Americans of Palestinian decent
or those 'suspected' of befriending the Palestinians are routinely mistreated,
jailed, deported and in some cases killed by Israeli authorities. Yet a recent
bill by NJ Congressman Chris Smith will not include testimonies from victims of
Israeli discriminatory practices.
More than an American Express card, presenting an American passport to an
immigration official overseas almost always results in a gracious welcome.
Besides recognized mutual diplomatic protocols that require countries to treat
visitors with respect and afford them safety and ease of entry, American
citizens usually enter foreign points of entry without much bureaucratic delays.
Not in the case of Israel. When certain
American citizens step off the plane at Tel Aviv Ben-Gurion airport, they are
signaled out for extra security measures, humiliating interrogation and
sometimes detention before they are deported. We thought this reality should
matter to Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), a New Jerseycongressman
who recently introduced a bill to deal with maltreatment of traveling American
citizens. The bill is designed to ban entry into the country by officials of any
foreign government complicit in violating the rights of imprisoned Americans.
The celebration is premature, I am afraid. It seems Congressman Smith is willing
to exclude the well-documented maltreatment of American citizens while traveling
into Israel. Thousands of American citizens of Arab and Muslim backgrounds have
been the subject of a most discriminatory policy, aimed at preventing them from
entering Israel on their way to visit family and friends in the occupied
Following a letter
we sent explaining our position, in early October 2012, I was joined by a group
of Arab and Muslim Americans, armed with affidavits, documents and other
resources as we met with the staff of
Congressman Chris Smith. For the last 16 years they have represented
District 4 in South Western New Jersey. Known for his prolific sponsorship of
bills, Smith's team listened to our advocacy encouraging the Congressman to
incorporate our views in the testimonies and the final language of
"Justice for Imprisoned Americans Overseas Act" or "Jacob's Law."
American citizens should not lose their basic rights at our shores. It is
imperative other countries recognize that there is a price to pay if they
mistreat American citizens. We recognize Smith's specific motivation for this
bill, the sad story of Mr. Ostreicher who
languishes in a Bolivian jail. While we laud his leadership on this front,
we attempted to bring to his attention to an ongoing harassment policy awaiting
American citizens who travel to Israel. I, like thousands of fellow citizens
over the last two decades, have been a victim of this degrading and totally
We look forward to the passage of H.R. 6292 which so far enjoys 8 congressional
sponsors. Our sense the bill will add teeth to our declared policy of
intolerance towards the mistreatment of American citizens. Over the years, we
have brought this matter to the attention of the US State
Department, who could only promise to bring the matter to their regular
dealings with their Israeli counterparts. We have seen no appreciable change in
the treatment of our citizens while traveling to or in Israel. We acknowledged
that Smith's stand elevates our government's concern (and the subsequent
penalties thereof) and is a most welcome endeavor. Other countries will be sure
to take notice. Fittingly, Smith told the
JTA that "American citizens on travel anywhere around the world need to know
that the United States will go to bat for them when they are being denied
fundamental human rights or basic due process rights by foreign government
officials who abuse the rule of law."
We believe the bill should include specific references to the plight of American
citizens, some of whom endure abusive and degrading treatment simply because of
their ethnic background. We are ready for testimonies, written and oral, by
American citizens who are victims of Israeli's abusive policy. In our
discussions, we offered to provide details of these stories and perhaps hoping
to encourage him to incorporate them in the testimonies and the expected debates
over the bill.
Since the early 1970s hundreds of complaints have been documented, most shared
with the US department of State, from hundreds of American citizens of Arab
descent traveling to or within Israel and the Occupied Territories. These people
were detained for hours of humiliating questioning; denied entry; turned away at
airports and made to buy tickets to return home; forced to surrender their
American passports; strip searched; or had property stolen or deliberately
destroyed by airport inspectors.
These stories are hurtful and have caused great distress to many. There are
many Palestinian Americans who, because of their concern with this treatment,
have simply stopped going to visit family. It must be noted that in the 1951
US-Israel Treaty of Friendship, Commerce, and Navigation, Israel pledged to
permit US citizens the right "to travel freely, to reside at places of their
choice; to enjoy liberty of conscience."
We left the meeting very hopeful that we had made a strong case for our
reasonable demands. Sadly, all we have received since then has been total
silence. Despite our repeated correspondences, we have yet to receive an update
on our demands. This can only be interpreted as indifference to our demands and
consequently we felt the need to go public with the matter.
We still believe there is room, both politically and morally, for the
Congressman to listen to his constituents and the residents of New Jersey.
Americans, all of them, deserve the same protection when traveling abroad.
Dr. Aref Assaf is president of American Arab Forum, a think tank specializing
in Arab and Muslim American affairs.