Denied entry by Israel, American teacher prepares to say goodbye to Palestinian students

Israel/PalestineUS Politics
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Nour Joudah
Nour Joudah

Here is an important story from Palestine: Nour Joudah, 25, a Palestinian-American masters graduate of Georgetown who teaches at the Friends School in Ramallah, which has received millions in U.S. aid, was denied entry into Israel on Monday.

This is the second time in two months Israel has stopped Joudah from going back to her classes in Palestine. Those classes have a temporary teacher; and Joudah, who is in Amman, says she has now sent the children a letter telling them she doesn’t think she’ll be back to teach them. 

“My guess is I’m not getting back this semester. I’ve been holding back on saying this publicly without making any statement to the kids. But I recently wrote them a letter. I told them I was really sorry and really disappointed but I couldn’t come back. I’m going to have a Skype call with them on Saturday to say goodbye,” she said by telephone. 

How many students? “Ninety kids. They are mostly all 14-years old. I teach three sections of thirty. Three ninth grade classes. The last day I saw them was December 21st, the last day of finals.”

Here is the heartbreaking email Joudah sent her students on Tuesday:

First of all, I want to tell you all that your emails over the past two months have been the best parts of my day while I’ve been stuck here in Amman. The 90 of you have been such strong motivation for me to keep fighting to get back, and I would do it all over again if I had the choice, despite all of the horrible mess that has happened the past two months.

Teaching you all first semester was a joy, and I have no doubt that even if I teach for another 30 years, your class will always hold a special place in my heart.

Yesterday, I flew to Tel Aviv from Amman. I did so in coordination with the Israeli Embassy in DC, and yet despite that the security at the airport denied me again. They held me for 8 hours before they told me, and around 8pm, I was taken to a detention center. They put me on a flight back to Amman this morning, and late last night, the judge denied the request by my lawyer for an emergency hearing (court date).

It breaks my heart that I have to tell you that I won’t be back this semester to finish teaching you, or be back to Palestine – at least not any time soon.

I was hoping to see you all in person today, but that hope has been taken away. Ustaz Michael is going to help arrange a Skype date this Saturday afternoon with the classes so I can answer any questions you might have, and more importantly, so I can say goodbye to all of you. I am cc-ing him here, and he will give you all details about where to meet. (Anyone who wants to Skype with me individually later is welcome to, of course.)

I want to say a few things to you now, so maybe I can keep from being too emotional when we see each other on Skype Saturday.

1. Just because I am not your English teacher for the rest of the year, doesn’t mean you can’t come to me for help. Anything you need, you still know how to reach me. Whether you want to get in touch now or in a few years for advice or just to chat, I’m here. I’ll always be your teacher. The Israelis can’t take that from me or from you.

2. If you’re angry, that’s ok. Be angry. But don’t take that anger out on your teachers or your studies. It’s not their fault. Channel that anger or sadness or frustration into something productive. If you want to do something for me, work on your English. Work on expressing yourself beautifully in your writing, so one day you can tell the world what you know and help the people around you when you do.

3. Remember – just because I lost this small fight now, doesn’t mean it wasn’t worth fighting – and it doesn’t mean the larger fight is over. Never let anyone keep you from living in your country. It’s always worth standing up for yourself. Don’t forget that there are millions of Palestinians that would give up everything to be in your position – to even have a day in the homeland. Even if it doesn’t always feel like it because of our struggles living under occupation, remember you being in Palestine is a right that others are still fighting for. It’s your job to use the potential that I know all of you have to find a way to use your lives to help bring all of us Palestinians around the world together.

Denied Entry

Nour Joudah with her class at Friends School
Nour Joudah (center) with her class at Friends School

Joudah left Palestine for the holidays, but was denied re-entry at Allenby Bridge on January 5. After that, Congressional staffers worked with the Israeli Embassy in Washington to press for an assurance that Joudah would be admitted. She flew back on February 25. 

