In May last year, I traveled to Israel on an interfaith delegation with Palestinians and Israelis who were working in support of peace and coexistence. Upon arrival at Israel’s Ben Gurion airport, I was detained, questioned for eight hours, told to sign into my email account so Israeli officials could view its contents, and then deported back to the United States. Prior to being deported, Israeli officials accused me of being a terrorist and the U.S. Embassy informed me there was nothing they could do to help because I was not Jewish.
While receiving such treatment by Israel was deeply offensive, the response from my own government was even more disturbing. The experience left me wondering: Has the U.S. adopted Israel’s racial and religious profiling tactics to discriminate against Arab and Muslim Americans? Nearly a year later, members of Congress provided an alarming response.
In March, Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Roy Blunt, R-Mo., introduced the U.S.-Israel Strategic Partnership Act of 2013. Instead of condemning Israel’s actions and calling on embassies to do everything in their power to protect U.S. passport holders, this legislation would legalize Israel’s racist immigration policies and routine discrimination against American citizens.
Section 9 of the U.S.-Israel Strategic Partnership Act would allow Israel to participate in the U.S. visa waiver program, enabling Israeli citizens to visit the U.S. for 90 days without first obtaining a tourist visa. Normally the visa waiver program would require that participating countries extend similar privileges to U.S. citizens, but the Senate version of the U.S.-Israel Strategic Partnership Act contains an exemption that would allow Israel to arbitrarily deny entrance to U.S. citizens under the rubric of national security. In other words, Israeli officials could continue to do to others exactly what they did to me.
In addition to my own experience last May, let me share two other examples from the past year that paint a clear picture of the type of U.S. citizens that Israel considers a national security threat.
In January, Nour Joudah, a Palestinian-American, was denied entry back into the West Bank at the Israeli-controlled Allenby Crossing, despite having obtained a multi-entry visa through USAID to teach English at a Quaker-run school in Ramallah. Joudah contacted her member of Congress, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, who called the Israeli embassy and then advised Joudah to enter through Israel’s Ben-Gurion airport. When Joudah landed at Ben Gurion airport, she was detained, questioned and deported back to Jordan the next day.
Last month, Adam Shapiro, the co-founder of a human rights organization supporting Palestinian rights, was going to Israel to witness the birth of his child when he was denied entry on the basis of national security.
Many Americans have already been discriminated against by Israel because of their race, religion, or perceived support for Palestinian human rights, and this legislation would essentially codify these practices into U.S. law. Rep. Keith Ellison, D-Minn., recently expressed concerns about such a move, noting for a recent Congressional Quarterly article that “American citizens deserve to travel without fear of being turned away based on their race, religion, or countries they have visited. Denying law-abiding citizens does nothing to advance understanding between countries or the cause of peace.”
Although Jim Crow laws have long since been overturned, the introduction of legislation that renders some Americans second-class citizens makes one wonder whether members of Congress would also support laws requiring some Americans to sit on the back of the plane, or drink from different water fountains on the way to Israel’s detention centers.
Hopefully the 77 senators who have not co-sponsored this legislation will be able to defeat it, and will also be willing to speak out against the bigoted view it represents. In the interest of equality, human rights, and respect for diversity, I urge Congress to publicly oppose any legislation that would discriminate on the basis of race, religion, or the rightful exercise of free speech.
Sandra Tamari lives in the Metro East area and is a member of the St. Louis Palestine Solidarity Committee.