State Dept.: Israel’s discrimination keeps it out of visa waiver deal


Discrimination against visiting Arab-Americans is the primary reason Israel is not eligible for a program allowing Israeli tourists in to the United States without visas, the Obama administration said.

“The Department of Homeland Security and State remain concerned with the unequal treatment that Palestinian Americans and other Americans of Middle Eastern origin experience at Israel’s border and checkpoints, and reciprocity is the most basic condition of the Visa Waiver Program,” Jen Psaki, the State Department spokeswoman, said March 21 in her daily briefing with reporters.

The State Department warns Americans of Arab descent that they may be delayed or even turned back when arriving at Israeli points of entry.

Israel says its rate of refusal of entry for Arab-Americans is not disproportionate and notes that under the Oslo agreements with the Palestinians, foreigners of Palestinian descent undergo a different entry protocol.

There have been a number of efforts in Congress over the years to exempt Israel from visa waiver rules; the most recent is stalled in the Senate.

Psaki’s remarks came after several weeks in which a number of lawmakers, led by Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), have criticized U.S. consular services for their rate of refusal of young Israelis.

The required maximum rate of refusal of entry for entering the U.S. visa waiver program is 3 percent. Last year, Israel’s was at 9.7 percent, up from 5.4 percent the year before.

Israel’s rate of refusal for visas is low relative to many other countries, and rates of refusal for other U.S. allies also spiked last year, but there is evidence that Israel’s number is climbing because consular officials are wary of young Israeli travelers illegally peddling Dead Sea wares on U.S. trips.

On Friday, Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, told reporters she had spoken with Dan Shapiro, the U.S. ambassador to Israel, about the issue.

“These kids have completed their national service,” Lowey said, referring to the young Israeli travelers. “I’m concerned there aren’t many countries where they can travel safely” besides the United States.

Psaki in her briefing said the rate of refusal for young Israelis was not disproportionate.

“Over 90 percent of Israeli applicants for tourist visas to the United States are approved,” she said.”For young Israelis, over 80 percent of visa applicants are approved for a visa.”

Lots of listening, no grand initiatives expected on Obama’s Mideast trip


When President Obama visits Israel next week, Gavriel Yaakov wants him to jump-start the peace process.

“I’m excited,” said Yaakov, 67, sitting in a Tel Aviv mall. “I want negotiations to get to an agreement on a long-term peace with the Palestinians.”

Yaakov said he trusts Obama, but his friend, Yossi Cohen, is more skeptical.

“I’m not excited,” said Cohen, 64, who charged that the president supports Islamists and “hasn't done anything” to prevent an Iranian nuclear weapon.

“No one has helped,” Cohen said. “Whoever thinks there will be peace, [it will take] another 200 years.”

Their views reflect two of the president's overriding concerns as he prepares to embark on a three-day trip to Israel next week.

Obama remains deeply unpopular in Israel, with approval ratings of about 33 percent last year, and Jewish leaders and local analysts are urging him to try to improve his relationship with the Israeli public. But the president also is seen as wanting to promote a renewed effort at Middle East peace, though administration officials, wary of a top-down push for peace, have emphasized that the president is leaving such initiatives up to the parties there.

In a meeting with American Jewish leaders last week, Obama conceded that the short-term outlook for a peace agreement is “bleak,” but that prospects could improve in the coming months. Instead, the president was focused on how best to reach out to Israelis, participants said, asking for input about what he should say and whom he should try to reach.

Obama held a similar meeting with Arab-Americans, soliciting their input about his trip and expressing his “commitment to the Palestinian people” and to partnering with the Palestinian Authority in an effort to establish “a truly independent Palestinian state.”

“It creates an opportunity not only for a new beginning between the president's second term and the prime minister of Israel, who is beginning a new term — assuming he puts together a government, which I think he will,” Dennis Ross, Obama's top Iran policy adviser in his first term, said at last week's American Israel Public Affairs Committee conference, before Netanyahu had established his coalition.

“But I think it also is a chance to create a connection with the Israeli public and to demonstrate unmistakably when the president says that he's determined to prevent Iran from having nuclear weapons, he isn't saying that from a distance. It's not an abstraction. He can go and he can address the Israeli public directly.”

Obama will land at Ben-Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv on March 20. He is scheduled to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Shimon Peres, as well as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Peres will present Obama with the Presidential Medal of Distinction, Israel's highest civilian honor.

His itinerary includes a visit to an Iron Dome missile defense battery, the Israel Museum, the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum and the graves of Theodor Herzl and slain Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. After departing Israel on March 22, Obama will travel to Jordan for consultations with King Abdullah.

