WASHINGTON (JTA) — The Saudi government wants you to know: It doesn’t ban visits by Jews.
Whether the Saudis make travel difficult for Jews, particularly when it comes to those who have Israel stamps on their passports or come carrying religious items like tefillin, is another question entirely.
The issue of Saudi policy vis-a-vis Jews emerged last week after World Net Daily, a conservative website, reported that Delta Airlines was enforcing a Saudi ban on Jewish visitors by partnering with Saudi Arabian Airlines. The report sparked a round of angry demands directed at Delta and at the Saudi Embassy in Washington.
“Rumors being circulated via the Internet regarding passenger flight restrictions on Saudi Arabian Airlines are completely false,” the Saudi Embassy said in a two-sentence statement sent last Friday to JTA and other news agencies. “The Government of Saudi Arabia does not deny visas to U.S. citizens based on their religion.”
Yet Jewish defense organizations say that in practice, Saudi authorities make it very difficult for Jews to visit the country.
The Delta flap began when a Jewish passenger, Washington attorney Jeffrey Lovitky, asked Delta what the implications were for Jewish passengers of Saudi Arabian Airlines joining the Sky Team Alliance on Jan. 10. The alliance, which includes Delta, facilitates flights on multiple carriers.
The arrangement is not unusual: Other alliances mix U.S. and Saudi carriers.
But Delta’s response touched a nerve when the airline appeared to shuck off any responsibility for Saudi Arabia’s allegedly discriminatory policies.
“While we fully understand and sympathize with your concerns, Delta has no control over the actions of the United States or any foreign country,” Kathy Johnston, a customer care staffer, wrote to Lovitky in an April 28 letter. “If the government of Saudi Arabia engages in discriminatory practices in the issuance of travel documents to U.S. citizens, this is a matter which must be addressed with a local embassy as appropriate or with the U.S. State Department.”
Jewish organizations wondered whether that meant Delta staffers were asking passengers with Jewish-sounding names if they had properly obtained visas to visit the country.
“They’ve joined in this policy of discrimination,” Kenneth Bandler, a spokesman for the American Jewish Committee, told JTA.
On the Huffington Post, Rabbi Jason Miller of Detroit excoriated the airline for attempting to pass the buck.
“No, it’s not Delta’s fault that the Saudi government is anti-Semitic, but it doesn’t have to go along with it,” he wrote. “It’s as if the Saudis are telling Delta that when it comes to Jewish passengers, its name should become an acronym: ‘Don’t Even Let Them Aboard.'”
As other media, including Religion News Service, picked up the story, Delta tried to do damage control.
“We, like all international airlines, are required to comply with all applicable laws governing entry into every country we serve,” Trebor Banstetter, a Delta spokesman, wrote in a blog post. “You as passengers are responsible for obtaining the necessary travel documents, such as visas and certification of required vaccinations, and we’re responsible for making sure that you have the proper documentation before you board.”
No one was mollified, and Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) asked the Federal Aviation Authority to investigate.
“I request your investigation into this matter to determine whether Delta Airlines violated U.S. law or regulation and to ensure no U.S. citizen is denied their right to fly solely on the basis of their religion,” he wrote in a letter last Friday.
Within hours, Delta came out with its third statement, this time noting that its arrangement with the Saudi airline was commonplace.
“Delta’s only agreement with Saudi Arabian Airlines is a standard industry interline agreement, which allows passengers to book tickets on multiple carriers, similar to the standard interline agreements American Airlines, US Airways and Alaska Airlines have with Saudi Arabian Airlines,” it said. “All of the three global airline alliances — Star, which includes United Airlines; Oneworld, which includes American Airlines, and SkyTeam, which includes Delta — have members that fly to Saudi Arabia and are subject to that country’s rules governing entry.”
Religion News Service subsequently retracted much of its earlier story, noting that it is not Saudi policy to deny entry to travelers with an Israeli stamp in their passports.
The U.S. State Department’s travel advisory for Saudi Arabia warns that reports of such denials persist.
“There have been reports by U.S. citizens that they were refused a Saudi visa because their passports reflected travel to Israel or indicated that they were born in Israel,” it said.
The State Department website also includes lengthy warnings to Americans of Arab origin that they may be subject to intensive questioning by Israel at its crossings and may even be turned away. It also notes that these policies derive from security considerations, and from Israel’s complex customs and entry agreements with the Palestinian Authority.
The Anti-Defamation League said that the Saudi policies are especially burdensome for Jewish travelers.
“Saudi Arabia’s past practice of banning travelers with an ‘Israel’ stamp in their passport from gaining entry into the country runs contrary to the spirit and intent of Delta’s non-discrimination policy,” the ADL said. “While this practice affects all travelers who previously visited Israel, it has a disproportionate impact on Jewish passengers.
“Moreover, Saudi Arabia also bars anyone from bringing into Saudi Arabia religious ritual objects, including religious texts, from any faith other than Islam, effectively banning religiously observant Jews from entering the country.”
The ADL wants all airlines that partner with those that fly to Saudi Arabia to make their practices clear.
In a statement the ADL said, “We expect Delta, and any other American airline which flies to Riyadh or partners with an airline that flies there, to ensure that its passengers — whatever their faith — not be discriminated against, and that no American airline in any way enable, or facilitate this discrimination, whatever the regulations of Saudi Arabia.”