Ostensible concerns in the American intelligence community that Israelis could abuse eased visa arrangements to spy on the US are unsubstantiated and draw on false stereotypes that Jews are disloyal citizens and cannot be trusted, Abraham Foxman, the national director of the Anti-Defamation League, said.
As officials in Jerusalem and Washington hail unprecedented levels of bilateral security and intelligence cooperation, the public is obligated to speak out against the use of such clichés, he said in an interview with The Times of Israel.
“Everybody spies. But I don’t hear [similar] arguments over visa waivers applied to any other country,” he said, referring to reports quoting American intelligence officials who are skeptical of current efforts by the State Department to admit Israel to its Visa Waiver Program because they worry about Israeli espionage.
“There are a lot of countries trying to get visa waivers with the US. I have not seen or heard, on any of these countries who are trying to get it, the argument that they spy. And I assume that there’s spying from France, and I’m sure there’s spying from Poland, there’s spying from China, etc. And yet you don’t hear [similar accusations] out of official circles,” he said.
After the State Department started looking for ways to help Israel join the program, a report surfaced quoting top congressional aides saying that US intelligence sources are wary of such a step because it would heighten the risk of Israeli agents trying to gather intelligence in the United States. “The US intelligence community is concerned that adding Israel to the Visa Waiver Program would make it easier for Israeli spies to enter the country,” a senior House aide told the Roll Call website.
Congressional aides said officials from the State and Homeland Security departments and intelligence officials expressed such concerns in a classified briefing to congressmen and staffers on the House Judiciary Committee, which has jurisdiction over visa issues, the site reported.
“Let’s assume the intelligence community has that view and it provided that opinion to congressional committees. Somebody had it in their interest to leak it,” Foxman told The Times of Israel Tuesday during a visit to Israel. “And this issue that Israelis are [purportedly] extraordinary in their desire to spy in America is one of these things that have plagued the relationship, [even] before [the arrest of Jonathan] Pollard,” he said, referring to the case of the US-born navy intelligence analyst who is serving a life sentence in a North Carolina prison for spying for Israel.
“Pollard only gave it a patina of legitimacy. But every couple of years, sometimes every couple of months, something surfaces,” said Foxman, who is stepping down as director of the ADL in 2015 after 27 years. Several US administrations have been wary of Israeli spying, but Washington is apparently considerably less concerned about espionage from other governments, he said bitterly.
Pollard, who was caught in 1985, cannot alone be the reason for Washington’s exaggerated suspicions, Foxman said, arguing that Pollard’s arrest and sentencing was a singular incident in over 60 years of bilateral relations.
Rather, Foxman said he suspected that “there is a stereotype out there that Jews can’t be trusted, that Jews can’t be loyal. We’ve been polling for the last 40, 50 years on stereotypic attitudes in America. And on the issue of loyalty, 30 percent in the last 30, 40 years have expressed this stereotypic attitude. Almost one of three. It’s out there. It’s one of those ugly stereotypes that is out there that people play with.”
It is ironic that fears of Israeli spying come up at a time when there is more US-Israeli military and intelligence cooperation than ever, Foxman added. “So to hear the intelligence community leak out that they’re worried that these tourists are going to spy is so much off course that it says to me that it taps into a prejudice.”
Foxman said he possessed a file of complaints by American-Jewish professionals who have been denied US security clearances due to their close relationship to Israel, “and some of the questions asked were inappropriate.” US officials have apologized for some of these cases, he added, but some feeling of uneasiness about American Jews and their ties to Israel remains, he suggested. “It’s part of that bureaucratic thinking that if you’re Jewish, and you have relatives in Israel and you speak Hebrew and you travel to Israel, then maybe you’re a spy.”
Claims that the so-called “Israel lobby” in the US puts Jewish interests before American interests linger, and leaking concerns over Israeli espionage “helps fuel and legitimize this attitude,” Foxman said. “It’s there and therefore we have a responsibility to expose it, to speak out against it, to say it’s unacceptable, it’s not part of the relationship and one should not tolerate it.”
Israel has not been admitted to the Visa Waiver Program because it “doesn’t satisfy most of the Visa Waiver Program statutory requirements, including full issuance of e-passports and certain data-sharing agreements,” State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki said Tuesday.
Two obstacles are said to be a relatively high rate of visa refusal — caused by an increase in young Israelis seeking to enter America as tourists and then work illegally — and Israel’s alleged discrimination against Arab-Americans.
The United States and Israel recently created a working group to help Israel advance toward joining the program, according to Assistant Secretary of State for Legislative Affairs Julia Frifield.
Secretary of State John Kerry “has directed the Department to take a range of immediate actions to ensure that, consistent with US immigration law, we make every effort to maximize the number of young Israelis able to travel to the United States,” she wrote in a letter to a Congresswoman Nita Lowey (D-NY), who had asked that Kerry look into the matter. “The secretary has directed us to address these matters quickly and comprehensively.”
The current visa refusal rate for Israel is at 9.7 percent; to be admitted into the Visa Waiver Program a rate of 3 percent or lower is required. Data for Israelis aged of 21 to 26 show that rejection rates have doubled from 16 percent in 2009 to 32 percent in 2013, according to Frifield.
“We know that despite a two-thirds approval rate, this increase has led to a perception by some that young Israelis are unwelcome to travel to the United States. Clearly, that is not the case,” she wrote. “Israel is one of our closest friends and allies, and we welcome interchange between Israelis and Americans in every manner, including travel by Israelis to the United States. The Department can and will do more to encourage and assist qualified Israelis to visit the United States.”
US ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro echoed these statements Sunday on his Facebook profile.
Israel is willing to treat Palestinian-Americans wishing to enter Israel the same as it treats other Americans if it is allowed to join the Visa Waiver Program, the Haaretz newspaper reported this week, citing an unnamed senior Israeli official.
Admitting Israel into the Visa Waiver Program would exempt Israeli citizens from the need for tourist visas and would enable them to stay in the US for up to 90 days.
JTA contributed to this report.