Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Jim Crow - Part II

Jim Crow – Part II
By Shakeel Syed

Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, under criticism for frequent absences from Los Angeles, recently defended his trip to Israel by asserting that he is a global leader and not the mayor of "some small town in the desert somewhere." Yet the problem lies not only in his absence from Los Angeles, but in what he has brought back from his trip. He seems prepared to adopt parts of the outdated bigotry of the small-town Jim Crow era practiced today by Israel.

Israel ethnically profiles at its airport and discriminates against Palestinians in all aspects of life. At Israel's Ben Gurion airport, Palestinians – even those with American or Israeli citizenship -- stand in separate lines from Jewish Israelis and are routinely harassed and intimidated for hours.

As a leader of the Southern California Muslim community, it worries me that Israeli tactics of ethnic profiling and segregation may be copied here. Already the Muslim community has deep concerns that we are singled out for unfair scrutiny at American airports. Arab Americans have modified a term from African Americans to describe their discriminatory flying experience: FWA or Flying While Arab. A city as diverse as ours and one whose law enforcement officials are desperately attempting to mend relations with ethnic communities across the spectrum should shun Israel's discriminatory security practices.

Yet the mayor signed an agreement on behalf of the city for three Ben Gurion Airport security officials to advise LAX on security procedures. They will each earn $1,000 a day in city funds that could better be used for myriad other pressing needs in our city.

The mayor, a man I generally admire, invited me to participate on his recent trip to Israel. I declined because I was already scheduled to visit Israel and Palestine with an interfaith delegation of Americans organized by Interfaith Peace-Builders and the American Friends Service Committee. I am certain that I got a dramatically different view of Israel than our mayor.

My delegation was profiled from the moment it arrived. Co-leader Michael Brown breezed through security. Co-leader Miryam Rashid did not. A Palestinian American, she was held for five hours of questioning and faced repeated threats to bar her entry – despite the fact that her family roots are in occupied Palestinian territory. Palestinian Americans are regularly singled out by security. And whole families of Palestinians returning home through Ben Gurion can be seen waiting for interrogation in the holding room. The State Department notes numerous reports of "American citizens, of Arab descent, subjected to harsh and degrading treatment at border crossings."

How would Los Angelinos feel if they were interrogated for carrying literature about global warming or for a political candidate when traveling through LAX? I was challenged at Ben Gurion for possessing United Nations literature explaining the consequences of Israel's 41-year military occupation of Palestinian territory. Political litmus tests for travelers ought to be strongly denounced by city hall, not embraced.

The discrimination practiced at Ben Gurion is a feature of Israel's treatment of Palestinians in general. Mayor Villaraigosa might have traveled on Route 443, the apartheid road Israel has constructed on West Bank land. Israeli citizens are allowed to drive on this road, but the Palestinians living in the West Bank cannot, despite the fact that Palestinian land was expropriated to build it. According to Limor Yehuda of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, "There is already a separate legal system in the territories for Israelis and Palestinians. With the approval of separate roads…the word for it will be 'apartheid’." I can only imagine the outcry if Los Angeles designated certain roads for whites and others for African Americans or Latinos.

And the mayor also may have visited the Dead Sea. Palestinians have been barred from swimming in parts of the Sea. According to the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, Israelis managing the beaches there complained that a "mix" of patrons was hurting their business interests. An Israeli brigade commander has set up a checkpoint on weekends and holidays to keep local Palestinians away.

I grew up in India and Pakistan after the departure of the British colonial forces. But I will never forget the painful stories my parents told me of the exclusivist practices the British instituted that made parts of my parents' own country off limits to them. South Africa, of course, separated people on the basis of race, including at beaches. And the Jim Crow South kept African Americans away from whites-only swimming pools. We look back on those days as a shameful era in our nation's remarkable history. Why do our mayor and some City Council members – using our tax dollars -- now take inspiration from those who practice these same policies?

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