Challenging discrimination in all its forms

Before the opening ceremony of this year’s Winter Olympics President Obama answered a question about his decision to include openly gay Americans in the U.S. Olympic delegation by saying, “Well there’s no doubt that we want to make very clear that we do not abide by discrimination in any forms, including discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.”

While President Obama deserves credit for challenging Russia’s anti-gay policies, he has unfortunately shown no such gumption when it comes to challenging Israel’s decades long pattern of discrimination against Americans.  Although the State Department acknowledges in its travel warning that Arab and Muslim Americans may be discriminated against by Israel, the Obama administration has yet to seriously challenge Israel’s policy like it has with Russia’s.  Even the Bush Administration had a stronger record of opposition to Israel’s discriminatory policies, with former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pledging in 2006, “I will continue to do everything in my power…to ensure that all American travelers receive fair and equal treatment.” 

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Unfortunately, some members of Congress are still refusing to even acknowledge Israel’s well-documented history of civil rights violations.  During a recent Foreign Affairs Committee meeting, members of Congress denied that Israel discriminated against U.S. citizens and instead sought to denigrate Americans who have been interrogated, detained, and deported by Israel.   

One member of the committee, Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.), claimed that any Americans who had been denied entry by Israel were likely “associated with Islamic extremism.”  While Sherman’s accusation is belied by voluminous evidence, the charge also seemed particularly odd given that recent high profile cases of Israel discriminating against U.S. citizens included a Quaker mother from Missouri, an English teacher from Tennessee, and a volunteer from Ohio who works for the organization Christian Peacemakers Teams.

Sherman’s offensive comments came during the Foreign Affairs Committee consideration of legislation titled the United States-Israel Strategic Partnership Act of 2013.  The legislation includes a section proposing that Israel be included in the Visa Waiver Program, which has been a source of controversy due to Israel’s mistreatment of U.S. travelers and history of violating its treaty obligations regulating the treatment of American citizens.  The Senate version of this legislation (S. 462) currently includes provisions that would codify rather than challenge Israel’s discriminatory policies against U.S. travelers.

To make the case that the problematic provisions included in the Senate version of the legislation should be reinserted into the in final version of the United States Israel Strategic Partnership Act of 2013, Sherman implied that the need of Israelis to see Disneyland trumped the civil rights of Americans, remarking “When they (Israelis) want to see Mickey Mouse, they should see the real one."

In a move that appears to be a tacit acknowledgement of concerns expressed by civil rights organizations and lawmakers, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) recently signaled her intention to rewrite the visa waiver portion of the Senate version of the legislation.  While Boxer’s removal of the problematic exemptions is a welcome development, it remains deeply concerning that members of Congress are still proposing to reward Israel with entry into the Visa Waiver Program without first bringing an end to the discriminatory and abusive treatment meted out to U.S. travelers. 

Rather than holding Israel accountable for policies that violate the civil and constitutional rights of U.S. citizens, the House Foreign Affairs Committee passed an amendment calling on the United States to work more closely with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu to combat anti-Semitism.  While any effort to combat racism in all its forms is certainly welcome, the Israeli government and some members of Congress have long sought to conflate criticism of Israel’s policies with anti-Semitism in an effort to intimidate critics into silence.  Given this trend it is deeply concerning that instead of dealing with the very real issue at hand, Israel’s discrimination against Americans, members of the House Foreign Affairs Committee are proactively working to silence criticism of Israel’s policies under the spurious pretext of combating anti-Semitism. 

If President Obama really wants to make it clear that the U.S. does not abide by discrimination in any forms, he would challenge Israel’s discrimination against Arabs and Muslim Americans with the same determination he has shown in challenging Russia’s discrimination against gays.  We can only hope it does not take an inadvertent comment from Vice President Biden before President Obama and members of Congress grapple with their complicity in Israel’s civil rights violations. 

Coogan is legislative coordinator for the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation.