Arab-Americans Criticize Bill to Do Away With Visas for Israelis

The bill, which critics say is discriminatory, will be debated by a House committee this week.

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Arab-Americans are voicing criticism of a House of Representatives bill that would allow Israelis to enter the United States without a visa. The bill will be debated by a House panel this week, according to The Hill website that covers congressional affairs..

Critics maintain that the U.S. should be taking Israel to task for what they call the violation of American Muslims' civil rights, rather than giving it "concessions." The reference is to Israel's scrutiny of U.S. citizens of Arab or Muslim backgrounds on entry into, or exit from, Israel.

The Foreign Affairs Committee is scheduled to vote Wednesday on legislation that would label Israel a “major strategic partner.” One provision states that Israelis should be allowed to travel to the U.S. without a visa “when Israel satisfies the requirements for inclusion in such program.”

Authored by Middle East panel chairwoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fla.), the House bill has 349 co-sponsors and is expected to sail through the committee. A similar effort in the Senate by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) has attracted 53 co-sponsors.

“From our perspective, it should be the opposite,” said Maya Berry, executive director of the Arab American Institute. “It should be members of Congress asking questions and perhaps drafting legislation that says, 'How do we fix this problem?' As opposed to suggesting that it can be included in this broader bill that says Israel's our best friend forever.”

The U.S. State Department warns Americans traveling to Israel that they may be denied entry without being given a reason.

“Some U.S. citizens holding Israeli nationality, possessing a Palestinian identity card, or of Arab or Muslim origin have experienced significant difficulties in entering or exiting Israel or the West Bank,” the department says in its travel advisory.

“Those with extensive travel to Muslim countries or U.S. citizens whom Israeli authorities suspect of being of Arab, Middle Eastern, or Muslim origin may also face additional questioning by immigration and border authorities, particularly if they ask that Israeli stamps not be entered into their passport.”

Berry said the provisions in the House bill are less concerning than those in Boxer's bill. That legislation calls for Israel to be granted a visa exemption if it “has made every reasonable effort, without jeopardizing the security of the State of Israel, to ensure that reciprocal travel privileges are extended to all United States citizens.”

Critics say that would create an exemption not offered to the 37 other nations that have visa-free travel to the United States.

Pro-Israel groups that have been lobbying for visa-free travel dispute that interpretation.

“That is a complete mischaracterization of the Senate waiver language,” said a source at a pro-Israel organization. “The Boxer language was put in the measure to ensure appropriate treatment for all Americans and required cabinet level certification – the campaign against the provision has been patently false and misleading.”

The visa exemption effort also faces obstacles because of U.S. national security concerns. In particular, U.S. consular officials have been rejecting Israeli visa applications beyond the 3 percent threshold set by law for participation in the visa waiver program.

A Ros-Lehtinen aide said the bill's visa provision wouldn't change the status quo in any way: Israel would still have to abide by all of the program's requirements in order to be eligible.

One recent case that made headlines was that of Nour Joudah, a Palestinian American teaching at the Friends School in Ramallah who had traveled to Jordan for Christmas. Joudah was denied reentry to Israel, despite her holding a one-year multiple entry visa and the endorsement of the Israeli Embassy in Washington for her reentry.

The Ramallah school receives U.S. funding, promotes non-violence and teaches about the Holocaust, noted a congressional staffer. “This is the model of coexistence,” the staffer said.

Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service, told Haaretz that Joudah had not cooperated during security questioning. Joudah told Haaretz that the encounter with Israeli security at times had been argumentative but she answered all questions.

U.S. President Barack Obama shakes hands with U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Ca.), after he signs the U.S.-Israel Enhanced Security Cooperation Act in the Oval Office of the White House.Credit: Reuters

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