Israel On The Hill

05.16.13

Critics Fear Visa Waiver For Israel Glosses Over Discrimination Against Americans

Nour Joudah, a 25-year-old Georgetown master's degree-holder, set out for Palestine last fall to teach English at a nearly 150-year-old school founded in the West Bank by American Quakers. But Joudah lasted only a semester at the Ramallah Friends School. The length of her stay had nothing to do with her work: by all accounts, Joudah was great with the kids. Instead, she left a classroom full of students behind because Israeli authorities refused to let her back into the country. Twice. For the second try, in February, she brought to bear her power as an American citizen, seeking assistance from Congress and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), which funds the school. All to no avail. As Israeli authorities turned her away and deported her, she didn't even receive an explanation. "They didn't say anything at all," she said of being rejected. "They processed me for deportation, I spent the night in detention, and they put me on the first flight in the morning."

A week after Joudah's deportation, California Democrat Barbara Boxer introduced a bill—the U.S.-Israel Strategic Partnership Act of 2013—that would add Israel to the U.S. Visa Waiver Program, ensuring visa-free travel for Americans and Israelis to each others’ countries. Boxer's bill stated that to ensure the required reciprocity, Israel must make "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.” While no nation would agree to forfeit its security, the words “without jeopardizing the security of the State of Israel” were unique. None of the 37 other countries currently in the program are subject to that caveat.

Boxer claimed in a letter to the Los Angeles Times that her bill "gives us important leverage to ensure Israel welcomes Americans" and doesn’t  compromise Americans' rights. "This provision does not waive reciprocity. In fact, it requires the Department of Homeland Security, in consultation with the State Department, to certify that Israel is taking appropriate action to ensure that Americans receive reciprocal travel privileges," said Peter True, Boxer's press secretary. “If Israel does not live up to the principle of reciprocity, the country could be blocked from entering the program or removed at a future time." It's unclear why, then, the language specific to Israel's entry into the program remains necessary. Israel’s supporters maintained, according to JTA, that the country faces unique and acute security threats. But opponents of the bill said Israel needs the special language because the Jewish State routinely turns away Americans with impunity—especially Americans of Muslim or Arab background, as evinced by the case of Nour Joudah and others. Because many such entry denials are justified by unexplained claims of security concerns, critics said the unique caveat gives Israel wiggle room to continue turning Americans away.

Asked about Joudah's rejection in a March briefing, State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell said, "The decision of whether or not to admit a foreign citizen rests solely with the country controlling the port of entry. So our country-specific information on Israel advises that travelers may be denied entry or exit without explanation." The rejection patterns so strongly suggest discrimination that the State Department outlines profiling at the border in its travel warning for Israel: "Some U.S. citizens," it reads, "of Arab or Muslim origin have experienced significant difficulties in entering or exiting Israel or the West Bank."

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.

Even specific Members of Congress can't grease the path to entry for their constituents. Texas Democrat Sheila Jackson Lee weighed in for Joudah, but her office’s work proved fruitless. After Joudah's first failed attempt to cross from Jordan into the Israeli-controlled West Bank—where she was denied entry despite answering questions and told, according to her, "We don't comment on security issues"—she got in touch with Lee's office. "Once she was back in Jordan, we started communicating with the Israeli embassy in D.C. as to why she had been denied and what we could do," said Glenn Rushing, Lee's chief-of-staff, in an interview. (Rushing said that Lee herself wouldn't be able to comment on the issue until Joudah's case was resolved. The Israeli Interior Ministry recently granted Joudah an appeal by affidavit. The Interior Ministry did not return calls for comment.)

