Israel-U.S. visa proposal isn't fair

  • Article by: MELLY AILABOUNI
  • Updated: June 20, 2013 - 8:52 PM

A bill in Congress would create a basic unfairness between travelers to and from Israel.

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Imagine saving up for years for the trip of a lifetime to visit family in England and, upon landing in London, having officials demand your e-mail and Facebook passwords. Or traveling to Canada with your significant other and being barraged with questions such as: How long you have known each other? Do you live together? Do you sleep in the same bed? Where was your father born? What are your political beliefs? Ethnicity? Religion? Every personal question you can imagine just shy of boxers or briefs.

Thankfully, as American citizens we share visa reciprocity agreements with many of our close allies. These agreements mean that citizens with a valid passport can travel freely to those countries without fear of being denied entry upon arrival based solely on political, ethnic or religious discrimination. And the agreements are two-way streets: Citizens with valid passports from those countries have the same right to travel freely to our country.

That is why I was profoundly disappointed that U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., is co-sponsoring legislation that would, among other matters, grant these rights to Israeli citizens wishing to visit the United States while only superficially granting Americans the same rights to enter Israel. The provision, part of the broader United States-Israel Strategic Partnership Act of 2013, contains a glaring, first-of-its-kind exception that allows Israel to deny entry to any American it deems a “security risk.”

My Palestinian-American family knows from personal experience how arbitrarily Israel defines security risk.

Several years ago, nine members of our family — all upstanding American citizens — traveled to Israel to visit relatives. It was to be our trip of a lifetime, for most of us the first and possibly the only time my children would see their Palestinian father’s birthplace. Our welcome at the Tel Aviv airport was chilling. We were singled out, separated, interrogated and, in the case of my husband, detained and questioned for hours.

What was the reason for the extra scrutiny? We are not violent extremists: We are honest, hardworking Americans. My husband happens to have been born and raised in a small Palestinian village that became part of Israel in 1948. When he was a young man, he left Israel because of endless discrimination and treatment as a second-class citizen. He came to America seeking freedom and equality. For the past three decades, he has been a respected family physician in our small town.

On that trip, we all saw firsthand the discrimination and oppression faced by Palestinians (even the lucky few who are Israeli citizens). The experience changed us. Since then, we have attended peace protests and have joined groups that advocate for a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Through those contacts, we have learned of people who have been turned away at the Tel Aviv airport — many simply for refusing to give up their e-mail and Facebook passwords, or who, after doing so, were still denied entry because they had social-networking posts or e-mails that, although nonviolent in nature, were critical of some discriminatory Israeli policy.

Every one of the above questions (including demands for passwords) has been asked of me, my family or other American citizens upon attempting to enter Israel. And Israel routinely denies entry to Americans with valid passports, no criminal records and no ties whatsoever to any group labeled violent or terroristic by Israel or the United States. The only things these people have in common are that they are of Arab descent, are Muslim, or (including many Jews) have advocated for peace and justice in the Middle East.

Israel has the right to police its borders however it sees fit. But the United States, as a free and fair democracy, should not endorse a foreign government’s discriminatory visa policy, or worse, reward it by guaranteeing its citizens rights to enter our country that it will not extend to our citizens.

Minnesotans are fair-minded people, so I hope more of us will ask Klobuchar to reconsider her cosponsorship. What value to American citizens is a “reciprocity” agreement if it only really applies to all Israeli citizens wishing to enter our country and not to all American citizens wishing to enter theirs?

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Melly Ailabouni, of Farmington, is a member of Northfielders for Justice in Palestine, an organization committed to justice and peace in Palestine/Israel.

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