The night before his departure, he will address thousands of Israeli students at Jerusalem's convention center. The speech is consistent with Obama's history of directly addressing the public during his trips abroad, and specifically young people.

“I think this is consistent with his town squares,” said Alan Solow, a top Obama fundraiser and former chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. “He recognizes that in the future, the world will be flatter than today and it's essential that future leaders understand the good intentions of the United States to promote a better and more peaceful world.”

Obama's engagement with Mideast peacemaking was turbulent in his first term. His relationship with Netanyahu has been rocky at best, and his previous attempt to restart the peace process, in 2010, failed after three weeks.

The president's low approval rating in Israel is likely only to complicate matters. The 33 percent rating is actually a significant improvement over his first term, when pressure on Israel to freeze settlement expansion in the West Bank helped push his approval numbers below 10 percent.

“Obama needs to reestablish a relationship of trust with the Israeli public,” said Yossi Klein Halevi, a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute. “Whether Obama likes it or not, Netanyahu is the elected leader of the State of Israel, and whether Netanyahu likes it or not, Obama is the elected leader of the U.S. It’s time for the two leaders to accept the inevitable and learn to work together.”

U.S. administration officials have aimed to lower expectations for any concrete outcome to the Obama trip, denying recent reports in the Israeli media that the president is preparing a major peace initiative and emphasizing that he intends to do a lot of listening. Analysts say in order to make progress on the peace front or the Iranian nuclear threat, another issue much on the minds of Israelis, Obama needs to be more candid about past failures.

“For a game-changing speech, you need to speak realistically,” said Gil Troy, a McGill University history professor who is also a Hartman fellow. “You can’t pretend it’s the start of the Oslo peace process. You need to move forward based on the failures. I think Israelis are primed for it.”

Klein Halevi said a similar honesty should be evident in Obama's treatment of the Iran issue. Israelis are doubtful of the president's repeated assertion that all options are on the table in addressing the nuclear threat, he said, and urged the president to speak directly to the Iranian leadership in his convention center address.

“When Obama speaks on Iran, he shouldn’t be speaking only to the Israeli public,” Klein Halevi said. “He should be directly addressing the leadership of Iran from Jerusalem.”

Despite the caution coming from the White House, Israelis are anything but unified in their skepticism of a new peace push. On Facebook, 23,000 people have “liked” a push to have Obama address the masses at Rabin Square, the emotionally charged plaza where the prime minister who signed the Oslo Accords was assassinated in 1995.

“We want to send the message that there’s a public desire to turn the page and strive for peace,” said Amit Youlzari, 31, the lead organizer.

With Obama set to speak in Jerusalem, Youlzari has helped arrange for the speech to be shown on large projection screens in the square.

“We want to tell the U.S. that we support Obama and the messages we hear from him,” Youlzari said. “And we want to send the world a picture of a full plaza of people who want peace.”

Ben Sales reported from Tel Aviv and Ron Kampeas from Washington.

Religious groups urge understanding following Sikh Temple shooting


Religious groups are calling for tolerance after six people were killed in a shooting attack at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin.

The Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the Jewish Theological Seminary, Rabbis for Human Rights-North America, the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and the Rabbinical Assembly of Conservative Judaism have joined with Shoulder to Shoulder, a national religious, faith-based and interfaith organization, to encourage Americans to join special services with their local Sikh communities in the wake of Sunday’s shooting outside of Milwaukee.

“As we wait for further information regarding the motive of the shooter, we reiterate our deep commitment to a United States that is able to tolerate and respect the many religious traditions that live together in this great country,” Christina Warner, campaign director for Shoulder to Shoulder, said in a statement. “The tragedy in Milwaukee shows painfully the need for Americans of all faiths to learn about one another and embrace the diverse religious tapestry of the United States.”

Along with the deaths, at least three people, including a police officer, were injured in the attack.

The Anti-Defamation League condemned the violence and reached out to the Sikh community at a national level to express concern, condolences and solidarity, as well as offer its resources and guidance on institutional security and response in the aftermath of a hate crime.

“Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, ADL and law enforcement officials have documented many apparent ‘backlash crimes’ directed at Muslim, Sikh, and Arab Americans,” said ADL National Director Abraham Foxman. “We have raised concern about a spike in bigotry against Muslims and others perceived to be of Middle Eastern origin. This attack is another gruesome reminder that bigotry and hate against those whose religion makes them ‘different’ or ‘other’ can have deadly consequences.”

