On Christmas day last year, Nour Joudah, a young Palestinian American teaching English to high schoolers at the Quaker-affiliated Friends school Ramallah, left the occupied West Bank to Jordan for a ten-day holiday. What was meant to be a short visit turned into a two-month stay after Israel denied Joudah entry at Allenby crossing on 5 January, even though she has a multiple-entry work visa approved by Israel’s interior ministry.
Joudah attempted to return to the West Bank again via Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv on Monday, upon the advice of the Israeli embassy after inquiries were made by members of US Congress on her behalf. But Joudah was once again denied entry and sent back to Jordan on Tuesday.
Joudah, who occasionally blogs for The Electronic Intifada, talked to me about her ordeal today via Skype.
Maureen Clare Murphy: On Monday you were detained at Ben Gurion airport and eventually deported. Can you explain what happened?
Nour Joudah: About a few days before I flew, my congresswoman’s office, Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, along with Congressman Keith Ellison’s office, received a response from the Israeli embassy in Washington, DC, which they had been corresponding with for a couple of weeks, requesting the reason for my initial denial [of entry] at Allenby on January 5.
The Israeli embassy in DC responded that, according to whoever they spoke to at COGAT [the Israeli office for civil administration of the occupied West Bank], at the border I supposedly refused to answer certain questions. [The embassy advised] that I can and should try to re-enter, and the that Israel embassy would help me when I did so. They said I could choose which border to go to; I decided I would fly to Tel Aviv instead of going to Allenby again because Fouad, the USAID [the US development agency] representative who works on visas with the Friends school, has security clearance to meet me at my gate at Tel Aviv, while he doesn’t have that clearance to meet me at Allenby. So he met me at my gate and was with me all day as I was waiting and being questioned.
MCM: So you were first denied entry in January?
NJ: I was denied entry on January 5. I left on Christmas Day, December 25, to go and spend some time with friends for Christmas and New Years, and I tried to re-enter on January 5 and was denied for the first time.
MCM: It seems pretty arbitrary why they denied you entry. You still haven’t gotten a really clear answer as to why.
NJ: No, we still haven’t gotten an answer. They responded to [the Israeli daily] Haaretz that my reason for my second denial was the same, that I refused to cooperate with security questions, which is just a complete lie.
I answered every single question that they had the first time, and I answered every single question that they had the second time. In fact, the second time, knowing what the [stated] reason [for denying me entry] was the first time, I even asked my interrogator specifically, “Have I answered all your questions,” and he said, “Yes.” I [asked], “Do you have anything else you want to ask?” and he said, “If I have a follow-up I’ll come and find you.” He came and found me later with a follow-up, and I answered his follow-ups. The idea that there wasn’t cooperation is just silly.
Haaretz mentioned the question [posed by the interrogator regarding] acquaintances that I had between August and December and I [told the interrogator that] I hang out with the other American teachers and my roommates, the names of which they already knew, and that wasn’t satisfactory. [The interrogator] was sarcastic and snide and said, “But you’re so friendly, surely you know more people than that.” Basically they wanted me to give him a list of every young Palestinian that I knew so that he could create a file of phone numbers to tap. And I wasn’t going to give him that, that’s just silly.
MCM: So how long were you questioned both on Monday and previously at Allenby?
NJ: At Allenby [in January] I arrived on the Israeli-controlled side at about 11:30am and was put back on a bus to Jordan at 6pm and wasn’t told I was being denied entry until that very moment. And [on Monday] I landed in Tel Aviv at around 12:30 and was denied at 7:30 and wasn’t told until the last minute that I was being denied entry.
MCM: Did they put you in immigration detention at Ben Gurion airport?
NJ: Yeah. So what happened is that after they told me that I was denied, we went and got my luggage from baggage claim. They scanned all of my luggage inside out multiple times, took everything out, checked it. They did a body search and then they processed me in an office, took a picture, did some paperwork that I wasn’t allowed to see, and then I was escorted to an armored van. I was placed in the van and taken to an immigration detention center where I spent the night.
MCM: Why do you think Israel denied you entry, like they have to so many Palestinian Americans in particular?
NJ: I think in regards to the particular sort of decision making that happened, my personal opinion is that someone made a mistake at Allenby and they know it and that the Shabak [also known as the Shin Bet], the security apparatus, is annoyed that the diplomatic corps and the political corps are questioning their decision or helping me challenge their decision. I think in some ways they were looking for a way to let me in [on Monday] but they didn’t know how to let me in and save face; they didn’t know how to let me in without saying they had made a mistake at Allenby. This is a very much a case of cognitive dissonance and institutional infighting.
