Failed Attempts to Return Home: Discrimination Against Palestinian-Americans at the Israeli Border


Video and Edited Transcript
Nour Joudah & Sandra Tamari
Transcript No. 386 (24 July 2013)




24 July 2013
The Palestine Center
Washington, DC


Nour Joudah:
Hi, everybody. Okay so, first, thanks to the Palestine Center for having us come speak on this issue in particular. I think it’s really gaining a lot of prominence, not even so much for the Visa Waiver Act as much as it’s really gaining prominence in the larger exile experience of Palestinians, particularly those of us who hold Western citizenship. So, first, I should probably just summarize a little bit of my case and get a little familiar with it regarding the entry details, but I don’t want to spend too much time on that.

I moved to Ramallah almost a year ago exactly, and I started teaching at the Friends school there. I was ecstatic to say the least, I’d just graduated from the M.A. program–an M.A. program at Georgetown–and the last place in the world I wanted to be was job hunting in Washington, DC so when someone… when the application went through and I was offered to go teach ninth grade English at Friends [School in Ramallah] it was as if I’d had my dream sort of handed to me on a silver platter.

So I packed up my life and I hopped on a plane and went to Palestine. Shortly after I arrived, the Friends school, through USAID applied for multiple entry visas for all of the international school teachers that were there. We all received one-year multiple entry visas and we were told we were free to come and go as we pleased as long as we stayed within the confines of the dates of the visa, it was not to be… you know, as long as the visa wasn’t expired. And we also had residency permits for both the West Bank as well as Israel, so I was not confined to residency within Ramallah, Area A.

I taught ninth grade English, I had three classes of thirty kids, five days a week. And so as much as I love my kids, suffice it to say by Christmas break I was ready for a break. I needed to get away for a couple of days. So I did that, I took a break for about ten days, and when I came back to the border, just as I had exited, about the day before I left – I actually, I came back to Allenby – I noticed something that was a little strange.

My visa is two pages. It’s like pasted into my passport, and I noticed that they had exit stamped the visa itself, which is very unusual, it’s not done. Usually, you exit-stamp a separate visa page. And they had done that, and that’s what I had noticed on the way out, but on the way back in I noticed that they had also exit-stamped that. And until now I think that that was… my instinct is that that was sort of a flag of some kind, but there’s no particular way for us to know that. So, I went in and suffice it to say after many, many hours I was denied entry and sent on a bus back to Jordan.

Now I think I could go into a lot of detail on how I was at Allenby five hours past closing, I was the only non-Israeli employee within miles of the buffer zone of the border, my passport was held until I went back through Jordanian intelligence. I returned a second time, this time with coordination with the Israeli embassy and my congresswoman here in D.C., and was again denied, detained, and deported, and denied an emergency appeal. And I can answer… I’m happy to answer the questions about the appeal and the case and, you know, what the detention center is like and what the jail cell is like and all of these kind of details about denial scenarios.

But really I think we get way too caught up in the logistics with these stories, and of course that’s not really what’s important. It’s not the exhaustion, and it’s not the logistics of fighting back, if one chooses to really make it a fight. And it’s not even rebuilding your life from the ground up once it’s been taken from you in the way that you were living it. Because ultimately at the end of the day, we as Palestinian-Americans, or Palestinians living in the diaspora with Western citizenship, we have a privilege that other Palestinians don’t have, which is that we have the opportunity to even rebuild that life to begin with.

So what’s important for me is that entry denials for Palestinian-Americans or Palestinian exiles in general who can travel back for visits is simultaneously nothing new at all to the Palestinian narrative as well as a sign of increased recognition by the Israel government that there’s the need to sort of tear down the bridges being built between Palestinians living under occupation and Palestinians living in the diaspora, and further, that discriminatory policies are the only way to propagate the Zionist project, and propagate–more importantly–how to keep tearing those bridges down.

So, when I was asked to speak here today I really wasn’t sure if it was a good idea, I think, in a lot of ways. Or if on a personal level, if it was at a point so soon after everything had happened that I wanted to speak publicly about it. And that’s not to say there hasn’t been–there’s been a lot of press about the case, I’ve written multiple op-eds, but there’s also sort of a myth about the act of telling a story out loud that makes everything suddenly seem a little bit more real, I think.

And so it’s always been a little bit interesting to me that in the Western tradition we’re conditioned to put more legitimacy on the written word, and more importance on the written word over oral history, because for me it’s always been a little bit backwards, it’s been the other way around. Writing was always something that you could manipulate into your own fiction, you could romanticize it the way you want, or be in denial about its romance. But when you get up and you tell a story, even the best of liars can be called out by small children on how much fluff they put into a story, because whether its your tone or the way that you carry yourself, there are facts that pierce through vocalization that don’t in writing. And there is a power in the act of speaking that writing, for all of its strengths and uniqueness lacks completely.

