What could be better than flying for 12 straight hours in a chair that deserves a picture in the Guinness Book of World Records under the title of “tightest space ever created to fit a human being”? (That’s right Air France, this one’s for you.) Is there anything more tempting than having the privilege of being serenaded by a crying baby for 12 hours, while simultaneously enjoying those extravagant airplane bathrooms, the occasional turbulence, and food made to numb your taste buds? For the average human being this is all more than plenty to endure, but for the average Arab this is not enough. And in our world of “phobias” and “anti- isms” one should know that there is a clear distinction between the average human being, and the average Arab. Nowhere does this statement hold more truth than in the country that so many “great men of peace” such as George W. Bush, Benjamin Netanyahu, Ariel Sharon, and other violators of international law have described as “The Only Democracy in the Middle East.”
“Welcome to Israel,” said the soldier at Ben- Gurion Airport… until she realized whose passport she was looking at…
On the 26th of May 2012, two young women arrived in Tel Aviv with the intention of visiting Jerusalem. Sasha al Sarabi, a 23 year old financial analyst, and Najwa Doughman, a 25 year old architect are both American citizens working as young professionals in New York City. They are American passport holders, recipients of undergraduate degrees from an American institution (the University of Virginia), and holders of a US tax ID. The purpose of their trip? Tourism- not so surprising considering the fact that Israel receives 3.5 million tourists annually to Jerusalem alone. These girls possessed no weapons. They were not smuggling illegal substances nor were they carriers of contagious diseases. They had no criminal record, no experience in military training nor any knowledge of armed combat. But what they did have was the middle name of their fathers- Jamal and Bassam- Arab middle names .
Naturally, like all Democratic nations, it is customary for those who possess Arab or Muslim names to be subjected to prolonged questioning. This was no surprise to either of the girls who expected to undergo security checks. After all, the US state Department’s website clearly states that US citizens have been subjected to prolonged questioning and searches by Israeli authorities upon entry into Israel. These two girls who are US citizens therefore expected the same treatment as all US citizens, (since the United States formally categorizes all its citizens as Americans irrespective of their background, or so they say.) However, Israel being the innovative gem that it is has created its own categories of what is considers as a US citizens. In Israel, you are either a normal US citizen, or you are a Middle Eastern US citizen , automatically making you not American and simply “dangerous.”. It is also important to note that the State Department’s website also indicates that “U.S. citizens whom Israeli authorities suspect of being of Arab, Middle Eastern, or Muslim origin; those who have been involved in missionary or activist activity; and those who ask that Israeli stamps not be entered into their passport may face additional, often time-consuming, and probing questioning by immigration and border authorities, or may even be denied entry into Israel, the West Bank, or Gaza.” It is after reading this statement that George Orwell’s quote seems extremely fitting with regards to this particular system, “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.”
Animals, a fitting word indeed as very quickly these two girls went from being American to being Arab (a national identity used as a synonym or a justification for the term security threat.) The15 hour process not only covered their family histories and life stories, but also included questions that were simply invasive and irrelevant to a country’s national security, as they claim this is all for.
“Do you feel more Arab or more American?”
“Will you go to Al Aqsa?”
“Do you have any contacts in the West Bank? If we find out that you do you will be denied. Do you understand?”
“You have already been here twice before, why are you coming back? You can go to Venezuela or Mexico, it is much closer to New York and less expensive!” The threat of having Arab youth consistently wanting to come back to the region seemed to be far greater than any other weapon.
In most democratic countries, freedom of thought, speech, and association are considered pillars of a system committed to Human Rights. In the Only Democracy in the Middle East, they are considered pillars to the decision of whether you are allowed to enter the country. “What’s your opinion on the political situation here?” the officer asked Sasha. In fact, political opinion is so important that the soldiers took the liberty of finding out in every way they could what these girls felt about politics. They went through her Facebook page and were alarmed at the “manifests” she had posted about Palestinian issues. These articles were written by publications such as the New York Times and the Huffington post, but to the officers in the room they were dangerous, and unacceptable.
