Thursday October 23, 2014
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23.10.2014
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Ruthie Blum

Vis-à-vis US visas

Whether Israeli wanderlust stems from some nomadic Jewish gene is unclear. One thing is certain, however: Touring and traveling -- with backpacks or in five-star hotels; at home and abroad -- is an Israeli passion, if not an outright obsession.

Perhaps it's a form of claustrophobia. Living in a country that can be traversed from north to south in six hours, and east to west in less than two, would probably cause most people to feel cooped up.

It is thus that young Israelis make post-army sojourns to all corners of the globe. The Far East is a favorite, as is South America. Only the kids who manage to save up lots of cash consider trekking through Europe or the United States. Those who do opt for New York over Bangkok, however, have to worry about getting a visa.

This involves waiting on long lines at the American Embassy in Tel Aviv, with forms to fill out and fees to pay -- unless the visa is refused. Then it's more than merely a bureaucratic nuisance; it means forfeiting a trip to the United States.

Rumor has it that this has been happening with greater frequency of late. This, apparently, is because young Israelis have been flooding the American "mall market," selling gadgets and Dead Sea products at kiosks. Many of these 20-somethings do not have work permits. Others remain and try to obtain green cards, with the intention of settling down where they think they will be able to make it big.

As a result, when Israelis who simply want get in a little coast-to-coast relaxation apply for visas, they often bring documents -- such as rental contracts or deeds to apartments and salary slips from places of employment -- to prove that the purpose of their journey is solely recreational and, above all, temporary.

This would not be so peculiar if the citizens of Israel were not unique in this respect. But as it happens, there are 37 other countries in the world that enjoy visa-waiver status with the United States. The citizens of those countries can enter the U.S. for up to 90 days without a visa, as long as they register electronically before boarding a flight.

To get an idea of how ridiculous it is that Israel has yet to gain entry into the U.S. Visa Waiver Program, one need only review the list of the countries currently within it. They are: Andorra, Australia, Austria, Belgium, Brunei, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Japan, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Monaco, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Portugal, San Marino, Singapore, Slovakia, Slovenia, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Taiwan and the United Kingdom.

Two new congressional bills -- one proposed by Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R.-Fla.) and a different version by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D.-Calif.) -- attempt to alter this state of affairs for the better.

Though allowing Israel into the Visa Waiver Program is only one element of these bills, whose aim is to create a special category for Israel as a "major strategic partner," it is causing the most controversy.

Guess why.

It seems that the White House, State Department and Homeland Security Department don't think that proposed legislation would be fair to Muslims. Yes, the Obama administration and its legal team think that it doesn't adequately tackle the problem of Israel's "discriminatory" practices against Arab Americans on route to the Palestinian Authority. An example of such alleged ill treatment is preventing certain of these visitors from landing at Ben-Gurion Airport, forcing them instead to fly from the U.S. to Jordan, and travel by land to their destination.

The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, too, is "concerned" about the proposed legislation, which, says its legal director, Abed Ayoub, "allows for the discrimination of U.S. citizens by another country. It is reprehensible that U.S. congressional members would allow for such action to take place."

This sentiment was echoed in a letter to Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren last month. The letter, signed by 16 members of Congress -- 15 Democrats and one Republican -- accused Israeli border officials of "disproportionately singling out, detaining and denying entry to Arab and Muslim Americans."

In response, Oren presented the facts on the ground: A total of 142 Americans were denied entry into Israel last year, compared to 626,000 who were welcomed in with no problem. He pointed out that this put the Israeli refusal rate at 0.023%, while the American refusal rate for Israelis applying for U.S. visas during the same time period was 5.4%. (One wonders how many of the Israelis who were refused visas were Muslim Arabs.)

Oren also stressed what, by now, should not need repeating, least of all to the United States -- that Israel has no choice but to take the very concrete threat of terrorism into account at its borders. Shame on the Obama administration for suggesting otherwise.

It is time for Israeli tourists to be given at least the same slack as Estonians and Icelanders.

Ruthie Blum is the author of "To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama, and the 'Arab Spring.'"

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