And I’m making a point of saying this, really, not only to explain a sort of emotional hesitation on my part to talk about the experience, but to emphasize how important I actually think it is for people to tell their story in person to others. Not just in op-eds, or essays, or even being fortunate enough to speak in a space like the Palestine Center, but as Palestinians we really have to tell these stories to each other, and to our surrounding communities because ultimately, all of this comes down to one point for me.

In the same way that we talk about the Nakba as an ongoing event, as continuous dispossession, as a living catastrophe, as perpetual ruptures of Palestinian society, and normalized experiences of occupation, exile needs to be understood and discussed in the same way. Exile is not a static experience, and it is redefined throughout our lives in the diaspora and throughout our experiences, and a very tenuous relationship we have with the concept of home.

Now, 1948 is undoubtedly and obviously an unparalleled rupture in our collective memory and history, and I want to be very clear: I don’t presume to claim that my loss or lack of stability this year is equivalent to that of my parents and their childhoods as refugees in the camps in Gaza. But what I do presume and what I think we really have to push is the way that we talk about these denials of entry, and that they are acts and declarations by Israel that are affirmations of exile, and that’s exactly what they are. They’re nothing less than that.

And in that sense, we have to be honest about what is actually so heartbreaking when fellow Palestinians are denied entry. Whether it’s to see family for a couple weeks, whether they’ve actually built lives in the Occupied Territories because they’ve been working there, or because they just simply have never seen their homeland and then they want to set eyes on it for the first time. Entry denials and the subsequent de facto bans that often follow are really reaffirmations of exile.

Now, I have an American passport, I’m a law-abiding, tax-paying citizen – which is something that every press piece really just loved to point out, as if I had ever broken a law or didn’t pay my taxes somehow all of this would be okay. I spent an overwhelming majority of my life in the U.S., I attended elementary, middle school, and high school in the same small American town, with my parents’ main concern being constant school re-zonings. I went to college in the same state, I worked hard to pay my way through an elite graduate school that I couldn’t afford until I managed to get a scholarship, and all of this, and so on, and so on, on the surface, is very standard, right?

But of course like any child of immigrant parents, you start to notice little things as a kid. Your food is a little bit different at home, and your parents are overly stressed out by things that seem normal to everyone else, like prom. And your summers are sprinkled with trips to far away places your classmates can barely point out on a map. And you know this place is home, and you know you can’t actually make it your home, and you know why, but no one else really quite does.

And so briefly, even if it’s for a millisecond, sometimes we forget that our passports didn’t actually wipe our exile away. We grow more confident, and we convince ourselves that there are other ways to be tied to home; that summers going back are grounding, that a short visit is better than nothing. That, yes, America is the place we live, but, hey, I can still travel to Palestine, I know the borders, I’m comfortable in the waiting rooms. And essentially, in simple terms, you think to yourself, I got this, I’m handling things, it’s fine. Until you realize you were never even close to having it handled.

Now this is not to say that we all go into some delusion where we think everything is fine and the occupation doesn’t exist and that right of return can be circumvented by a visa, no. Not at all. I did not forget where I was living and in what circumstance I was living there, and I am certainly not accusing us of altogether forgetting that as a community, but we do have moments, because we are human, and we try to imagine feasible, tangible ways out of exile, where this happens.

Now earlier I said exile isn’t static. And it’s not, in the sense of how it evolves in your life, and your relationship with it, and the shifting political moment of your exile community, it’s not static. But there is one condition of exile that is static. And that is its dulling stability of you always being in it, of never being un-exiled. You can be re-exiled, but gaining citizenship somewhere else does not un-exile a person, only return can do that. Real, full, unadulterated, justice-driven return.

To divorce these entry denials from the greater context of Palestinian dispossession and exile is to let Israel do the same thing. And to allow this to become a sort of side instance or a separate occurrence of discrimination or a civil rights concern simply because we’re privileged enough to hold American passports, that would be the real tragedy.

