State Dep’t official’s ‘Are you Jewish?’ question to US citizen keeps rattling Foggy Bottom

Israel/PalestineUS Politics

Video from today’s daily press briefing at the State Department. The portion from the transcript below begins around the 9:30 mark.

The deportation of Sandra Tamari at Ben Gurion airport and the American embassy’s response to her case — “Are you Jewish?” — continues to be a news story.  The Associated Press’s Matt Lee brings it up with the State Department spokesperson every day. “Let me get the facts,” says he. Yes, let him get the facts.

Here is Tamari’s recollection of the call from the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv. She provided it to us today. 

Chris Kane [from the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv] was contacted by the organizers of my delegation visit about my detention, and given a delegation leader’s cell phone number.  He phoned at about 6 pm.  I had landed at 3:30 pm and was with the delegation leader in the waiting room at the airport.
CK:  Hello.  I got your number from _____.  You are being questioned by the Israeli authorities, I understand.  
ST:  They are threatening to deny me entry and to deport me.
CK:  Are you Jewish?
ST: No
CK:  Have you been in contact with the Israeli government or military in the past?
ST:  No
CK:  Have you been here before?
ST:  Yes, several times. I am a Palestinian with family in the West Bank.
CK:  Oh, you have family in the West Bank.  Then there is nothing I can do to help you.  In fact, if I interceded on your behalf, it will hurt your case with the Israelis.
ST:  I don’t understand.  You are saying you can’t speak with them.  You have no influence.  They are demanding to access my gmail account.
CK:  If they have your gmail address, they can get in without your password.
ST:  What do you mean?  How?
CK:  They’re good!
ST:  This is crazy.  You mean you know about these requests to access emails and you have no problem with it.
CK:  It is in our travel warning.  They won’t harm you.  You will be sent home on the next flight out.I hope I have been of good service to you.
ST:  Frankly, you have done nothing for me.
CK:  Well at least you can say I did it kindly.

Here’s the relevant warning, also dug up by Tamari. Note that it says nothing about going into your email.

Security-related delays are not unusual for travelers carrying audio-visual or data storage/processing equipment, and some have had their laptop computers and other electronic equipment confiscated at Ben Gurion Airport. While most items are returned prior to the traveler’s departure, some equipment has been retained by the authorities for lengthy periods and has reportedly been damaged, destroyed, lost or never returned. U.S. citizens who have had personal property damaged due to security procedures at Ben Gurion may contact the Commissioner for Public Complaints at the airport for redress by fax to 972-3-9752387. In such circumstances, travelers should have no expectation of privacy for any data stored on such devices.

Today, Lee pressed the State Department’s Mark Toner on Tamari’s experience (video above):

QUESTION: More on Israel. Yesterday you said you were aware that the Privacy Act waiver had been signed by Ms. Tamari. I’m wondering if you can tell us exactly what the State Department or the Embassy’s version of the conversation was, whether in fact that she was told that they couldn’t help her because she wasn’t Jewish.

MR. TONER: And actually I’m not sure if we’ve released – we should have; I apologize if we haven’t already released the Taken Question on this. But we can confirm that an official from U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv spoke via telephone with this individual to check on her safety and welfare while she was detained at Ben Gurion Airport. We remain in contact with local authorities until a decision was made regarding her entry into Israel. And of course, decisions about entry are the purview of the Israeli Government.

QUESTION: Did this person ask her if she was Jewish?

MR. TONER: Well, I don’t have an answer for you on that. What is very clear is that we would never deny assistance to any American citizen, regardless of their religious or ethnic background.

QUESTION: According to her account, the conversation, which is pretty much a verbatim transcript, he did ask, “Are you Jewish?” She said, “No.” Then she – then he asked, “Have you been here before?” She said, “Yes. Several times. I’m Palestinian. I have family in the West Bank,” to which he replied – and I won’t use his name, but I have it – “Oh, you have family in the West Bank. Then there’s nothing I can do to help you. If in fact I interceded on your behalf it would hurt your case with the Israelis.”

Is that correct? Is it that U.S. intervention on behalf of one of its citizens would actually hurt the case with Israel, a democratic ally?

