"File not found." Those are the words that appear when you click on a State Department webpage link where U.S. citizens can report discrimination, interrogation, or denial of entry by Israel.
The State Department's broken webpage is not only a bureaucratic embarrassment, it's a shameful metaphor for the U.S. government's response to Israel's longstanding discrimination against U.S. citizens. Despite a number of strong statements condemning Israel’s discrimination during the last year, the State Department’s overall response to Israel’s abusive and racist treatment of Americans has been mostly characterized by feckless indifference.
One of the most egregious examples of the State Department’s failure to properly assist U.S. citizens occurred when Sandra Tamari, a U.S. citizen, traveled to Israel/Palestine on an interfaith delegation. Tamari was interrogated, detained, and denied entry by Israel only to be told by officials at the U.S. Embassy that they couldn't help her because she wasn't Jewish. Unfortunately, there are hundreds if not thousands of similar incidents each year.
In an effort to challenge Israel’s discrimination against Americans of Muslim or Arab heritage, a number of civil society organizations have asked the State Department to begin tracking incidents in which Israel harshly interrogates or denies entry to U.S. citizens. Thus far, the State Department has categorically refused to consider the idea.
Civil society organizations like the Arab American Institute have been calling on the State Department to track these incidents for decades, but the need for tracking and reporting incidents of discrimination gained increased urgency with the introduction of the United States-Israel Strategic Partnership Act of 2014. The legislation, which passed on December 3, recommended Israel be granted entry into the Visa Waiver Program. The Visa Waiver Program allows citizens in participating countries to enter the country without a visa for 90 days and affords the same privileges to U.S. citizens, an arrangement known as ‘reciprocity.’
Rather than ending its discriminatory policies to comply with the reciprocity aspect of the Visa Waiver Program, the Israeli government and the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) sought to exempt Israel. In March 2013, Sen. Barbara BoxerBarbara BoxerFeinstein to hold campaign fundraisers, a hint she'll run again Becerra formally nominated for Calif. attorney general 10 freshmen to watch in the new Congress MORE (D-Calif.) and Sen. Roy BluntRoy BluntTrump told of unsubstantiated Russian effort to compromise him Overnight Tech: Tech listens for clues at Sessions hearing | EU weighs expanding privacy rule | Senators blast Backpage execs A bitter end to the VA status quo MORE (R-Mo.) introduced legislation that did exactly that, recommending Israel be allowed to enter into the program while allowing it to continue to discriminate under the pretext of security. Following intense pressure from constituents and civil society organizations, the Senate bill was watered down considerably. In Boxer’s new bill, the reciprocity exemption was removed, the visa waiver section was changed from an authorization to a statement of policy, and new language was included to stipulate that Israel needs to comply with all the requirements of the program before being granted entry.
The State Department’s response to decades of discrimination and harassment of Arab and Muslim Americans stands in stark contrast to its approach to other forms of racism. In the case of Anti-Semitism, the State Department has its own special envoy dedicated to monitoring, documenting, and reporting on incidents throughout the globe. The envoy produced three separate reports in 2014 and more than 20 in the last five years. Yet when it comes to Israel’s decades of discrimination against Arab and Muslim Americans, the State Department has not produced a single publicly available report and has done little more than post a travel warning letting Americans know they’ll be discriminated against by Israel, our newly designated “strategic partner.”
As I’m writing this, another two Americans report being denied entry. They’re tired, shaken, and in the process of being flown back to Europe. They’re unsure whether they want to report the incident or notify the media, holding out hope that if they remain silent they might one day be let in. I know one thing for sure: I won’t be sending them to the “report your experience” link on the State Department’s website – that file still can’t be found.
Coogan is the legislative coordinator for the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation.