I received a call on Tuesday night from a senior official in your administration giving me a heads-up that the next morning the USA was going to formally announce that Israel was to be admitted into the Visa Waiver Program (VWP). He knew I had been concerned with Israel’s application for membership because of its history of discriminatory treatment of Arab Americans, and so he said, “I know you are disappointed.” I replied, “I’m not disappointed. I’m insulted and angry.”
I’m insulted because like many others in my community, I’ve experienced the humiliation and harassment meted out by Israeli officials at points of entry and exit from the country or at the hundreds of checkpoints that make travel in the occupied lands so difficult.
Earlier this year, your ambassador to Israel assured us that your administration would insist that Israel treat every American citizen equally. He insisted that “Blue is blue.” With that assurance, we felt some confidence that our concerns were being heard. Instead of honouring both that commitment and the statutory requirement of the VWP that member countries agree to provide each other’s citizens with a guarantee of reciprocal rights, your administration allowed Israel to define its own interpretation of “reciprocal rights.” According to the terms laid out in a yet unreleased July 19, 2023, US-Israel Memorandum of Understanding, it appears that in your administration’s eyes, Arab American passports are “not quite blue enough.”
In effect, you’ve accepted Israel as the arbiter of American citizenship rights. In both Israel’s view and behaviour, there are several classes of Americans: American Jews with pro-Israel views who are welcomed and even encouraged to become citizens; most other Americans who are welcomed as tourists or investors; Americans who support Palestinian human rights, including American Jews and African Americans, who face additional scrutiny; Americans of Arab descent who are viewed with suspicion and often interrogated on entry and exit; and American citizens of Palestinian descent who are deemed the lowest class.
Up until the VWP, Palestinian Americans were not allowed to fly into Ben Gurion airport. They were told by Israeli immigration officials that they weren’t considered Americans and they needed to secure a Palestinian ID and enter through Jordan just like Palestinians from the occupied lands. If these Palestinian Americans insisted on their rights as Americans, sometimes they were outright denied entry.
From what we’ve seen to date, the one significant change that has been made is that Palestinian Americans with an Israeli-approved Palestinian ID now have the opportunity to fly into Ben Gurion. The rest of Israel’s discriminatory policies that degrade our citizenship continue in force.
Because Israel was allowed to redefine reciprocity, essentially writing their own terms for admission into the VWP, without including a non-discrimination provision that dealt with their treatment of Arab Americans at entry, exit, and checkpoints, or respect for freedom of expression— your administration has failed to meet the commitment you made to us.
Like many in my community, I also feel let down by your administration. In the lead up to the 2020 election, we were pleased when your campaign released a statement of commitments to Arab Americans. It meant a great deal to us to know you were speaking to our concerns. Given US foreign policies in the Middle East, we knew we might not agree with you on all issues related to the Arab World.
But, Mr President, the Visa Waiver Program’s requirement of reciprocity is not a matter of foreign policy or about Israel. As we’ve made clear in conversations with officials in the White House, State Department, and Department of Homeland Security, the issue has always been about whether or not our government respected and would protect our rights- including our First Amendment protected right to support Palestinians.
We thought you understood and therefore were heartened by your 2020 campaign pledge to Arab Americans that, “A Biden-Harris administration will confront discriminatory policies that single out Arab Americans and cast entire communities under suspicion,” and your vow that, “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.”
Because Israel was allowed to redefine reciprocity, essentially writing their own terms for admission into the VWP, without including a non-discrimination provision that dealt with their treatment of Arab Americans at entry, exit, and checkpoints, or respect for freedom of expression— your administration has failed to meet the commitment you made to us. This is why I’m insulted, betrayed, and angry. I feel that Arab Americans who overwhelmingly supported you deserve better.