By: Dr. Aref Assaf
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 many 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 really should matter to Rep. Chris Smith (R-NJ), a New Jersey congressman 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 Palestinian territories.
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 H.R. 6292, “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 offensive treatment.
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.