Israel systematically discriminates against Arab Americans who seek to visit, and yet US Congress is poised to do away with visas for Israelis anyway.
Congress overlooks Israel's abuse of Americans' rights
Several pieces of legislation now being considered in the US Congress would include Israel in the visa waiver programme, thus allowing Israeli citizens to enter the US without first obtaining a visa.
Several senators and members of the House of Representatives have signed on as co-sponsors of these bills. But they, and those considering becoming sponsors of such bills, should take a long hard look at the US State Department's travel advisory notice for Israel, the West Bank and Gaza.
Countries seeking to qualify for visa waivers are expected to provide "reciprocal privileges to citizens and nationals of the United States". But the travel advisory warns that "US citizens are advised that all persons applying for entry to Israel, the West Bank, or Gaza ... may be denied entry or exit without explanation".
The advisory adds that "US citizens whom Israeli authorities suspect of being Arab, Middle Eastern, or (of) Muslim origin ... may face additional, often time-consuming, and probing questioning by immigration and border authorities, or may be denied entry".
Still more disturbing is the treatment meted out to Palestinian- Americans. "Israeli authorities might consider as Palestinian anyone who has a Palestinian identification number, was born in the West Bank or Gaza, or was born in the United States but has parents or grandparents who were born or lived in the West Bank or Gaza," the advisory says. "Any such US citizen might be required by the government of Israel to travel to Israel using a Palestinian Authority passport. Without the PA passport, such US citizens might be barred from entry ... or may face serious delays at points of entry."
For more than 35 years now, Arab-American organisations have been documenting this discriminatory treatment by Israeli authorities.
We have presented the State Department with the complaints of hundreds of Americans of Arab descent who, upon entering Israel or the occupied territories, have reported being detained for hours of humiliating questioning; forced against their will to secure Palestinian passports; strip searched; forced to surrender cameras, computers, or phones (some of which have been destroyed or not returned) or denied entry and forced to buy plane tickets back to the US.
Over the years, we have also complained to several secretaries of state that, by singling out Arab and Muslim Americans, Israel is violating its treaty obligations. In the 1951 Treaty of Friendship, Commerce, and Navigation, Israel pledged to permit US citizens to "travel freely, to reside at places of their choice, to enjoy liberty of conscience" and to guarantee them "the most constant protection and security".
When US officials have failed to protect the rights of US citizens travelling to Israel, we have argued that they are failing to honour the commitment made on the opening page of every US passport: "The Secretary of State of the United States of America hereby requests all whom it may concern to permit the citizen/national of the United States named herein to pass without delay or hindrance …"
Our concern has been that Israel was being allowed to determine, on its own, that Arab Americans are second-class US citizens. We have asked our government's leaders to consider the implications of another country saying to a US citizen, even a second- or third-generation American, that his or her passport is meaningless and that the person must secure a foreign passport before visiting Israel.
Some US officials have been responsive. President Bill Clinton provided me with the opportunity to raise the issue directly with a visiting Israeli prime minister. When Madeleine Albright was secretary of state, she repeatedly protested this behaviour to her Israeli counterpart. And when Condoleezza Rice held the job, she issued a strong statement denouncing Israel's discriminatory treatment, affirming that "an American citizen is an American citizen".
The Israelis, however, have failed to respond.
Given this record, it is both bewildering and maddening that some senators and representatives now want to legitimise Israel's refusal to recognise that Arab Americans, and especially Palestinian Americans, should be accorded their full rights as US citizens.
Two of the three visa-waiver bills being considered specifically give Israel an exemption from the obligation to guarantee reciprocity for all US citizens. Should Congress pass either of those bill, it will not only be condoning Israel's unconscionable behaviour (nothing new there), but it will also be failing in its obligation to protect and defend the rights of all American citizens.
One final observation is in order. While one of the visa waiver bills is "stand-alone" legislation, the others are embedded in larger bills that are intended to designate Israel as a "major strategic ally" of the United States. Either of these two bills would provide extraordinary new benefits to Israel in the areas of defence, energy, trade, and intelligence cooperation.
Some suggest that we should be satisfied with efforts to merely weaken the visa waiver provisions in these bills and let the other aspects pass into law. I cannot agree. It is the responsibility of the US government to protect Americans' rights.
It ought to be a litmus test for any country that seeks to be classified as a "major US strategic ally" that it be expected to respect the rights of all Americans.
James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute
On Twitter: @aaiusa