The case recalls that of Sandra Tamari, another Palestinian-American, who was denied entry on arbitrary grounds and deported last June.

“I really thought that on this second trip Nour would be let in,” says Samer Araabi of the Arab American Institute. “With media present, with independent observers present– that they couldn’t play the same shtik again. But they did.

“It breaks my heart to think of the students she’s left behind. It’s a microcosm of the Palestinian diaspora experience itself– never being allowed to return home,” he says.

Joudah, whose parents are from Gaza and who has family in Gaza, says that she believes she is being denied entry because of an arbitrary decision on the part of the Allenby officials that the Israeli system is now struggling to justify. “They’re trying to save face.”

She learned that she was denied entry on Jan. 5, officially because she “refused to answer questions.”

“That was a lie. I answered every single question at Allenby. They weren’t even asking them in an accusatory tone. And every question they asked, I knew they had the answer to. So there was nothing for me to be coy about,” she said from Amman.

Then when she entered Ben Gurion airport on Monday, the officials’ tone was different, “fishing” for information.

“They pushed for the names and phone numbers, and a list of young Palestinians I have come across,” she says. “They were in essence asking me to become an informant on every Arab I’ve met since last August. That’s outrageous– that I would be expected to betray the trust of people who took me into their homes.”

In a later email, Joudah explained the nature of the negotiations with the Israelis ahead of time:

The Israeli Embassy never gave an assurance of my entry. They simply were assisting in that I would be questioned and considered for entry on my visa. They contacted the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and my interrogators were aware of this (I was directly told so). Congresswoman Jackson Lee’s office [Sheila Jackson Lee represents the Texas district where Joudah’s parents live] inquired on my behalf and indeed is still in touch with the Israeli Embassy and my lawyer… The Judge’s reason for denying my lawyer’s request for an emergency hearing when I was in detention was that by flying to Tel Aviv I “took the law into my own hands” by not waiting for my appeal - despite the fact that I traveled in coordination with Israeli government officials.

Haaretz reported the case yesterday:

When inquiries were made on her behalf by attorney Emily Schaeffer, the Border Crossing Administration representative said the [Allenby] decision was made for security reasons, but did not elaborate.

While Schaeffer was preparing an appeal, Joudah contacted U.S. Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, who represents the district of Texas where Joudah’s parents live. Jackson Lee contacted the Israeli Embassy in Washington, which suggested that Joudah try to re-enter through Ben-Gurion airport to give the authorities a chance to reconsider their position.

After landing at the airport on Monday, she was questioned twice, once for half an hour and once for 20 minutes, and then held in custody for several more hours. On Monday evening, she was told that she was being refused entry and would be put on a plane back to Amman Tuesday morning….

She was also asked if she knew any prisoners, a question she had not answered previously. When she said she did not, the Shin Bet members asked her whether she knew anyone who had a relative in prison.

Ramallah Friends School

The Ramallah Friends School (palfriends.org) is, I am told by a supporter of Joudah’s, an American-owned Quaker school in Ramallah that has received about $7 million from USAID since 1995. Here is a photo of Howard Sumka, the former USAID West Bank/Gaza Mission Director,  cutting the ribbon for a new USAID-funded building at the school. That supporter continues:

A bipartisan congressional delegation with Reps. Nita Lowey (now ranking member of the appropriations committee), Kay Granger (chair of the state and foreign operations appropriations subcommittee), Steve Rothman, Adam Schiff and Jesse Jackson, Jr. visited the school in April 2009. It is considered the best school in the Palestinian territories and graduates students to Ivy League universities each year. 1/3 of its students are Christian, 2/3 are Muslim. It teaches students Quaker values of non-violence, tolerance and equality; world religions, including Judaism; and the Holocaust, including the Diary of Anne Frank in recent years.

