I received a call last week from a senior official in US President Joe Biden's administration giving me a heads-up that the next morning the US was going to formally announce that Israel was to be admitted into the Visa Waiver Programme (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 the Arab-American 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. Now from November 30, Israeli citizens will be able to stay in the US for up to 90 days without a visa.
Earlier this year, Mr Biden's ambassador to Israel assured us that his 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, the Biden 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 the administration’s eyes, Arab-American passports are “not quite blue enough”.
In effect, Mr Biden seems to have 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 airport. The rest of Israel’s policies that discriminate against Palestinian-American citizenship continue.
Like many in my community, I also feel let down by the Biden administration. In the lead up to the 2020 election, we were pleased when Mr Biden's campaign released a statement of commitments to Arab Americans. It meant a great deal to us to know the President was speaking to our concerns. Given US foreign policies in the Middle East, we knew we might not agree with him on all issues related to the Arab world.
But the Visa Waiver Programme’s requirement of reciprocity is not a matter of foreign policy or about Israel. As Palestinian Americans have 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 the US government respected and would protect the rights of Palestinian Americans – including the First Amendment protected right to support Palestinians.
We thought the President understood and therefore were heartened by his 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 his 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 criminalise 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 – his administration has failed to meet the commitment made to us.
This is why I’m insulted, betrayed and angry. Arab Americans who overwhelmingly supported Mr Biden deserve better.