness about how events in the Middle East are affecting ancient, indigenous Christian populations in the region. Check out our blog to listen to interviews and to watch panel discussions on the topic. 

Saudi Arabia Sending Mixed Signals Ahead of Obama Visit

President Obama meets with Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah in Riyadh later this week in a highly anticipated trip to help ease tensions with what U.S. Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes called “one of our most important relationships in the Middle East.” But as AAI President Jim Zogby notes, this relationship has become strained by transformative events reshaping the Middle East. Saudi Arabia also seems to be adrift in its own foreign policies. It works with Russia in Egypt while bashing Putin’s involvement in Syria in support of the Assad regime. It assists some Syrian opposition movements, while ordering other Islamist fighters to return home. Do we even need to mention the increasing rifts between members of the Gulf Cooperation Council that have complicated things further and even caused the U.S. to abandon efforts to plan a joint summit with Gulf leaders? Mix in the four potential national elections happening this year in Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon and Syria (which could reshape the balance of power in the region) with the United States’ continued hope for a nuclear deal with Iran and you can see why the Saudis are apprehensive. The U.S. and Saudi Arabia have shared economic goals and a common interest in preventing the rise of al Qaeda in Syria, but the Saudis have been surprisingly vocal about their laundry list of demands and grievances with the Obama administration while attempting to “go it alone” and pursue their own regional interests. So although Obama’s trip is much needed, we can tell it’s also going to be undeniably awkward. 


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