Sen. Barbara Boxer introduced legislation last month that would allow Israel to continue racially profiling Americans of Arab and Muslim heritage who travel to Israel, even as it confers new privileges on Israelis traveling to the United States.
I wonder whether she understands what it's like for her Arab American constituents to enter Israel.
I always bet myself how long it will take for Ben Gurion Airport's security screeners to detect my heritage. My given names are European, and my family name is an unusual pluralization of a common Arab name that sometimes throws even Arabic speakers. My hair is graying and my complexion, somewhere between that of my Palestinian father and my blue-blood American mother (a descendant of William Samuel Johnson, a signer of the U.S. Constitution), does not distinguish me. I dress like a typical American law professor, albeit one who is on vacation.
But the moment always arrives. The screeners, typically youngsters half my age, grow tenser and the questions begin: "Where was your father born? Where are you going in Israel? What is your purpose here? Where will you stay? How many times have you been here before? Who do you know in Israel?" I respond, patiently and truthfully. On it goes for hours, punctuated by long waits on hard benches as increasingly senior interrogators shuttle in. Occasionally I am strip-searched. When I clear customs, the non-Arab passengers from my flight have long since departed the airport. I endure this whether traveling alone or with my family. In 2000, my daughter spent a substantial part of her ninth birthday contending with such a Ben Gurion Airport welcome committee.
The Israeli routine is well known to American government officials. The State Department's Israel travel advisory includes this caution: "U.S. citizens whom Israeli authorities suspect of being of Arab, Middle Eastern or Muslim origin" may be denied "entry or exit without explanation."
So why then have Boxer and her 18 senatorial co-sponsors proposed a U.S.-Israel Strategic Partnership Act that would, among other things, include Israel in a visa waiver program that would make it easier for Israelis to visit the United States? Currently, citizens of 37 participating countries can enter the U.S. without a visa. American citizens can enter each of those countries on identical terms. Israel would be No. 38 — at least in terms of easy entry to the United States. Israel reportedly will not agree to the reciprocity requirement because it wants to continue racially profiling Muslim and Arab Americans.
Why such blatant racial profiling of American citizens from a country our political leaders regularly call our best friend and ally? No Arab American has ever committed crimes in Israel to warrant harassment of us all — unless criticism of Israeli policies is such a crime. For while we all experience lengthy detention and interrogation, those of us who bear public witness to Israel's oppression of Palestinians are the most likely to be denied entry.
Palestinian Americans expect it from Israel. It merely treats us as it does other Arabs, including its own 1.4 million Palestinian citizens: with distrust and hostility, and as if our blood determined our character.
What I didn't expect is that U.S. officials would propose sanctioning Israel's racially discriminatory treatment of American citizens. Boxer's legislation would exempt Israel from reciprocity, something no other country in the visa waiver program has asked for, much less been granted. The bill, part of the current legislative agenda of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, or AIPAC, merely requires that Israel make "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."
Some of Israel's staunchest congressional supporters have recognized the folly in the exemption. According to one congressional aide quoted by Ron Kampeas of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, "It's stunning that you would give a green light to another country to violate the civil liberties of Americans traveling abroad."
It is inconceivable that Boxer, otherwise known for her staunch defense of civil liberties and equal rights, truly supports Israeli racial profiling. Thus, she and others executing AIPAC's legislative wish list (which also includes exemption of military aid to Israel from sequestration) should grow backbones, and refuse to trade the interests of their own constituents for those of a foreign nation.
George Bisharat is a professor at UC Hastings College of the Law and writes frequently on law and politics in the Middle East.