This past week, the New York Times (NYT) ran an article, ‘Israeli airport detention of prominent US Jew prompts uproar’, focusing on the airport harassment received by Peter Beinart, a prominent liberal writer and TV commentator. The article mentioned a number of other American Jews who were similarly detained and questioned about their political views regarding Israel’s occupation policies.
While I was pleased that Israel’s policy of airport interrogations was receiving critical attention, I was distressed that the article made no mention of how Israel has, for decades, meted out far harsher treatment to Arab Americans flying into Ben Gurion Airport or crossing the Allenby Bridge. The NYT piece also failed to note the extent to which the government of the United States is responsible for the brazenness of Israel’s impunity in its continued mistreatment of US citizens.
As readers of my column may recall, I have been dealing with this issue for four decades. I have, myself, been subjected to hours of frustrating and humiliating interrogations by Israeli officials (even when I was entering the country on official business in my capacity as co-chair of Builders for Peace, a project created by then US vice-president Al Gore).
Since the 1970s, I have logged with the US State Department the complaints of hundreds of American citizens of Arab descent travelling to, or within Israel and the Occupied Territories. These included reports of: Being detained for hours of questioning; being denied entry and forced to purchase a ticket to return home; being forced to surrender their American passports and made to secure, against their will, a Palestinian ID document; being denied permission to exit; being strip-searched; or having their possessions stolen or deliberately destroyed by Israeli airport inspectors.
The stories, many of them recent and posted on the website of the Arab American Institute, are deeply hurtful and demeaning. Because these practices are so systematic, many Palestinian Americans who have experienced this treatment have simply stopped going to the occupied lands to visit their families.
What has been especially galling is the failure of the State Department to hold Israel accountable for these behaviours, which are in clear violation of their treaty obligations to the US. In the 1951 US-Israel Treaty of Friendship, Commerce and Navigation, Israel pledges to permit US citizens “to travel freely, to reside at places of their choice; to enjoy liberty of conscience” and to guarantee them “the most constant protection and security”. As many Arab Americans, especially those of Palestinian descent, can testify, this treaty has been “honoured more in the breach than in the observance”.
We have also been angered by the State Department’s failure to deliver on the assurance implied by the message found on the opening page of every US passport: “The Secretary of State of the United States of America hereby requests all whom it may concern to permit the citizen/national of the United States named herein to pass without delay or hindrance and in case of need to give all lawful aid and protection.”
Instead of protecting its citizens and insisting that Israel honour its treaty obligations, US officials have all too often feigned powerlessness, thus enabling Israel to continue to violate the rights of Arab Americans with impunity. In effect, they have allowed Israel to define distinct classes of American citizenship: Unquestioning Jewish-Americans; Jewish-Americans and others who challenge their policies; and, at the lowest rung, Americans of Arab descent.
Especially hurtful to Arab Americans is the travel advisory issued by the State Department that warns American citizens who have Arabic names, especially those of Palestinian descent, should expect to be singled out for different treatment on entry into Israel — amounting an “official” acceptance of Israel’s discriminatory policy.
I have sat with US Secretaries of State and National Security Advisers and presented them with documentary evidence of this Israeli abuse. They have expressed outrage and assured me that they would raise the issue “at the highest levels” with their Israeli counterparts. They have done so and reported back to me of the assurances they received.
In spite of this, the systematic discrimination against and humiliation of Americans of Arab descent not only continues, it has worsened. It continues because after the initial protest is ignored by Israel, my government has shrugged its shoulders as if to say: “We tried. There is nothing more we can do.” Well there is more they can do. They simply cannot or will not muster the political courage to protect the rights of my community when Israel is concerned.
As a result, please excuse my frustration with the NYT’s sudden “discovery” of and concern with this Israeli behaviour, now that it is being meted out to American Jews who challenge Israeli policy. It makes me ask: “What are we — chopped liver”?
Dr James J. Zogby is the president of Arab American Institute, a non-profit, non-partisan national leadership organisation.