Maya Berry, the executive director of the Arab American Institute, was in the Middle East earlier this month with her children. She had taken them to her ancestral home in Lebanon while in the region for work-related meetings. Since she had a free day in Jordan, Maya planned a 24-hour visit to the West Bank and Jerusalem where she hoped to pray at Al Aqsa, go to the Ibrahim Mosque in Hebron, and then spend the night in Bethlehem.
What should have been a quick and rewarding trip turned into a nightmare – one that is tragically all too common for Arab Americans visiting the Holy Land. Maya and her two college-aged children spent hours being 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 of the Israeli officials 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 questioned about his middle name, his ethnicity, his faith. The Israeli official looked through his phone at his photos.
They finally gained entry and were able to proceed to Jerusalem where Maya and her children would fulfil their dream of praying at Al Aqsa. They then set out for Hebron where the nightmare continued. There they spent another three hours dealing with the same indignities at a checkpoint near the Ibrahim Mosque.
In all, one-third of their entire visit was spent being subjected to humiliating treatment. In Hebron, right near the mosque where an extremist Jewish settler massacred 29 Palestinians and wounded more than a hundred who were praying during Ramadan in 1994, they were accosted by both gun-toting settlers and foreign Jewish pilgrims who threatened and harassed them – while ubiquitous armed Israeli patrols did little to protect them. The experience was traumatising and angering. I’ve been there and have been forced to deal with the same wretched treatment.
When I was running a project launched by former US vice president Al Gore in the 1990s, entry and exit were always frightening, hold-your-breath experiences. On one visit, in which I was to accompany Mr Gore to a dinner at the Knesset, I was delayed for more than five hours at the airport by border officials. They interrogated me over and over again about my parents, my origins, my purpose in being in the country. I was only released after I was able to place a call to the US embassy. I was then allowed to join the vice president at the dinner.
While recounting the events, I told him that while I was there to help advance the peace process, the anger I felt after enduring this treatment made that work personally more difficult. Over the years, Maya and I have fielded hundreds of similar complaints from Arab Americans, especially Palestinian Americans, who have provided us affidavits of their treatment on trying to enter Israel/Palestine. They were harassed and interrogated for hours. Some were detained for a day, denied entry and deported. Palestinian Americans, even those born in the US, were told that Israel didn’t recognise them as Americans. They were Palestinians and therefore had to leave the country, secure a Palestinian ID and enter through Jordan.
On their behalf, we have complained to the US State Department demanding that our government insist that our rights as American citizens be protected. Past secretaries of state (most notably Madeleine Albright and Condoleezza Rice) have forcefully raised this issue with the Israelis, but to no avail. The best we were able to get was a State Department “travel advisory” warning that American citizens of Arab descent, especially those of Palestinian descent, can expect to be treated differently than other US visitors. This acknowledgment of a problem, without doing anything to correct it, often 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". And in the 1951 US-Israel Treaty on “Friendship, Commerce, and Navigation” both parties agree to guarantee to 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".
From our 40 years of work dealing with the discriminatory treatment of Arab Americans traveling to Israel/Palestine, it is clear that commitments found on our passports in the treaty are “honoured more in the breach than their observance".
This issue is once again front and centre, for two reasons: Israel’s request that it be admitted to the US Visa Waiver Programme (VWP) and US President Joe Biden’s upcoming trip to Israel. Because admittance into the VWP requires reciprocity – that is, each party agrees to fully respect, without discrimination, the rights of each other’s citizens – and because Israel has never demonstrated that it is ready to fulfil this requirement, we have had several meetings with administration officials in recent months urging them to reject Israel’s request.
From the treatment Maya Berry and her children received a few weeks back – and the degrading treatment other Arab Americans will probably be subjected to during the summer travel season – it doesn’t seem that Israel is ready to take that step and Mr Biden should make it clear that its refusal to do so will preclude them from the programme.
It is the least that could be done to afford our community basic equal protection from Israel’s human rights violations.