The commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of the march on Washington is a historic milestone and heartening symbol of the progress that has been made since then, but it is also a reminder that Martin Luther King’s dream is still far from reality.
At a time when — to quote Michelle Alexander — “more black men are behind bars or under watch of the criminal justice system than there were enslaved in 1850,” the US should be more inclined than ever to recognize the “fierce urgency of now” and end the systems of oppression that continue to render many Americans second-class citizens.
Important decisions by the courts to uphold marriage equality and render policies like stop and frisk unconstitutional have been accompanied by backstepping. A Florida court’s inability to hold George Zimmerman accountable for the killing of Trayvon Martin, the Supreme Court’s weakening of the Voting Rights Act, and the New York Police Department’s designation of entire mosques as terrorist organizations are troubling developments.
Unfortunately, members of Congress have also joined the effort to roll back civil rights. When it reconvenes after the August recess, Congress is set to consider a bill that would codify discrimination against many Americans, and bestow legitimacy on the Jim Crow-like policies practiced by Israel.
Legislation proposed by Barbara Boxer and co-sponsored by 51 other senators would allow Israel to discriminate against US citizens — particularly Palestinian Americans — as part of the Visa Waiver Program and set a precedent for US acquiescence in discrimination by foreign nations.
The proposal to include Israel in the Visa Waiver Program is part of a set of bills called the United States-Israel Strategic Partnership Act of 2013. The original iterations of this legislation, known as the Visa Waiver for Israel Act, proposed that Israel be allowed into the Visa Waiver Program while exempting it from the “reciprocity” requirement, which would require Israel to extend US citizens the same visa privileges it would enjoy under the program.
Members of Congress in both the House and Senate immediately raised concerns about the proposal to exempt Israel from the reciprocity requirement in the Visa Waiver Program, a change meant to accommodate Israel’s routine discrimination against US citizens.
The State Department refuses to release the exact number of US citizens denied entry into Israel, but Israel’s denial of entry and harassment of travelers is so common that the State Department warns “some US citizens holding Israeli nationality, possessing a Palestinian identity card, or of Arab or Muslim origin have experienced significant difficulties entering or exiting Israel or the West Bank.” The State Department’s unwillingness to hold Israel accountable has prompted civil society organizations like the Arab American Institute and American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee to document these cases themselves and follow up with lawmakers.
If admitted under the standard requirements of the Visa Waiver Program, Israel would have to curtail its discrimination against and abusive treatment of American citizens, especially its policies toward people of color and those critical of Israel’s policies.
Following significant opposition from both Democratic and Republican representatives, the reciprocity exemption was taken out of the House bill (H.R. 938). Senate opponents of the exemption were less successful, and their version of the bill included the reciprocity exemption and other language from the Visa Waiver for Israel Act.
Language in the Senate bill would allow Israel to simply make “every reasonable effort” to comply with the reciprocity requirement, an exemption that would allow Israel to continue its discriminatory and abusive practices against US citizens under the guise of security.
Off-the-record reports indicate that the lobby group American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is pushing to have the reciprocity exemption put back into the House version when the bill moves through Congress this fall, a move that may upset some House members who co-sponsored the bill with the understanding that Israel would be held to the same standard as other nations in the Visa Waiver Program.
Opposition to the exemptions by members of Congress took on a number of different forms during behind-the-scenes discussion of the legislation. While Democrats tended to express concerns about the civil rights implications of such an exemption, many Republicans opposed the legislation more generally because it would inhibit the US’ ability to discriminate against Palestinian citizens of Israel.
According to an article in Congressional Quarterly, the Department of Homeland Security appears to oppose the legislation on similar grounds as Republicans, namely because Palestinians “are seen as possible security threats and account for much of Israel’s visa refusal rate” (“Opening visa doors for Israel,” 19 January 2013).
Boxer’s version of the legislation also shifts crucial compliance responsibilities from the Secretary of State and Attorney General to the Secretary of Homeland Security. The proposed venue change would help Israel advocates to circumvent civil rights-based objections from the State Department or Attorney General.
During questioning in a congressional hearing earlier this year, Secretary of State John Kerry explicitly opposed Visa Waiver Program exemptions for Israel, while noting that Congress does have the power to change the law as it sees fit. The State Department’s own travel warning to US citizens implies that Israel violates these rights, but Kerry and Congress have so far taken no action to remedy these abuses.
The proposed shift in certifying authority raised even more alarm when administration and congressional officials began floating Ray Kelly’s name for Secretary of Homeland Security. With Kelly’s long history of promoting discriminatory policing tactics that target people of color, it is hard to imagine he would oppose Israel’s treatment of Muslim and Arab Americans.
If Kelly’s support for stop and frisk policies and police surveillance of Muslim students during whitewater-rafting trips is any indication, he is likely to sympathize with AIPAC’s argument that Muslims, Arabs and anyone who is critical of Israel’s policies pose an inherent national security threat.
While the US has a long record of exporting weapons to Israel, passage of the proposed legislation would take the unprecedented step of importing Israel’s discriminatory laws. Fifty years ago Martin Luther King cautioned civil rights activists, “this is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.”
A weakened Civil Rights Act, proposed legislation threatening to codify discrimination against Americans, and mass incarceration policies targeting people of color are all stark reminders that the struggle for racial equality and social justice is no less urgent today than it was fifty years ago.
Mike Coogan is the legislative coordinator with the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation.