A bill has been introduced in the U.S. Senate that would allow a foreign country, Israel, to discriminate against select groups of American citizens — including Americans who have expressed criticism of its policies. Disappointingly, the bill, S.B. 462 (also known as the U.S.-Israel Strategic Partnership Act of 2013), is co-sponsored by Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin. Those who stand to be most affected by this piece of legislation are Arab Americans and Muslim Americans. However, it may also apply to individuals who wish to visit or work in Israel and/or the Palestinian territories that Israel has occupied since 1967. It would enshrine into U.S. law a provision allowing another country to discriminate against Americans based on their ethnicity or religion.
The purported intent of the bill, originally introduced by Sens. Barbara Boxer (a California Democrat) and Roy Blount (a Missouri Republican) at the behest of American Israel Political Action Committee (AIPAC), is to provide Israel entry into the United States' visa waiver program, but with special allowances not afforded any other country. Normally, the visa waiver program permits, under certain conditions, foreign individuals to enter the United States without a visa. A key aspect of the program is reciprocity, meaning that countries admitted into this program must also permit Americans to enter their country without a visa. Currently, 37 countries participate in this mutually beneficial arrangement with the United States. All reciprocate by allowing American citizens to cross their borders without obtaining visas.
However, S.B. 462 contains discriminatory provisions that allow Israel to bar entry to Americans of Arab heritage or Islamic faith, anyone who is viewed to be critical of the actions of the Israeli government, or even anyone who is supportive of Palestinian rights — this, while Israel would enjoy the full benefit of the program for its own people. Rather than requiring reciprocity, the bill, as drafted, requires only that Israel make "every reasonable effort" to ensure that reciprocal travel privileges are extended to all U.S. citizens. No other waiver program nations are granted similar exemptions.
Earlier this year, Nour Joudah, a 25-year-old Palestinian-American woman, was denied entry to Israel at Ben Gurion International Airport despite holding a valid one-year multiple-entrance visa. Ms. Joudah was a full-time English teacher at the Quaker Friends School in Ramallah who had traveled to Amman for the Christmas holidays. However, when she tried to return through Israel, she was denied entry. Numerous efforts by USAID representatives and congressional staffers to secure Ms. Joudah's re-entry were in vain. Ultimately, Ms. Nour had to inform her students via Skype that she could not return to Ramallah.
The issue of entry denial has been contentious for decades. Israel is widely recognized for especially discriminating against Arab-Americans and Muslims by preventing or making difficult their entry to Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories. When Americans of these two groups arrive in one of Israel's ports of entry, they are often put through intense interrogations and strip searches, and in many cases are denied entry without any explanation.
The State Department's website advises U.S. citizens "that all persons applying for entry to Israel, the West Bank, or Gaza are subject to security and police record checks by the Government of Israel, and may be denied entry or exit without explanation." In 2006, then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told Arab-Americans, "I will continue to do everything in my power to support your good work, and to ensure that all American travelers receive fair and equal treatment." Unfortunately, almost one decade later, its increasingly obvious that much work remains to be done on this front.
On Senator Cardin's website, he states: "Civil rights and civil liberties are the building blocks of the rule of law in our country." We couldn't agree more. Senator Cardin has a history of championing civil rights. So it is ironic, disturbing and deeply disappointing that — at the behest of a foreign nation — he would try to chip away at the basic rights of the citizens of his own country. We strongly urge Senator Cardin to either promptly introduce amendments that would strike out discriminatory clauses of the Boxer/Blount bill, or publicly rescind his support for this offensive legislation that is in such stark contrast to American values.
Zainab Choudry (email@example.com) is vice president of the Maryland chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Saqib Ali (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the group's government affairs director. Also contributing to this article were Shelley Fudge, director of the Jewish Voice for Peace Washington D.C. Chapter and Abed Ayoub, the Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee's director of policy and legal affairs.