With only days to go before her March 30 sold-out concert at The Scottish Rite Temple, Rita -- one of Israel's most popular musical divas who is known by her first name -- almost didn't make it to America for her three-city tour.
The superstar was temporarily denied entry into the United States on grounds that she was Iranian born.
While Rita eventually gained a visa due to her popularity and the intervention of a number of individuals and government agencies, for many Israelis the event signified the end of an era -- when Israelis could travel and conduct business fluidly with the United States.
This month, Israeli concern grew as the U.S. State Department and Department of Homeland Security called for more stringent regulations on nonimmigrant visa requirements. Effective Aug. 1, the new policy requires consular officers in 29 countries, including Israel, to conduct personal interviews of almost all visa applicants between the ages of 16 and 60 -- a process that has already caused a three-month backlog.
After Sept. 11, immigration rulings had called for consular officers to conduct extensive background checks on travelers from countries posing a threat to American security -- like Rita, who was born in Iran. The August interview requirement will now be extended to all Israelis, even native-born.
The interview requirement has come under the scrutiny of those who argue that Israel should be included among those countries that are eligible for the Visa Waiver Program, which allows foreign travelers from certain countries, mostly in Europe, to be admitted to the United States as visitors without first obtaining a nonimmigrant visa.
While the State Department says that Israel did not meet the minimum requirements for entry into the Visa Waiver Program because eligible countries must not not exceed an annual visa rejection rate of 3 percent. But others believe that the regulation discriminates against Israel, given the nature of its relationship with the United States.
"The ruling that was set by Washington was that all the countries in the Middle East are dangerous," said Yariv Ovadia, consul for communications and public affairs at the Israeli Consulate in Los Angeles.
"There's no distinction, and it is the wrong thing to do because Israel is a totally different country in the realm of the Middle East," he said. "Why do you want to act against your best friends?"
Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom expressed his frustration with the new interview policy in a meeting with U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge in Washington last month. According to the Israeli government's official Web site, Shalom emphasized that "Israel, despite being an ally of the United States, finds its citizens twice penalized by the existing situation: first as victims of terrorism and second by the long and complex visa process."
But Israelis are not the only ones who feel that the new ruling is unjust.
Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Los Angeles), is leading the effort in Congress. At a House Committee on Government Reform hearing last month, Waxman declared that the new visa requirement was discriminatory toward Israel. He cited an example of a woman who had been traveling between Israel and that United States for years, and was recently prevented from entering the United States to witness the birth of her grandchild. He also spoke of several Russian scientists who were needed to help in medical research at UCLA, but continued to await their visas.
Waxman told The Journal that Israel should be included in the Visa Waiver Program.
"They are people coming from a country that is supportive of the United States," Waxman said. "And Israel is as supportive, if not more, than some of the European countries that have visa waiver."
Waxman said he would do everything in his power to make an exception for Israel.
"We're going to move to either get the State Department or Homeland Security to extend a visa waiver for Israel or we'll push for legislation to do it," Waxman said. "There's no reason that Israelis should be burdened with this
The American Jewish community is echoing Waxman's concern -- both economically and personally.
"Israel is rated second to Canada in the number of firms on the NASDAQ, which indicates the high level of economic cooperation between the countries," Ovadia said. "There are many people in the business sector that cannot do their daily traveling and work. If someone needs to wait three months for an interview, they might decide to do business elsewhere."
Los Angeles resident Carmela Pardo is particularly concerned because she has already seen the effect that increasingly stringent American security measures have had on Israelis since Sept. 11.
Last summer, Pardo's 80-year-old Israeli mother was scheduled to arrive in Los Angeles two months before her grandson's November wedding. She had been traveling frequently between Israel and the U.S. for the past 10 years and had a permanent multiple entry visa. But when her Israeli passport expired last year, the U.S. State Department canceled her visa. She nearly missed her grandson's wedding, arriving in Los Angeles only a few days before.
"She was 80 years old," Pardo said. "What could she possibly do?"
For more information on the Visa Waiver Program, visit travel.state.gov/vwp.html.
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