When I was deported back to Amman the second time, when I flew into Ben-Gurion Airport, I wrote a letter to my students who had been waiting in Ramallah. And I’m just going to read a short excerpt of that, and you can excuse the cheesiness, but keep in mind, they’re fourteen [years old]:

“If you’re angry, that’s okay, be angry. But don’t take that anger out on your teachers, or your studies,” – Not something they necessarily listened to me on– “It’s not their fault. Channel that anger or sadness or frustration into something productive. If you want to do something for me, work on your English, work on expressing yourself beautifully in your writing and your speech so that one day you can tell the world what you know, and help the people around you when you do. Remember, just because I lost this small fight now, doesn’t mean it wasn’t worth fighting, and it doesn’t mean the larger fight is over. Never let anyone keep you from living in your country, it’s always worth standing up for yourself. Don’t forget that there are millions of Palestinians that would give up everything to be in your position, to even have a day in the homeland. Even if it doesn’t always feel like it because of our struggles living under occupation, remember: you being in Palestine is a right that others are still fighting for. It’s your job to use the potential that I know you have to find a way to use your lives to help bring Palestinians around the world together.”

Now I expected responses, and sadness, and heartbreak, but the outflow of shock and outrage from these fourteen-year-old kids, and appreciation for being an example of fighting back was beyond anything I could have foreseen. In all that they see, day in and day out, living under occupation, they could not wrap their minds around what was going on with my case. They were, for the first time in their lives, witnessing exile in action. And it didn’t break their spirits, it made them begin to comprehend the actual vastness of the struggle, that for so long they had limited to the checkpoint across from their homes. They don’t see being deprived of their teacher for a semester as divorced from the occupation they live under, and so therefore, neither should we.

When I said goodbye again to some of them who were in Amman before I came back to the states, they begged me to come back to Allenby with them, they were practically dragging me on the bus to try again at the border. They reminded me that I had told them in class that giving up wasn’t an option. And per usual, kids catch us in our own contradictions, but they also learn their own lessons. Without a peep from me, they started in on their own conversation, and debate, and arm waving, and screaming matches about how you don’t have to be at a border everyday to fight back.

Now for the past six months, every time a story has been written on the Visa Waiver Act, my case, or another one has been mentioned. And every time one of these stories go up, the first people that send me a link aren’t the press, and it’s not congressional staffers, and it’s not family, it’s fourteen-year-old kids in Ramallah who are suddenly paying attention to websites like Counterpunch, I’m like, okay. And the line is always the same: “Miss, it won’t pass, it can’t, keep talking, I promise, it won’t pass.” And, you know, whether it does or not is not particularly the point.

Recently, [Israeli Ambassador] Michael Oren felt the need to remind me that I had legal avenues open to me, to which my lawyer responded, what good are rights if you have to spend six months to get a judge to look at a piece of paper? But this whole visa waiver issue, like the issue of entry denials for Palestinian or Arab-Americans, is symptomatic of a larger issue: that Israel can operate with impunity, and no one will hold them to account.

The Israeli embassy in D.C. wants to act like it coordinated, like it helped, but at the end of the day it was an Israeli judge who accused me of “taking the law into my own hands” when I got on a plane with a valid visa to come back to a place I was living. That’s the truth. And, ultimately, that’s what these talks are for. The op-eds, and the sharing of stories, and the potential of organizing around those stories. It’s about challenging that impunity, it’s about making sure that that impunity does not – that those actions of impunity do not happen without someone speaking about them and doing it publicly and loudly.

And so on that note, I’m actually going to hand it over to Sandra who’s going to talk about her story but also a little bit about how it has been organized, around, in her experiences.

Sandra Tamari:

Hi everyone.  Thank you, Nour. And thanks to the interns at the Palestine Center for organizing this event. It’s really an honor to be here. Hisham Shirabi was one of my mentors, and one of my supervisors actually when I worked at Georgetown, so to be here is quite an amazing thing.

My story is a bit different than Nour’s. I was not living in Palestine; I was going back for a delegation visit.  I was with a group of interfaith peace builders. We were about thirty Americans trying to enter into Palestine through Israel last may, and I was the only person pulled aside at the entry and then interrogated for eight hours, told eventually that I  was seen as a security threat – I know I look like one – and then put on the next plane back to the US after being put into a detention cell over night.

There were other Palestinians that were detained that same day. There was one young man who was trying to get in to see his sick father who was not allowed in. When we went in to the detention center, when I was entering the detention center into the women’s cell, he was being put into the men’s cell and he looked at me and said “Inti kaman? [You too?]” He just couldn’t believe that I was also being detained because he was born in Jerusalem. He sort of, as a Palestinian man, had internalized this racism and just expected that he was going to be treated this way.  When he saw that someone like me, born in the U.S., educated, articulate, all these things [and] that he had in his mind that I was also being detained, I think it was a bit of a surprise to him.

