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Insulted and angry

Oct 09,2023 - Last updated at Oct 09,2023

When a Department of Homeland Security senior official called with a heads-up about the Biden administration’s formal announcement of Israel’s admission into the US Visa Waiver Programme (VWP), knowing my opposition because of Israel’s history of discriminatory treatment of Arab Americans, he said, I know you are disappointed. I replied, I’m not disappointed. I’m insulted and angry.

I could see the faces and hear the voices of hundreds of Arab Americans who over decades have recounted their stories of being denied entry into Israel or hours-long interrogation and humiliation by Israeli immigration personnel.

I personally experienced this treatment in the 1990s while running a project for vice president Al Gore designed to support the then-new peace process. On one visit, I almost missed a dinner with Gore and the Israeli Knesset, after being detained and interrogated for hours about my father’s Lebanese origins (he emigrated to the US in 1922). This behaviour was repeated on my departure. On hearing about this harassment, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was so upset that she raised the issue with her Israeli counterpart.

In the years that followed, this Israeli behaviour continued, and worsened.

In 2014, when some members of Congress pushed for the VWP for Israel, the State Department quashed the idea, noting that Israel’s discriminatory treatment of Arab Americans precluded its admission.

I was pleased that early conversations with the Biden campaign resulted in a statement of commitments to Arab Americans: A Biden-Harris administration will confront discriminatory policies that single out Arab Americans and cast entire communities under suspicion, and “Joe Biden will protect the Constitutional right of our citizens to free speech. He also does not support efforts by any democracy to criminalise free speech and expression which is why he spoke out against Israel’s decision to deny entry to American lawmakers because they favor boycotting Israel.”

Against this backdrop, early signs that the administration was entertaining admitting Israel into the VWP, despite no change in its treatment of Arab American visitors, troubled me. Biden officials assured us that Israel would never be admitted without passing a key programme provision, the statutory requirement demanding full reciprocity between the US and VWP countries.

Then late summer, US and Israeli officials signed a Memorandum of Understanding” (MOU) regarding conditions for allowing Israel into the programme. A leaked draft indicated that the US allowed Israelis to redefine reciprocity, focusing on a small number of Palestinian Americans who had agreed to Israeli demands to travel on a Palestinian ID, not their US passport. The MOU said nothing about the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Americans who do not have or want this document, or the millions of other Arab Americans who want to visit the Holy Land.

A six-week test period, to see if Israel would pass the reciprocity test, was focused on Israel’s allowing US citizens with Palestinian IDs to use Ben Gurion Airport.

The MOU did not discuss or even mention: harassing interrogations of Arab American visitors after entry or on departure; US citizens with Palestinian IDs being forced to enter with their Palestinian documents so that within the occupied lands, they have no protections of American citizenship; US citizens (Arab, Black, Muslim, Christian, Jewish) banned from entry because of their political views on the Israeli-Palestinian issue; and the impossibility of reciprocal policies with a country engaged in a military occupation.

Because the test Israel constructed, with US acquiescence, applied to a small subset of the affected community and would be in effect for such a short period, the fix was clearly in. The administration allowed Israel to dumb down the meaning of reciprocity, and to pass its self-written test.

I have indicated to administration officials and members of Congress: The issue is not Israel. It is whether our president will protect the rights of Arab American citizens; our government will honour the pledge found in our passports and enshrined in the Constitution’s equal protection clauses; and our president will keep his promise to fight discriminatory policies and those penalising US citizens free speech.

Israel passed its self-written test, but the Biden administration failed to honour both the statutory requirement of the VWP and its pledge to Arab Americans. That’s why I’m insulted and angry.


The writer is president of the Washington-based Arab American Institute

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