“Okay we are going to do something very interesting now!” exclaimed the officer to Najwa. This was the first time the officer had showed any emotion since the beginning of the interrogation. She proceeded to type www.gmail.com into the browser and turned the keyboard towards Najwa.
“Log in,” she demanded.
“What? Really? Is this even legal?” Najwa was shocked.
She repeated, “Log in.”
The e-mail search was thorough in every sense. The officer began typing in key words such as Israel, Palestine, International Solidarity Movement, and other phrases. She read the emails out loud and mocked what she found in Najwa’s inbox openly to her colleague. When asked if she could log out of her e-mail, the officer replied with a smirk, “You could ask me to log out. But you know what that would mean right? Tell me to log out”, she threatened.
The girls were eventually denied entry into Israel. They were fingerprinted, photographed, searched over and over again, followed around by seven guards and later on taken to a “facility” until their deportation. “Are you taking us to jail?” asked Sasha. The officers insisted it was not a jail but rather a “facility”. A facility with barbed wire, double barred windows, and doors that locked from the outside. The rooms smelled like urine and contained bunk beds with mattresses so fragile they felt like they were made out of duct tape. They shared the room with other women they did not know and did not eat anything. An experience totally unrelated to what one would go through in a jail right? Just a sneak peak of the “hotel” you will stay in if the Only Democracy in the Middle East disapproves of your Facebook profile picture!
The next day the girls received an apathetic call from the US embassy. The woman calling demonstrated America’s power( or lack thereof) in Israel as she replied that there is not much they could do. “I can’t believe we are funding this system with our tax dollars” said Sasha, “I understand the special relationship between America and Israel but there is clearly something wrong with the way we are being treated, there is clearly something wrong with this system!” “Well there are a lot of things wrong with a lot of systems” replied the woman, and the conversation was left at that. Not too surprising of an outcome considering the way Arab Americans and Muslims are treated in US airports (although to be fair it is hard to imagine US airports going this far towards their own citizens.) The girls were eventually escorted from the facility directly to the airplane; they could not even carry their passports and only received them when they finally arrived in New York. What is surprising is that these girls paid for their own detention with their tax dollars (AKA the money that is sent as American Aid to Israel.)
“You don’t need to export democracy to Israel, we’ve already got it, ” proclaimed Netanyahu during his speech to Congress last May when he received about 29 standing ovations. Let us take a step back and evaluate the situation. Yes, random interrogations and deportations occur every day, and it is every country’s right to look after its best interests. Yes, there are countries all over the world with similar discriminatory practices such as Malaysia or Lebanon’s policy of not allowing Israelis into the country. Yes, this story in particular is not a unique one to the experience of other Arab Americans, Muslim Americans, Muslims, Arabs, or Palestinian sympathizers that have attempted to get into Israel and were denied entry either because of their origin or because they support Palestinian human rights. But it is the very fact that this story is not a unique one but a reoccurring one that makes it deserve our attention. These girls are Palestinian Americans. They had never lived in Palestine, and their parents have never even visited. Their origin does not automatically mean that they are terrorists, or that they will engage in demonstrations, or that they have allegiances with extreme groups, or that they are attempting to cause harm to Israel. Therefore, why does Israel view being Arab or supporting Palestinians as being mutually exclusive to their existence? Is this a view that they suspect Arabs of holding, or is it a view that Israel itself holds? Has Israel forgotten the fuss it made in the international community just last September when an Israeli tour group was visiting Turkey and Ankara’s airport authorities dared to detain the group for further questioning for a FULL 90 MINUTES? The amount of times that story was circulated is incomparable to how often media outlets will cover the 5 star treatment of Arabs and Muslims at the Israeli border.