MR. TONER: Again, I don’t have a transcript of the conversation. I don’t know where you were able to obtain one from.

QUESTION: From her.

MR. TONER: Again, this is a little bit of a —

QUESTION: I’m not trying to —

MR. TONER: — he said, she said. All I can say is that we —

QUESTION: Well, it may be. I want to know, regardless of that, is it correct that if you are a – that the position of the Embassy or the consular officers at the Embassy is that if you are a Palestinian with family in the West Bank and not Jewish that there’s nothing that they can do to help you. The actual verbatim words of the conversation I’m not —

MR. TONER: Verbatim words of what? A transcript that she presented or she produced?

QUESTION: Well, but —

MR. TONER: Again —

QUESTION: — is it correct that there is nothing that you can or nothing that the Embassy can do to help someone —

MR. TONER: That’s not correct.

QUESTION: That is not correct. Okay.

MR. TONER: We certainly stand to – we stand ready to support any American citizen, regardless of their religious or ethnic background.

QUESTION: Okay, okay. And then she says that she told them that they were trying to get into her email account – which goes to a different part of this story – on her laptop. He said that if they have your Gmail address, then they can get into your – they can get into the account anyway. She says, “How can they do that?” He says, “Well, they’re very good at this kind of thing.” And he says that they – that the Embassy is aware that the Israelis go in and check people’s email account – emails on their laptops. She says that she can’t understand why you don’t have a problem. He implies it’s in our Travel Warning.

Okay. Now, it’s not in the Travel Warning. The Travel Warning says that people who are carrying laptops or other audio-visual equipment could – have had these items confiscated. But there’s nothing in the Travel Warning – because I just read it now – that says that people might go into your computer and then demand access to your private email account. So I’m wondering, was I looking at an outdated Travel Warning, or is this just wrong?

MR. TONER: I don’t believe so. I think that’s accurate. But again, I’m not going to speak to a transcript of a conversation that’s unofficial at best.

QUESTION: Okay, well, it’s not so much the actual words that were said. I just want to know whether or not – and you answered the question – it is policy not to help someone —

MR. TONER: That is not our policy.

QUESTION: And also, if you are aware that they’re going into people’s emails, do you plan – would that be something that one – that you would —

MR. TONER: Again, I’d have to speak with our Consular Affairs, but I’m not aware that that’s reflected in our current Travel Warning. It’s not, I don’t think.

QUESTION: No, it isn’t, but I’m wondering if it would be now because this has become an issue quite separate from —

MR. TONER: It’s a hypothetical. I would assume we’d look at it.

Yesterday, Lee had a similar exchange with  Toner:

QUESTION: Have you managed to find out what happened with this woman from St. Louis? Was she told by the Embassy that they couldn’t help her because —

MR. TONER: Right.

QUESTION: — she wasn’t Jewish?

MR. TONER: Matt, I tried to get more information on that. I should have – I don’t have it in time for this briefing. My understanding, as I said, is that she did contact the Embassy and the Embassy did provide her with support. But I’m not aware of the exact exchange that she had with the Embassy personnel, so I’ll try to get you details on that.


MR. TONER: I appreciate I should have had it today. I don’t.

QUESTION: And so you do know that she has signed the Privacy Act waiver?

MR. TONER: I do know that and I have duly noted that —

QUESTION: No, but not just for me —

MR. TONER: And I have duly noted that to our friends in the Consular Affairs Bureau.

QUESTION: Okay. So specifically my question then is about that conversation —

MR. TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: — that exchange, if she was told that and if that is now a practice of the Embassy to tell people if it —

MR. TONER: Again —

QUESTION: — to ask people what their religion is, and regardless of what it is, to tell them that based on that —

MR. TONER: I’m certain it’s not —

QUESTION: — based on just their religion —

MR. TONER: I’m certain it’s not, but let me get —

QUESTION: Well, she’s —

MR. TONER: Let me get the facts. Let me get the facts before —

QUESTION: — she’s saying —

MR. TONER: Okay. Thank you. I appreciate it.

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