The story gained international press thanks to bloggers. We sent out a press release. I live in St. Louis. I organized with the Palestine solidarity committee, we put out a press release soon after I got back to try to break the story because I knew that I wanted the story to be told. I knew that I wasn’t the only one, but I knew that I had a lot of privilege because I was already an activist and I had a lot of support.  It was really thanks to Mondoweiss for putting the story out there. It was only after Mondoweiss broke the story that even St. Louis press was interested in doing something. Eventually the AP picked up the story. There was also the other two women that were deported in the same week, I believe. So, it got picked up.  Amira Hass called.  She wanted to do a story in Haaretz. It was wonderful.

But I want to show you a small clip because it was Matt Lee of the Associated Press who really gave the State Department a bit of a run for their money and made the press secretary sweat a little bit. So I think this is a fun thing to show:

[see video clip above]

We can move on. It was exciting because Matt Lee was on the trail. This came after a lot of help from national organizations that pushed the story. A lot of members of the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation are here. They were with me the entire time. Jewish Voices for Peace was part of that, Arab American Institute, and American Muslims for Palestine. They organized a joint petition to call on the State Department to end discrimination against U.S. citizens because the U.S. embassy did ask me, “Are you Jewish?” That was the first question when I called the Tel Aviv U.S. citizens line from the detention hall in the airport. When I said, “No, I’m a Palestinian,” the immediate answer was: “there’s nothing we can do to help you. In fact, if we try to intercede on your behalf it will hurt you with the Israelis.”

So the U.S. government was actually admitting that they had no power over the Israelis over discrimination against their own citizens. They said it was in their travel warning that I was going to be targeted, and the thing that got a lot of attention inside Israel is that I was asked for the password [for my email].  Now I didn’t have a laptop. I was smart enough not to take any electronics in. I didn’t have a phone or a laptop with me. The interrogators, the Shin Bet, turned their computer screen around, handed me the keyboard, and asked me to log in to my Gmail account. So it wasn’t even my personal property they were searching, they were searching the servers in California for information on me.

I absolutely agree with Nour that it’s our responsibility to use this story. I have no doubt that AIPAC will get the legislation they want.  It’s very unfortunate. They’re pushing for this visa waiver. They own our Congress in many ways. We are finding that even our allies are very weak on this issue in Congress. We’re not surprised by that. State Department, when we delivered the 18,000 signatures that many of you signed to end discrimination, said, “yeah, we’re very much aware that you’ve been collecting data for over 30 years on these cases, discrimination, but there’s really nothing we can do.”

They did admit that they have records of U.S. citizens that have put in complaints about discrimination at Israeli borders, but they weren’t willing to release any of that data to us. I think some groups are trying now to file freedom-of-information requests to get that data, so we’ll see what comes back.

The U.S.-Israeli Strategic Partnership Act of 2013 that includes the visa waiver would be the first time that a visa waiver is legislated through Congress. This is a program that was put into place by congress, but it’s the State Department that traditionally has been the one that determines if a country meets the criteria. One of the criteria, of course, is reciprocity: that there are travel privileges for both sides that are a part of it. One of the other criteria is that there has to be a visa refusal rate of less than three percent. This is interesting because the U.S. government won’t release the data on how many U.S. citizens are being turned back at Israel’s borders.

But Israel decided recently, Michael Oren, our friend, that it was time to release data. What he tells us now without any documentation to back it up is that 142 U.S. citizens were turned back last year. Now I think that we as a group could probably come up with 142 people just in our circles of friends, so the data is kind of staggering.  Based on that number, he says that the refusal rate for U.S. citizens trying to travel into Israel is .02 percent.   That puts them in a nice position to set themselves up for the visa waiver. They’re trying to assuage some of the concerns that have been raised in Congress about the denial of entry for Palestinian and Arab Americans.

It’s also interesting that Israelis trying to come to the U.S., the refusal rate is 5.4 percent.  The foreign ministry in Israel has told young Israelis that they should not try to travel to America on tourist visas because they’re trying to lower that rate because young people just out of the army don’t have jobs necessarily, maybe don’t have the familial ties. I work in immigration with student services. You have to show that you have ties to your home country to be approved for a visa because it’s a non-immigration visa. These young people are the ones that are rejected at a very high rate so they’re also trying to bring that number down so they’re within that three percent threshold.

We’ll see what the FOIA requests show. We’ll see what Congress has to say. In the end, I think it’s pretty clear that we’re going forward.

The one thing that I want to say too is that Israel did me a lot of favors in some ways. I’d been traveling back and forth quite a bit. Back in the early nineties, I was living in Jordan and it was very simple for me to go back and forth. You go to the Allenby bridge, the same two Israeli soldiers are there with one X-Ray machine and I would, anytime I had break from my university studies, I would travel for the weekend. It’s a very different process now of course. But my ties there were deep.  I have a strong connection to the place, and I was looking forward to this time to be there, not just doing family visits, but to really be talking to people who are involved in grassroots activism.

