Why the Visa Waiver Is Such a Big Deal

By | Oct 02, 2023

Jewish politics and power

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1. Biden’s Gift to Israelis

Early last Wednesday, a short, formal notification from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security marked the conclusion of a years-long campaign to end what Israel viewed as unjust discrimination against its citizens and what the United States saw as fundamentally a procedural issue.

In the notice, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas approved Israel’s entry into the Visa Waiver Program, becoming the 41st country in the world whose citizens can travel to America and stay for up to 90 days without a visa. 

While Israel has until next spring to satisfy a few lingering compliance issues, by November 30 Israelis will be allowed to enter the United States for visits of up to 90 days without having to obtain a visa in advance.

Israel had long sought this status. Its diplomats and officials raised the issue time and again with their U.S. counterparts, wondering aloud how so many other countries were able to enjoy this perk, while Israel—one of America’s closest allies—was not.

A couple of years ago, negotiations finally moved to a practical track. The United States made it clear to Israel that it wasn’t about geopolitical friendships between nations but about procedure, and that once Israel complied with all the requirements, it could join the program.

Dedicated teams on both sides went to work, checking the boxes in the extensive list of requirements. Some, like switching to machine-readable passports, were easy. Another key demand, requiring a visa refusal rate lower than 3 percent, simply happened on its own as the number of Israelis trying to work illegally in the United States dropped. One requirement, regarding access to criminal record registrations, needed new legislation. 

And then there was the toughest demand of all—reciprocity. For Israelis to be allowed to enter the United States visa-free, all American citizens needed to enjoy the same right when entering Israel. All Americans—including those of Palestinian descent or living in the Palestinian territories. Until now, Israel had barred Palestinian Americans from traveling through Ben-Gurion Airport and imposed strict limitations on their freedom of travel between Israel and the West Bank and Gaza. Initially, Israel argued that this discrimination stemmed from security needs and could not be avoided. U.S. officials responded that without equal treatment of all those holding American passports, there was no deal. It took a while, but Israel gave in. Apparently, even security concerns can be adjusted, for the right price.

2. Why Are Visas Such a Big Deal?

For Israelis, this is a very big deal.

In part, it’s a matter of national pride. Israelis felt a sense of insult as they watched travelers from, say, Poland or Chile, Estonia or Belgium enter freely, while Israelis were at the mercy of the U.S. embassy consular officer vetting their visa requests.

But there’s also a very practical aspect. In order to visit the United States, Israelis have had to pay heavy fees, wait months for an embassy interview appointment, provide documents and records proving they have no immigration intentions and then hope for the best.

Israel is a nation of travelers, and the arduous visa process left many unable to add the United States to their destination list. Some were deterred by the lengthiness of the process and by the fees; others who do not hold permanent jobs, such as teens or students, were simply refused.

Now, as part of the Visa Waiver Program, Israelis will only need to register online, and they can hop on a plane to New York. For Israeli civilians, there’s a sense that America finally trusts them.

3. Is the Biden Administration Playing Nice With Netanyahu?

Briefing reporters on the addition of Israel to the Visa Waiver Program, an administration official made a point of stressing that this was not a favor to Israel, but rather a move that would benefit both countries.

There’s nothing wrong with doing favors to Israel or any other nation, but that’s the last thing the Biden administration wants to be seen as doing right now. After nine months of criticizing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing government’s efforts to weaken Israel’s judiciary, Biden doesn’t want to appear to be delivering Netanyahu a victory.

Perhaps that is the reason the Department of Homeland Security did not invite any Israeli politicians to the announcement ceremony, at which Israel was represented only by its ambassador to Washington, Mike Herzog.

In Jerusalem, however, Netanyahu did not pass on the PR opportunity. The prime minister and his national security adviser, who coordinated the visa efforts, hosted a televised ceremony, which came on the heels of several gushing press releases praising the move as a sign of the strong bond between the two nations. 

4. Cracking Down on Antisemitism, Again

Back in May, the Biden administration rolled out the first-ever U.S. National Strategy to Counter Antisemitism, a 60-page document identifying antisemitism as a growing problem in America and outlining a government-wide policy for tackling anti-Jewish hatred.

Last week, the administration took a first step in adding substance to this ambitious project, by announcing the broadening of the 1964 Civil Rights Act so it can be used to protect against antisemitic and Islamophobic bias.

Eight government agencies, including the departments of Health and Human Services, Agriculture, Treasury, Homeland Security, Housing and Urban Development, Labor, Interior and the Department of Transportation, were informed that the Civil Rights Act’s Title IV should be interpreted as including protection against “certain forms” of antisemitism, Islamophobia and other religious biases. 

This opens the door to taking legal measures if such instances occur in these agencies or in institutions funded by them.

There is an important caveat. The term “certain cases” of antisemitism and Islamophobia was inserted because the Civil Rights Act was not originally meant to provide protection against discrimination based on religion. The expansion of the Title IV definition now prohibits discrimination based on ancestry, citizenship, style of dress, foreign language, accent, etc. “These actions,” the administration noted in a detailed fact sheet published last week, “provide details about how these protections may cover individuals of many different faith traditions, such as people who are Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Christian, Hindu or Buddhist.”

5. Senator Feinstein, a True Trailblazer

California Senator Dianne Feinstein passed away Friday at the age of 90. The longest serving woman senator, Feinstein grew up in a family of mixed faith heritage and chose Judaism as her faith at 20. Serving the public as an elected official for decades, she overcame both misogyny and antisemitism, opening the door for generations of women who followed in her footsteps to the heart of American politics.

It’s worth taking a moment to read more about Feinstein’s Jewish life in this extensive and well-reported obituary published in J. The Jewish News of Northern California.

Top Image: hjl (CC BY 2.0) / Ajay Suresh (CC BY 2.0)

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