Jewish Journal


May 22, 2013

The battle brewing over Sen. Boxer’s Israel visa bill



Senator Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) during the second session of Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C., on Sept. 5. Photo by REUTERS/Jim Young

In March, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D – CA) introduced a bill that would allow Israelis to enter the United States without first applying for a visa. The measure would, its backers say, help improve the business ties between the U.S. and Israel and encourage more Israeli tourists to come to America. Who could have a problem with that?

A lot of pro-Palestinian, Islamic-American, leftist and peacenik civil rights groups, it turns out. Opponents of the bill say it grants Israel an exemption from the requirement to treat all Americans coming to visit Israel in the same way Israelis would be treated on their trips to the United States (should the bill pass).

The bill’s language requires Israel to make “every reasonable effort, without jeopardizing the security of the State of Israel, to ensure that reciprocal travel privileges are extended to all United States citizens.”

That’s not enough, say the bill’s opponents. Framing the policy this way “not only allows, but also codifies, Israel’s routine practice of racial profiling and discriminatory treatment of Americans of Palestinian or Arab descent, as well as Muslims and human rights activists critical of Israeli policies,” said a coalition led by the California chapter of the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR-CA) in a letter to Boxer on May 21.

Boxer disagrees, saying the proposed law only gives Israel the same “right to deny entry to individuals based on national security concerns” enjoyed by all other countries.

“In fact,” Boxer wrote in a letter to the Los Angeles Times on May 5, “the U.S. explicitly warns countries that are granted entry into the visa waiver program that we retain the ability to deny entry to any foreign national who represents a ‘threat to the welfare, health, safety or security of the United States.’”

The Times of Israel reported about the dispute over whether to allow Israel to join the visa waiver program, which currently allows citizens of 37 countries to travel to the United States without first obtaining a tourist visa. Israel already grants automatic, three-month tourist visas to U.S. citizens who travel to the Jewish state; Boxer’s bill, which has been referred to committee, would give Israelis traveling to the U.S. that same privilege.

Rep. Brad Sherman (D - Sherman Oaks), who introduced a similar bill in the House of Representatives in January, told the Times of Israel that those who oppose granting Israel entry into the visa waiver program are “the same people who wake up every morning and accuse Israel of genocide.”

Sherman noted that both France and the United Kingdom currently have reciprocal visa waiver relationships with Israel.

“Over 300,000 Israelis have to go through a [laborious] bureaucratic process to get into the United States [each year], and 21,000 people are on America’s ‘do not fly’ list,” Sherman told the Times of Israel on May 20. “And here you’ve got one person saying 100 Arab Americans were inconvenienced, but we don’t know who they are.”

One Arab-American, George Bisharat, a professor at UC Hastings College of the Law and son of a “Palestinian father and my blue-blood American mother,” described his inconvenient experiences (he called it “blatant racial profiling”) in an opinion piece in the L.A. Times earlier this month. Here’s his description of the welcome he received at Israel’s Ben-Gurion airport:

The screeners, typically youngsters half my age, grow tenser and the questions begin: "Where was your father born? Where are you going in Israel? What is your purpose here? Where will you stay? How many times have you been here before? Who do you know in Israel?" I respond, patiently and truthfully. On it goes for hours, punctuated by long waits on hard benches as increasingly senior interrogators shuttle in. Occasionally I am strip-searched. When I clear customs, the non-Arab passengers from my flight have long since departed the airport. I endure this whether traveling alone or with my family. In 2000, my daughter spent a substantial part of her ninth birthday contending with such a Ben Gurion Airport welcome committee.

Both Boxer’s bill in the Senate and Sherman’s in the House have been referred to committee. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) has lobbied for Israel’s inclusion into the program.

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