The U.S. Department of Justice has investigated more than 800 incidents since 9/11 involving violence, threats, vandalism and arson against Arab Americans, Muslims, Sikhs, South-Asian Americans and other individuals perceived to be of Middle Eastern origin.

Community Briefs


Suit Against Gun Makers Dismissed

A damage suit against the manufacturers of guns used by white supremacist Buford O. Furrow Jr. in his attack on the North Valley Jewish Community Center and the killing of postal worker Joseph S. Ileto was dismissed Monday by a federal judge.

The suit was brought by Ileto’s mother and the parents of the three children wounded in the Aug. 10, 1999 attack on the Jewish center in Granada Hills.

U.S. District Judge Audrey B. Collins expressed sympathy for the victims, but ruled that their lawyers had failed to demonstrate a link between the gun makers and Furrow’s shooting rampage. Furrow is serving multiple life sentences in a federal prison. — Tom Tugend, Contributing Editor

Jordan’s King Comes to Hollywood

King Abdullah II of Jordan got the royal treatment from Hollywood’s Jewish elite last week (March 18-19) when he visited the DreamWorks studio.

The young monarch had asked specifically asked to meet Steven Spielberg, and the famed director obliged by showing the visitor around the set of “Catch Me If You Can,” an in-production film starring Tom Hanks.

According to Variety columnist Army Archerd, the king also expressed special interest in “Shrek,” so DreamWorks honcho Jeffrey Katzenberg conducted a tour for the king through the studio’s animation department.

Longtime Hollywood player Merv Adelson, active in many Jewish causes, hosted the king at a luncheon, whose guest list included Warner Bros. chairman Barry Meyer.

The official purpose of the king’s visit was to promote a forthcoming Travel Channel documentary on Jordan, in which he rides both a camel and a motorcycle. — T.T.

Anti-Arab Hate Crimes Down

Hate crimes committed against Arab Americans in California have fallen more than 90 percent since an upsurge of such crimes in September 2001, according to a report by state Attorney General Bill Lockyer. The report, released Feb. 28, tracks a steady decline in hate crimes in 17 police and sheriffs jurisdictions, from a high of 182 attacks in the weeks immediately following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks to seven in January 2002. In all, the report lists 294 hate crimes committed against Arab or Muslim Americans, Sikhs, South Asians and others mistaken for Arabs or Muslims since Sept. 11. Seventy one anti-Arab hate crimes were reported in October, 21 in November, 13 in December and seven in January. More than one-third of the reported attacks have occurred in Los Angeles. — Mike Levy, Staff Writer

Pro-Palestinian Groups Prepare for
Rally

A public forum in support of the Palestinian cause drew a standing- room-only crowd of supporters to Holman United Methodist Church in Los Angeles on March 2. The meeting, held in preparation for an April 20 March on Washington, was sponsored by the group Act Now to Stop War and End Racism, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, and the Palestinian American Women’s Association.

The pro-Palestinian meeting drew supporters from a broad swath of progressive and radical causes; flyers and literature handed out before the speeches advocated for Greenpeace, Mumia abu-Jamal and Leonard Peltier, along with the anti-war and pro-Palestinian purpose of the afternoon. Following a 10 minute video titled “Intifada: The Road to Freedom,” speakers, including former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark, addressed the crowd.

A second rally in support of the Palestinians is scheduled for Saturday, March 30, at the Westwood Federal Building. — M.L.

Assembly to Consider Holocaust Education
Bill

The Assembly will consider a bill this week that would improve education about the Holocaust. Co-authored by Assemblymen Paul Koretz (D-West Hollywood) and Paul Wyland (R-Escondido), Assembly Bill 2003 would create a statewide educational program for teaching about the Holocaust and the Armenian Genocide.

Known at The Holocaust/Genocide Education Act, the bill would require that survivor testimony be included as part of any Holocaust curriculum, but leave the rest of curriculum planning to educators. The bill’s centerpiece provision would create “Centers for Excellence” at California State University schools. The centers would provide training for teachers on methods and materials to use in teaching about the Holocaust and the Armenian Genocide. Approximately 80 percent of new teachers in California are trained at a California State University.

Thirty-eight assemblymembers have already committed to supporting the bill, including Speaker Herb Wesson. Scott Svonkin, chief of staff for assemblymember Koretz, says the only significant opposition to the bill has been an e-mail campaign apparently orchestrated by Turkish organizations.

Gov. Gray Davis has expressed support for the bill, which could be on his desk by July. — M.L.