Rushing said the Israeli embassy urged that Joudah re-enter Israel through Ben Gurion airport, and even coordinated with Lee's office on the date, which he took as a positive sign. "From the phone conversation that we had, they said they were in communications with the Ministry of Interior," Rushing said. "And so long as she answers all the security questions, there shouldn't be any issue re-entering the country. That's what was told to us before she bought her ticket to re-enter." Rushing said Joudah was advised by Lee's office to answer all the Israelis' questions: "She was informed that the reason for her first denial was that she refused to answer all the questions," he said. (Joudah denies she refused to answer questions entering from Jordan.) After receiving the advice, Joudah bought a ticket and finally boarded the short flight on February 25 for her second attempt at entry through the Tel Aviv airport. When she got held up, she texted staff at Lee's office. "From the moment she was in the airport we were in communication with the Israeli embassy," Rushing said, adding that they weren't able to speak directly to Joudah during her hours of detention. (The Israeli embassy in Washington declined to comment for this story.)

Joudah said an American consular official did get in touch with her. "The consulate called me when I was in detention," she recalled, adding that they asked about her well-being but said they couldn't help. "That's what he said: 'We're calling to check on your health and safety. But when it comes to Israel, we really can't do very much.'" (A spokesman for the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem referred inquiries to the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv, which did not respond to inquiries.)

Neither could USAID, though it had helped arrange her visa, as it does for many teachers at the Friends School. An official from the American development agency, which has given the Ramallah Friends School millions of dollars in grants (around a million in each of the past two years), waited with Joudah for hours as Israelis considered her entry. "He was with me the whole time except for when I was in the questioning room," she said. "He tried to check in with them, to push them for a response and see what's going on. They asked him a couple questions about what he does, they took his ID and information." (USAID offices in Washington and Tel Aviv declined to comment for this story.)

But neither Lee's office nor USAID could manage to get Joudah past Israeli border control. Rep. Lee's office got back in touch with the Israeli embassy in Washington about Joudah's rejection. "The reason that had been given us to was for security reasons. We've yet to hear any justification. They're saying she refused to answer questions," Rushing said. "After she talked to us"—after leaving Israel—"we were told that she made an attempt to answer all their questions on her second attempt to Israel." Joudah explained: "It wasn't a matter of willingness. They asked who I see regularly, and I gave them the name of my roommates and told them I hang out with other teachers" and a friend in Israel. "It was an issue of him”—the Israeli security officer at the airport—"refusing the answer." She said border authorities told her, "You seem like a very social person. Surely you know more people." And with that, a classroom of kids she did know lost their teacher. The next morning, Joudah was on a flight back to Jordan.

Denying entry to a teacher like Joudah could damage American government-sponsored efforts to improve Palestinian lives, and promote tolerance in Palestinian society. "From a Palestinian perspective, I personally feel that this is the Israel's attempt to hamper the education of Palestinians," said Joyce Ajlouny, director of the Ramallah Friends School, which sends kids to Ivy League American universities. "For us, as a school that promotes Quaker values of tolerance, peace, and nonviolence—we teach the Holocaust and the Diaries of Anne Frank—you would think the Israeli government would look seriously at how they could support us rather than put obstacles in our way."

Perhaps most lost in the debate about the Joudah affair was the fate of the students, who languished for a month and a half with a substitute until  Joudah's second denial, when RFS sought a more permanent replacement. "The students first and foremost lost their teacher," complained Ajlouny. "She's a wonderful teacher," Ajlouny said of Joudah. "To employ American teachers to teach English in Palestine is very difficult because Israelis control the borders and we have no say of who is issued a visa. It therefore took us a while to find her replacement, leaving our students and their education in disarray."

Joudah's not pleased with the outcome either, but she sees a silver lining in doing another kind of educating: serving as an example to Americans of Israel's alleged discrimination against their compatriots—especially Palestinians. "I wish none of this had happened," Joudah said. "But I'm happy to have any attention be brought to the visa waiver issue that shows the absolute absurdity of the situation." With the U.S. acting as Israel’s virtually sole guarantor in international fora and with $3 billion in American aid to subsidize Israel’s security budget, critics of the Boxer bill wonder why America needs more “leverage” to win an Israeli review of alleged Israeli discrimination against American citizens.