Equal protection for Arab Americans

Maya Berry, executive director of the Arab American Institute, was in the Middle East earlier this month with her children. In the region for work-related meetings, she had taken them to her ancestral home in Lebanon. With a free day in Jordan, Maya planned a 24-hour visit to the West Bank and Jerusalem hoping to pray at al Aqsa, visit the Ibrahim Mosque in Hebron, and spend the night in Bethlehem. What should have been a quick rewarding trip turned into a nightmare—one that is tragically common for Arab Americans visiting the Holy Land.
Maya and her two college-aged children spent hours being rudely interrogated by Israeli border control officials at the Allenby Bridge crossing from Jordan to the West Bank. They were asked invasive questions about their Lebanese ancestry with one Israeli official even correcting Maya’s pronunciation of her own name—all while being scolded for responding in English to the guard who insisted on speaking to her in Arabic. She was separated from one of her children who was asked intrusive questions about his middle name, his ethnicity, his faith. The Israeli official looked through his phone at his photos.
Finally gaining entry, they proceeded to Jerusalem where Maya and her children fulfilled their dream of praying at al Aqsa. Travelling to Hebron, the nightmare continued with three more hours at a checkpoint near the Ibrahim Mosque dealing with the same indignities. In all, one-third of their visit was spent being subjected to humiliating treatment at the hands of Israelis.
In Hebron, they were accosted by gun-toting settlers and foreign Jewish pilgrims who threatened and harassed them—while armed Israeli patrols did little to protect them. The experience was traumatising and angering.
Over the years we have fielded hundreds of similar complaints from Arab Americans, especially Palestinian Americans, who’ve provided affidavits of their treatment on trying to enter Israel/Palestine. Harassed and interrogated for hours, some were detained, denied entry, and deported. Palestinian Americans, even those born in the US, were told that Israel didn’t recognise them as Americans; as Palestinians they must leave the country, secure a Palestinian ID, and enter through Jordan. We’ve complained to the State Department demanding that our government insist that our rights as American citizens be protected.
Past Secretaries of State have forcefully raised this issue with the Israelis but to no avail. The State Department has issued a “Travel Advisory” warning that American citizens of Arab descent, particularly Palestinian descent, can expect to be treated differently than other US visitors. This acknowledgement of a problem, without doing anything to correct it, adds insult to injury.
The first page of the US Passport says that the Secretary of State “hereby requests all whom it may concern to permit the citizen/national of the United States named herein to pass without delay or hindrance and in case of need to give all lawful aid and protection.” In the 1951 US-Israel Treaty on “Friendship, Commerce, and Navigation,” both parties agree to guarantee the rights of each other’s citizens when visiting their countries, including the rights to “travel therein freely; and to reside at places of their choice, enjoy the liberty of conscience…free from unlawful molestations of every kind,…the most constant protection and security.” Yet for decades this discriminatory treatment of Arab Americans travelling to Israel/Palestine makes clear that these commitments are “honoured more in the breach than their observance.”
This issue is again front and centre for two reasons: Israel’s request to be admitted to the US Visa Waiver Programme (VWP) and President Biden’s upcoming trip to Israel. Because VWP admittance requires reciprocity—i.e. agreement to fully respect, without discrimination, the rights of each other’s citizens—and because Israel has never demonstrated readiness to fulfil this requirement, we’ve met with administration officials urging them to reject Israel’s request. From the recent treatment of Maya Berry and her children —mirroring what other Arab Americans will surely be subjected to this summer travel season—Israel seems unwilling to practice reciprocity and Biden should be clear that will preclude the entry into VWP. It is the least that could be done to afford our community basic equal protection from Israel’s well-established human rights violations.

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