WASHINGTON (JTA) — Nineteen progressive Democrats in Congress urged the departments of State and Homeland Security to keep Israel from joining a coveted program that would enable its citizens to travel to the United States without a visa, saying Israel profiles Muslim, Arab and particularly Palestinian Americans.
The letter sent Tuesday to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas is the latest salvo in Congress over Israel’s long-standing hopes of getting into the visa waiver program. Last week, 65 U.S. senators urged Israel’s rapid entry into the program, while in May, 14 U.S. Senators urged that Israel enter only if it complies with all of the program’s provisions.
Currently, Israelis who do not hold citizenship in any of the 40 countries in the waiver program must apply for permission to travel to the United States, a process that typically results in a visa but can be extensive.
“Arab Americans, particularly Palestinian Americans, and those that have advocated on behalf of the Palestinian people routinely face discrimination, harassment, and denial when traveling to and from Israel and the” West Bank, the letter, spearheaded by Rep. Jonathan Jackson, the son of civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, says. The waiver program, which currently has 40 participating countries, bans profiling based on ethnicity, religion or national origin.
“Americans citizens are frequently detained and questioned for hours, subjected to invasive searches of their personal electronic devices, and arbitrarily denied entry,” the letter says. “This same harassment often occurs as these same American citizens are departing from Israel on their return to the U.S.”
Two of the letter’s signatories, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, are cited in the letter as examples of Muslim Americans who have been denied entry because of their background. Tlaib is Palestinian American; Omar is a Somali American.
“Both Representative Rashida Tlaib and Representative Ilhan Omar have previously been barred by Israel from entering for a planned visit to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories,” the letter said. “The extraordinary decision by Israel to prevent democratically elected representatives from entering the country makes plain Israel’s enforcement of discrimination against political views at the border and rejection of the democratic value of freedom of speech.”
Tlaib in 2019 sought to lead a group of lawmakers on a tour of Israel and the West Bank to counter a similar biennial tour organized by an affiliate of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Israel’s government, under pressure from then-President Donald Trump, denied them entry. That sparked a backlash from Jewish groups, including AIPAC, who said it was untoward for Israel to ban entry to elected officials.
A number of Biden administration officials, chief among them Tom Nides, the soon-to-depart ambassador to Israel, have been lobbying intensely for Israel’s entry into the waiver program and have proposed a compromise whereby Israel would ease some of its restrictions.
That’s not enough for Arab American groups, and Jackson unveiled the letter on Wednesday in a Zoom meeting convened by the Arab American Institute.
“We do believe in measuring human rights by one yardstick,” Jackson told the call. “That’s a core principle that we have, as it relates to the visa waiver program. All American citizens have to be treated equally and fairly. That’s non- negotiable.”
Other signatories include Jan Schakowsky of Illinois, who is Jewish, and who is chief deputy whip of the Democrats in the House; and Pramila Jayapal of Washington, a senior whip and the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
A number of centrist and right-wing pro-Israel groups, led by AIPAC, are pressing for Israel’s accelerated entry into the waiver program, and for the swift resolution of whatever compliance issues remain. Liberal Jewish Middle East policy groups like J Street and Americans for Peace Now also back entry into the program, but only if Israel fully complies with its provisions.