Why is the only democracy in the Middle East discriminating against citizens whose origin is similar to that of some of Israel’s very own citizens? (By this I mean Israeli Arabs , not some feel good metaphor that we are all the one and the same.) Israel is known to discriminate against Israeli Arabs and citizens of the West Bank and Gaza whom are ethnically Arab under the excuse of security. By extending this policy to Arab Americans, is Israel equating being Arab to being a security threat? Most importantly, how can certain inconsistencies be explained; namely the double standard in policies regarding what Israel considers to be “Palestinian”. The State Department’s website states that “Israeli authorities might consider as Palestinian anyone who has a Palestinian identification number, was born in the West Bank or Gaza, or was born in the United States but has parents or grandparents who were born or lived in the West Bank or Gaza. Any such U.S. citizen might be required by the Government of Israel to travel to Israel using a PA passport. Without the PA passport, such U.S. citizens might be barred from entering or exiting Israel.” If that is the logic adopted, then how can Israel consider anyone who has a parent or grandparent born in Israel, the West Bank, or Gaza as Palestinian when it comes to deciding whether or not to grant that person entry, but not consider them as Palestinian when it comes to granting them the Right of Return? Shouldn’t those same people that Israel recognizes as being Palestinian at the airport be considered Palestinian when debating the right of return issue? The formula used is therefore simple, keep them out in any way you can: treat them as Palestinians when convenient in order to prohibit them from entering the country, and then treat them as foreigners when discussing their right of return and the compensation they ask for.
And where does the United States fit in to any of this? What would have happened if these two girls had been detained in Iran, China or North Korea? Wouldn’t their names be all over the news? Wouldn’t Obama mention them in his next speech?
The US has been quick to condemn and just as quick to defend. It is quick to condemn countries such as Iran and China for discriminatory practices, and quick to defend Israel’s discriminatory policies as falling under self defense. However, when comparing the State Department’s web pages on China and Iran to that on Israel’s page, no ethnic group is specifically mentioned as being at risk to enter the country. Tibetans require a special tourist Visa if they seek to enter China, but that is as technical as it gets. There is no denial that these countries adopt brutal policies of discrimination against minorities, but the point is that neither of these countries openly discriminates against such minorities with American passports because they are well aware of how the US can use its authority. Isn’t it ironic that the Only Democracy in the Middle East openly discriminates against US citizens while China and Iran- the two “bad apples” that constantly set off America’s police siren- don’t? If these two countries were to have such policies, would the United States deem these policies as a mere fact of life and be as accepting to such policies that allow for the maltreatment of their own citizens? And when it comes to regional politics, the Middle East has a plethora of governments guilty of breaching international law, human rights violations, and the persecution of certain groups within its population. Syria and Iraq may be immediate examples that come to mind, but Israel is no less oppressive when it comes to the non Jewish population under its control. Syria gets an embargo, Iraq gets a full on invasion, and Israel gets the Nobel Peace Prize…three times!
It is time to stop this charade of referring to a country whose policies of discrimination are pivotal to its existence as a “democracy.” Holding elections and allowing political parties are meaningless in a country whose laws and legislations serve only a select group. Israel is a democracy for its Jewish citizens. A country that sees an ethnic group within its borders as a threat to its existence cannot be a democracy. As Illan Pappe once said, “Israel is what we call in political science as a Herrenvolk democracy, a democracy for the masters…Israel is only a democracy for one group, and given the space it now controls that one group is not even the majority”.
The system is therefore unsustainable, a statement the girls themselves made as they concluded their account of what had happened to them over the weekend. It is a system that holds discriminatory policies as a prerequisite for its survival, and will continue to do so until America decides that it needs to stop being the “whipped” country in the relationship that has to stand back and take it when its own citizens are being mistreated, and on top of that PAY for everything too. “America has no better friend than Israel, and Israel has no better friend than America.” Netanyahu’s words again. Think about it America, where is this relationship going? How long can you keep this up? A country that sucks out the highest amount of US financial aid and then doesn’t have the courtesy to be civil to your own citizens just doesn’t sound like the perfect BFF to me!