In its rush to waive visas for Israeli visitors, the Biden Administration has insulted and betrayed Arab Americans

James Zogby

The Nation  /  September 29, 2023

The repeated promise by US officials that Israel would never get a visa waiver until it stopped discriminating against Arab American visitors turned out to be worthless.

On Tuesday night, September 26, I received a call from a senior official in the Department of Homeland Security. He wanted to give me a heads-up that on the next morning the Biden administration was going to formally announce that Israel was to be admitted into the US Visa Waiver Program (VWP). He knew I was opposed to Israel’s application for membership because of its history of discriminatory treatment of Arab Americans entering the country, and so he said, “I know you are disappointed.” I replied, “I’m not disappointed. I’m insulted and angry.”

I’ve been dealing with this issue for over four decades. While I was speaking with him, I could see the faces and hear the voices of the hundreds of Arab Americans who had told me their stories of outright denial of entry into Israel or their hours-long interrogation and humiliation by Israeli immigration personnel on entry or exit from the country.

I personally experienced this treatment in the 1990’s when I was running a project for Vice President Al Gore designed to support the then-new peace process. On one visit, in which I was to meet the vice president at a dinner with the Israeli Knesset, I was detained and repeatedly interrogated for hours by Israelis about my father’s origins in Lebanon (he emigrated to the United States in 1922). I almost missed the dinner. 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 even worsened. I wrote to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice relating stories of Israeli officials turning away American-born Palestinians insisting that their American passports “mean nothing to us—to us you are a Palestinian and can’t enter here. You need to get a Palestinian ID and enter through the Jordanian border like other Palestinians.” Others told of being strip-searched or having their electronic devices taken from them and the content downloaded. I reminded Rice of the page in our US passport which reads:

“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 and in case of need to give all lawful aid and protection.”

And the provision in the 1951 “US-Israel Treaty of Friendship, Commerce and Navigation,” in which 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 liberty of conscience … free from unlawful molestations of every kind … the most constant protection and security.”

Rice was outraged and had the State Department issue a statement demanding equal treatment for all US citizens, saying, “An American is an American.”

In 2014, when the VWP for Israel was again being pushed by some members of Congress, the State Department quashed the idea, noting that Israel could not be admitted into the program because of its discriminatory treatment of Arab Americans.

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

Against this backdrop, I was troubled by early signs that the Biden administration was entertaining admitting Israel into the VWP—despite their having been no change in Israeli treatment of Arab American visitors. Biden officials assured us that Israel would never be admitted unless it could pass a key provision of the program: the statutory requirement that demands full reciprocity between the United States and VWP countries. As late as May of this year, we were told that Israel simply couldn’t comply and its bid for entry would be denied without full compliance with the law.

Then came news late summer that US and Israeli officials had signed a “Memorandum of Understanding” (MOU) regarding conditions that needed to be met to allow Israel to enter the program. On reading a leaked draft of the MOU several concerns became clear.

  • In at least four places, the United States defers to Israel’s definition of its “security concerns” to determine which US citizens should and should not be granted a visa.
  • The agreement focused on a small number of Palestinian Americans who had submitted to the Israeli demand that they travel on a Palestinian ID—not their US passport. It said nothing about the hundreds of thousands of Palestinian Americans who do not have or want the latter document, or the millions of other Arab Americans who want to visit the Holy Land.
  • The test period established to determine if Israel passed the “reciprocity” test was to last a mere six weeks and focus on Israel’s allowing US citizens with Palestinian IDs to use Ben Gurion International Airport.

As disturbing as what was in the MOU were the Israeli behaviours not discussed or even mentioned: harassing interrogations of Arab American visitors after entry or on departure; the fact that US citizens with Palestinian IDs were forced to enter with their Palestinian documents so that once in the occupied lands, they would not have the protections of their American citizenship; the failure to address the US citizens (Arab, Black, Muslim, Christian, and Jewish) who are banned from entry because of their political views on the Israeli-Palestinian issue; and the simple fact that it’s impossible to have reciprocal policies with a country that is engaged in a military occupation.

Because the test Israel constructed, with US acquiescence, would apply to only a small subset of the affected community and would be in effect for too short a time, it was clear that the fix was in. The administration had allowed Israel to dumb down the meaning of “reciprocity”—thus enabling it to pass the test it had written itself.

As I have made clear to administration officials and members of Congress, this issue isn’t about Israel. It’s about whether our president will protect the rights of Arab American citizens; whether our government will honour the pledge found in our passports and enshrined in the equal protection clauses in the constitution; and whether our president will live up to his promise to fight against discriminatory policies and those that penalize the free speech of US citizens.

And so, while Israel may have passed the test we let it write for itself, the Biden administration failed to honour both the statutory requirement of the VWP and the pledge it made to Arab Americans. That is why I’m insulted and angry.

James Zogby is the founder and president of the Arab American Institute and was a member of the executive committee of the Democratic National Committee from 2001 to 2017