But I guess the question for me has been, do we really want AIPAC to set the agenda for us here in the U.S. as the Palestinian community, as activists that are in solidarity with Palestine?  I would say that because of the gift that Israel has given me, I have more of a mega-phone.  I wouldn’t have been invited to be here. I was invited to speak at the Jewish Voices for Peace national conference. There have been lots of opportunities for me to speak in St. Louis among the churches, to be really pushing for action rather than just talk on this issue.

I want to give you an example of how this is playing out in the Midwest, in Saint Louis. How the act of telling our stories as Palestinians has impacted grassroots activism.  I think it’s very important what Nour pointed out that telling stories is very important. People can argue about historic data and dates and facts and who attacked whom first, and all of these things, but they can’t challenge your personal history.  It’s much more difficult to challenge someone’s story because it’s something that is yours, and they didn’t experience it and they don’t know it. We really need to understand that our stories are paramount.

In St. Louis, we’re very much involved in Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions programs. One of the companies that we’ve been focusing on is Veolia. Maybe you’ve heard of this company. It’s a multinational French company that does municipal services.  The reason they’re a target of the BDS campaign is because they provide services to the settlements.  They provide water services, trash collection; they run buses in the West Bank that are segregated. They run on the segregated roads in the West Bank, and so Veolia buses are segregated.

We in St. Louis found out that Veolia was bidding for a water contract. It’s a small water contract. It was sort of a Trojan horse. They want to have much more control over the water, we have the Mississippi river, we have a lot of valuable resources that a company like Veolia would love to have.  We found out about it and we have managed now to block this contract now for a total of 8 months. We’re waiting to see what the mayor decides to do with all of our protests, but it looks like we’re going to stall this for some time to come.

Because of all the public outcry that was started by the Palestine Solidarity Committee, a public hearing was called just in July, earlier this month. The hearing lasted for three hours. It was held in city hall, in front of the public utilities council of the city council, and it was pretty amazing. A lot of Palestinians spoke up to tell their stories. I told my story about what had happened to me trying to get in. And, you could see the faces of the city council members as they listened and began to internalize what the Palestinians were saying about the discrimination that was going on.

And we of course tied it into a context of apartheid, and the civil rights movement in the U.S. because St. Louis is a majority African-American city and is facing lots and lots of issues with racism. It was a message that was heard, and toward the end of the three hour testimony, the Veolia spokesperson, the executive, they flew lots of people in for this. They thought we were a challenge. One of the Veolia executives stood up to defend the company against these charges of the segregated busses, and something pretty dramatic happened, and I’d like to show you if we can get the clip to work.

[see video clip above]

Obviously the stories were powerful enough to get a city council person to say, “You’re not really telling the truth here, we understand what’s going on.”  I just want to empower people to tell their stories. Our perspective in the heartland, if you will, is very different than it is in Washington. I certainly am going to be putting my focus on grassroots organizing. It’s where I think we can be most effective. I’m much less concerned with having conversations with congressional staff who want to tell me how to tell my story or tell me that my issue is separate than the larger narrative of Palestinian exile. Our story is about achieving equality, justice, and freedom for all Palestinians, and not just those of us who are privileged to be in this country.  Thank you.

Nour Joudah has a Master of Arts in Arab Studies from Georgetown University. She researches the role and perception of exile politics within the Palestinian liberation struggle, in particular among politically active Palestinian youth living in the United States and Occupied Palestine. She spent a year teaching English to Palestinian elementary students at the Friends School in Ramallah before being denied re-entry after a vacation. Now Assistant Editor at the Journal of Palestine Studies, she is also a Jadaliyya researcher and blogs regularly for Electronic Intifada.

Sandra Tamari is a Palestinian-American and Quaker peace and social justice activist. She holds a Master’s degree in International Development, Arab Studies from Georgetown University and was a Fulbright scholar in Jordan. She has worked in the West Bank on political prisoner rights and recently completed a year in Lebanon where she focused on Palestinian refugee issues. She serves on the Steering Committee of the U.S. Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation. In June of last year, she was also arbitrarily denied entry to Israel after she refused to allow Israeli authorities to search through her private email. Because of this she was blacklisted from Israel and can not attempt to enter the country again for ten years.

This transcript may be used without permission but with proper attribution to The Palestine Center. The speaker’s views do not necessarily reflect the views of The Jerusalem Fund.