Our government isn't protecting our rights
When it comes to American Arabs and Israel, the US government throws up its hands and leaves them to the whim and will of Israeli xenophobes, writes James Zogby
A few weeks ago a Palestinian-American woman, Sandra Tamari, travelling to the West Bank to visit her family was stopped by Israeli airport officials and ordered to log on to her e-mail account and provide her password so that the Israelis could read her private communications. They insisted this be done before they would allow her to enter the country. From reports we are receiving, this practice has become routine.
Disturbing? You bet it is. But even more upsetting was what happened when Ms Tamari spoke to a US official. As she relates their conversation:
US Official: Hello. I got your number from.
You are being questioned by Israeli authorities, I understand.
Sandra Tamari: They are threatening to deport me.
US Official: Are you Jewish?
Sandra Tamari: No.
US Official: Have you been in contact with the Israeli government or military before?
Sandra Tamari: No.
US Official: Have you been here before?
Sandra Tamari: Yes, several times. I am a Palestinian with family in the West Bank.
US Official: Oh, you have family in the West Bank. Then there is nothing I can do to help you. In fact, if I interceded on your behalf, it will hurt your case with the Israelis.
Sandra Tamari: I don't understand. You are saying you can't speak with them. You have no influence. They are demanding to access my gmail account.
US Official: If they have your gmail address, they can get in without your password.
Sandra Tamari: What do you mean? How?
US Official: They're good!
Sandra Tamari: This is crazy. You mean you know about these requests to access e-mails and you have no problem with it.
US Official: It is in our travel warning. They won't harm you. You will be sent home on the next flight out...
This story is infuriating on many levels. Israeli treatment of Americans of Arab descent is demeaning and disgraceful, though it pales in comparison with the daily humiliation endured by Palestinians at checkpoints and borders. More disturbing is the acceptance of this behaviour and the cavalier disregard some American officials have displayed to these violations of the rights of their own citizens.
I have been dealing with issues of this sort for 35 years. And I have, myself, been personally subjected to hours of frustrating and humiliating interrogations by Israeli officials. Since the 1970s we have logged with the State Department the complaints of hundreds of American citizens of Arab descent traveling to or within Israel and the occupied territories who 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 and to secure, against their will, a Palestinian ID document; denied permission to exit; strip searched; or had property stolen or deliberately destroyed by airport inspectors. The 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 their families.
We have called successive US administrations to task for failing to hold Israel accountable for these behaviours that 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".
We have also questioned why American officials have failed to deliver on the assurance implied 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."
Sadly, instead of protecting its citizens, the US has all too often feigned powerlessness, thus enabling Israel to continue to violate the rights of Arab Americans with impunity. This is unconscionable since it relegates Arab Americans to the status of second-class citizens.
Does the US "special relationship" with Israel cancel out the right of American citizens of Arab descent to equal protection by their own government? From the comments of the US official to Ms Tamari, that would appear to be the case. The "travel warning" he pointed out to her specifically notes that "US citizens with Arabic or Muslim names, those born in Muslim or Middle Eastern countries" can be expected to be treated differently by "Israeli border authorities". To understand just how infuriating this warning is, substitute "Jewish" for "Arabic" and "Jordanian border authorities" for "Israeli border authorities". Then ask yourself what the reaction of the State Department and Congress would be if that were the case? Would they merely issue a "warning" or "advisory" to American Jews âê" as if this behaviour were some "act of nature" to be lamented but accepted? And yet this is exactly what happened to Sandra Tamari and it is what has happened repeatedly for decades to countless other Arab Americans traveling to and within Israel and the occupied territories.
I have been assured by many secretaries of state that there is but one class of US citizenship, that our rights, as Arab Americans, will be protected and that this matter will be taken up with Israeli authorities. They have done so, and yet the systematic discrimination against and harassment of Americans of Arab descent by the State of Israel not only persists, it has worsened.
This is because after the initial protest is ignored by Israel, our government shrugs its shoulders as if to say, "There is nothing more we can do." Well there is something more they can do. They just either cannot or will not muster the political courage to protect the rights of my community when Israel is involved. And they admit as much with their pathetic travel warning.
The writer is president of the Arab American Institute.