MCM: They routinely deny entry to Palestinian Americans. Do you have any thoughts about why there is this pattern?
NJ: I think it is very clear that they want as few people with Palestinian origin in what they consider Israel and the occupied territories because they don’t even want the [Palestinians] that are there. So why in God’s name would they want us returning in any form or fashion, even if it’s for a limited period or for a visit? … They consider no one’s citizenship valuable if you have an Arab name, end of story; your citizenship is completely irrelevant to them and they are [indifferent] to any sort of law or alliances with any other countries. They do what they want arbitrarily and the US embassy and State Department know it.
MCM: Do you have any further recourse to try to return to your life in Ramallah or is it too soon to tell?
NJ: It’s a little bit too soon to tell.
MCM: You’re still trying to figure out your options?
NJ: Yeah, I’m still looking at options right now.
MCM: What kind of reactions have you gotten to the news about your deportation, and have your students been following your case?
Yeah, the reactions from friends, family and other organizations that have been following the case are that of surprise and shock. A few individuals from Human Rights Watch have been following, the press and that kind of thing, and everyone has been surprised and shocked. The USAID representative was very surprised by the way that it’s been handled. The arbitrariness of it is very clear. Had I simply not gone on vacation for ten days, I would still be teaching. There is absolutely nothing that they would have had reason to come and find me in Ramallah and deport me from there. They absolutely wouldn’t have done that. It just happens to be that I took a vacation, I put myself in their crosshairs, so to speak, and they completely took advantage of an opportunity to make sure I couldn’t go back to the work that they had already pre-approved for me to do.
As far as my students, they’ve been following everything, every minute, and and they are totally devastated. I’ve been trying my best to try and talk them through it and tell them that these are things that happen and they need to focus on their studies and I’ll always be in touch with them and anything that they need, I’m still around for — and that I don’t regret going to teach them and I don’t regret fighting to get back, regardless of what the result is.
MCM: Tell me a little bit about your time in Ramallah — how long were you there and what was it like teaching 9th graders at the Friends school?
NJ: I arrived in Ramallah at the end of August; my visa was granted to me in early September.
Teaching at the school has been great. Teaching high school is always a challenge and teaching high school in the Arab world is an even bigger challenge; the kids are rambunctious. It’s also a private school, so there’s a sense of entitlement that is around [like] any other private school in the world. But it was an absolute joy to teach there. I had a lot of fun with the kids, and developed a special bond with the students. I tried my best to make the class about more than grammar and short stories, and really pushed ideas of critical thinking and how to develop essays.
The kids have been writing to me, and I think the hardest part is how much they’ve told me: yours is the only class we looked forward to going to every day, English isn’t the same without you. And I can only hope that they can get excited again about that part of their studies, because there are a lot of kids with a lot of potential in that class and I would hate for them to slip because they’ve had a teacher switch in the middle of the year.
MCM: I’m really sorry that this happened to you and I’m sorry that your students lost their teacher. Is there anything else that you’d like to tell EI’s readers about your experience?
NJ: I think it’s important for people to know that while this an unjust and outrageous thing that has happened — that I had all of the proper paperwork, that there was no reason for my denial, that I’ve been stranded in a foreign country for two months for no particular reason, having to live on my own resources, hire a lawyer and all of these kinds of things — at the end of the day, my situation is extremely more privileged than many others.
At the end of the day, the worst-case scenario is that I go home to my parents and my family in the United States. I have the right to these appeals and to hire this lawyer because I’m an American citizen. Other Palestinians don’t have this right and they don’t have always the resources that I’ve had and the support system that I’ve had. And I think that’s really something that needs to be emphasized.
[Israel is] doing this to American citizens while lobbying the US Congress to let Israeli citizens into the United States without visas, they’re trying to pass the Israeli visa waiver act in Congress, so that’s an interesting hypocritical contradiction there. So while that’s an important point to be discussed, it’s also an important point that these arbitrary denials also happen to Palestinian ID-holders, they happen to Jerusalem ID-holders, and these are not people who have the same sources and diplomatic pressure that can be put on [Israel] like an American can. I think that’s an important part to remember.