These accounts from Arab Americans show why an Israeli visa waiver plan is so controversial

A U.S. passport (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)
(AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

As The Post's Anne Gearan reported Saturday, Israel has long hoped to be added to a list of countries that get special consideration for visas to enter the United States.

However, there's a problem: The alleged mistreatment of Arab Americans at the Israeli border. It's a snag that Israeli officials and their U.S. allies hoping for a visa waiver may struggle to overcome.

"U.S. citizen visitors have been subjected to prolonged questioning and thorough searches by Israeli authorities upon entry or departure," a statement on the Web site of the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem reads, also pointing out that those who appear to be of "Arab, Middle Eastern, or Muslim origin [...] may face additional, often time-consuming, and probing questioning by immigration and border authorities, or may even be denied entry into Israel or the West Bank."

What's more, over the past few years, accounts detailing the alleged harassment of Arab Americans at Israeli passport control have become an established narrative, with dozens of essays online and many more recorded by groups such as the Arab American Institute. The accounts offer a glimpse into how sometimes a U.S. passport can't trump an Arabic background.

James J. Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute, told The Post about his own experience at the border in the 1990s, when he was visiting the country as part of a joint Jewish-Arab program called "Builders for Peace," organized by the Clinton administration. Stopped at the border, he was questioned at length about his family. "It was humiliating. It was angering. Afterwards, I told [Vice President Al] Gore that I was there to make peace, but by the time I got into the country, I wasn't feeling very peaceful," Zogby said.

It'd be unfair to deny that Israel does have unique security concerns, and others argue that the U.S. border has its own set of discriminations. But the accounts below show why the idea of extending the U.S. visa waiver to Israel is so controversial. "It creates two classes of American citizen," Zogby said. "[The harrassment] codifies a trampling of our rights as Americans."

Here are just a few examples of the different allegations of Israeli harassment made by ordinary Arab Americans:

Being denied entry even with a multiple-entry visa

In 2013, 25-year-old Nour Joudah was denied entry to Israel – despite the fact that she had visited the country multiple times before, and had a valid multiple-entry visa, as she later told the Electronic Intifada (a Web site that has a Palestinian viewpoint which has been accused of an anti-Israel bias). In a letter to Ha'aretz, the Shin Bet wrote that Joudah, who had been teaching English in Ramallah, was detained and eventually denied entry to Israel for "failing to cooperate under questioning on security-related matters."

Not being allowed to phone the U.S. embassy once detained

Journalist Anna Lekas Miller says that she was recently detained on her way to a conference in Israel. Miller says she was interrogated for four hours before being told that she was banned for 10 years, which she says is because she refused to give up the names of her contacts in the West Bank. Miller was not allowed to make any phone calls during this time: "I was denied the right to call my mother—much less the American Embassy—before being escorted by a Shin Bet officer to my plane," she wrote in an article for the Nation.

Having clothes and luggage searched

Palestinian American novelist Randa Jarrar wrote an in-depth account of her time at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport for Guernica Magazine in 2012. In it, she describes how, while she was not strip searched, she had a young guard search "every millimeter of my clothes and underclothes." Afterwards, she described how she saw "a boy with pimples, who looked like he was my son’s age, was going through my clothes."

Being asked for the passwords to their e-mail accounts and social networks

Sandra Tamari was stopped at the border on her way to a conference in 2012. According to her own account, the 42-year-old activist was stopped at passport control, asked questions about her family and asked if she was a "terrorist." Israeli officers then apparently asked her to give them the passwords of her e-mail and social network accounts. Tamari says she was held overnight before being put on a commercial flight out of the country after she refused.

Being asked if they felt "more Arab or American"

Najwa Doughman, a 25-year-old Arab American architect who lived in New York, was travelling through Israel's Ben Gurion Airport when she says she was detained for 12 hours before being put on a commercial flight to France. In an account written for Mondo Weiss, a Web site often accused of an anti-Israel bias, Doughman says she was asked a number of invasive questions. From Doughman's account:

“Do you feel more Arab or more American?” she asked. I had answered the ten previous questions very calmly, but with this question I looked back at the security official confused and irritated. She couldn’t have been much older than me—her business attire and stern facial expressions did not mask her youth.

“I don’t know, I feel both. Why? Does this affect my ability to get in?”

She ignored my question. “Surely you must feel a little more Arab, you’ve lived in many Middle Eastern countries.”

I did not see the correlation. I have never felt the need to choose. “Yes I have but I also lived in the US for the past seven years, and was born there, so I feel both.” My response did nothing to convince her.

Doughman also says that border guards looked through her e-mails and mocked her private correspondence.

Told the situation at the U.S. border is worse

In a post written for the Arab American institute, Sijal Nasralla describes the time he was detained while visiting his family in the West Bank in 2010. The Palestinian American social worker revealed what an Israeli soldier had told him when he asked for his passport back after seven hours of waiting:

"They do worse to you in America you know, this isn't that bad," he suggested.

"Depends on who you are," I replied, the words barely falling from my tongue.

Adam Taylor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. Originally from London, he studied at the University of Manchester and Columbia University.
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