After she was kept from returning to classes, Joudah sent out an appeal to the Friends School community:

I have been teaching now at the Friends Boys School in Ramallah since September 2012, and have worked tirelessly and with devotion to help prepare talented 9th graders for their upcoming years in the International Baccalaureate program. I have bonded with these students and seen so many of them, frustrated and bored of old English curriculums, come alive with the projects and discussions we have undertaken in just this first semester.

After mid-year exams were over, I crossed over to Jordan to spend Christmas and New Years with a friend in Amman, and upon my return to the West Bank (at the Allenby bridge), I was denied entry by Israel – despite the one year multiple entry visa I had been issued by the Israeli Ministry of Interior. I was given no reason other than “security” and was put on a bus back to Jordan….

So many of my students have emailed me, upset and wondering if and when I am returning to class, if we will read the novels I promised I would walk them through, or the projects they were excited to start. I continue to assure them as much as I’m able that things will work out shortly and ask them to focus on their studies and be mindful of their substitute, but I do so with a heavy heart.

My number one priority is returning to my students, to finish my work for them for the year. If I had thought there would be any problem with my re-entry, I would have never left for the holidays for that one week. I am not asking now for any extraordinary measure to be taken. I am simply asking for the multiple entry visa that I was granted to be honored so I can go back to my work.

As it stands now, all of my belongings are in my apartment in Ramallah. My students’ exams are there, as well, waiting to be graded, though I am trying desperately to arrange for someone to send me the exams to grade while I am waiting and stranded in Amman.

The double standard in U.S. policy

Araabi at the Arab American Institute says that the “other side of this is the big push” by some Congresspeople to end the visa requirement for Israelis to visit the U.S. 

He mentions a bill pushed by Brad Sherman and Ted Poe called HR 300, with 65 cosponsors:

“Dear Colleague, Please join us as a cosponsor of H.R.300, the Visa Waiver for Israel Act. The Visa Waiver Program (VWP) allows nationals from certain countries to enter the United States as temporary visitors (non-immigrants) for up to 90 days without first obtaining a visa from a U.S. consulate abroad. There are 37 countries currently in the Visa Waiver Program, including western and central European countries, as well as South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Brunei, Singapore, Australia, and New Zealand. Adding Israel to the Visa Waiver Program would not only strengthen ties with our closest friend and democratic ally in the Middle East, but would also boost business, tourism, and job creation in the U.S. as well.”

Araabi comments, “It’s one thing for the Israeli government to be so intransigent, it’s another for our government to be so blase. No one seems to care.”

Last June the head of the Arab American Institute, James Zogby, issued a statement on the Tamari case: 

 ”I have been dealing with issues of this sort for 35 years. And I have, myself, been personally subjected to hours of frustrating and humiliating interrogations by Israeli officials. Since the 1970’s we have logged with the State Department the complaints of hundreds of American citizens of Arab descent traveling to or within Israel and the Occupied Territories who were: detained for hours of humiliating questioning; denied entry, turned away at airports and made to buy tickets to return home; forced to surrender their American passports and to secure, against their will, a Palestinian ID document; denied permission to exit; strip searched; or had property stolen or deliberately destroyed by airport inspectors. The stories are hurtful and have caused great distress to many. There are many Palestinian Americans who, because of their concern with this treatment, have simply stopped going to visit their families.

“Sadly, instead of protecting its citizens, the U.S. has all too often feigned powerlessness, thus enabling Israel to continue to violate the rights of Arab Americans with impunity. This is unconscionable since it relegates Arab Americans to the status of second class citizens. I have been assured by many Secretaries of State that there is but one class of U.S. citizenship, that our rights, as Arab Americans, will be protected and that this matter will be taken up with Israeli authorities. And yet, after the initial protest is ignored by Israel, our government shrugs its shoulders as if to say “there is nothing more we can do.” Well there is something more they can do. They just either cannot or will not muster the political courage to protect the rights of the Arab American community when Israel is involved.”

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