Nour Joudah (center) with her class at Friends School
The Palestinian-American teacher denied entry to the West Bank en route to her only place of employment has returned to the United States after fighting the Israeli bureaucracy from Amman. Nour Joudah, a teacher at the Friends School in Ramallah, has finally been granted a hearing about her case by Israel, but only in writing. Her ordeal has taken on added significance as Congress considers a bill that would codify the type of Israeli discrimination Joudah faced.
In Ramallah, the Friends School is a short walk from the center of the city, where al-Manara square and its lion statues are located. But it feels further away. It’s an oasis, away from the men hawking tea and bread on the corner or the gift and falafel shops down the road to al-Manara. But the case of Joudah clearly shows that Israel calls the shots in occupied Palestine. And examining her story shatters the feeling that the Friends School is worlds away from a conflict situation.
“Obviously, I’m very disappointed at not being able to finish the year with my students,” she told me in a Skype interview.
On a warm day on my visit in mid-March, the Friends School is bustling with activity. Teenagers run to and after one another. Lush green plants add to the relaxed atmosphere in the spacious courtyard outside the school. The bell rings, and students rush into the Quaker-affiliated school that is one of the oldest educational institutions in Palestine. It mostly serves the elite strata of Palestinian society.
Outside the Friends School (Photo: Alex Kane/Mondoweiss)
Things seem utterly normal. Hints of the chaos of the Second Intifada–when Israeli shells were fired near the school and a bombing hit a nearby police station–are nowhere to be found. Those military actions spurred a drop in enrollment at the Friends School. But now, there are no Israeli shells, or even soldiers, to worry about. Ramallah is in Area A of the West Bank, where the Palestinian Authority has nominal control, at least when it comes to running day-to-day activities in the city. You would be forgiven if you forgot for a moment that there was an Israeli occupation. Israeli soldiers, though, still conduct raids in the heart of Ramallah as they see fit.
The Palestinian students who attend the Friends School are well aware of the occupation and its grip on Palestinian life. The students who learned English from Nour Joudah are even more viscerally aware of how Israel controls Palestinian freedom of movement, even if the person has American citizenship. Israel’s decision to deny Joudah entry left them without a teacher they adored, and temporarily disrupted their studies. So even if Israel is not patrolling the streets of Ramallah, the state’s actions still have a profound impact on the city and its residents. The long arm of the Israeli army easily reaches into Ramallah.
Two teenage girls who agreed to be interviewed sat outside the Friends School overlooking a tennis court. The girls–Yara Izhiman, 14, and Nicole Zakkak, 15–were both students of Joudah. Ms. Nour, as they called her, is “so friendly…She makes sure you love to learn,” said Izhiman, in extremely good English. “I never thought they would do such a horrible thing…This specific story shows the world how they prevent people from coming home.”
Zakkak shared that sentiment. “Her spirit in the class gave students comfort,” she said. “I was shocked it happened to Ms. Nour…She was special to me.”
Joudah, a graduate of Georgetown, hails from Clarksville, Tennessee and had been teaching English at the Friends School since September 2012. She held a multiple-entry visa from Israel which gave her permission to stay and work in Ramallah for a whole year. Last Christmas, she traveled to Amman, Jordan on her way to celebrate the holidays with a friend. But when she went back to the West Bank in early January, Israeli border authorities denied her entry for unspecified “security” reasons. Joudah was sent back on a bus to Amman–over six hours after she first tried to cross. It was the first instance of Joudah being denied entry; there would be a second. The repeated denials of entry effectively amounted to a revocation of her visa.
The Friends School in Ramallah has been funded by USAID, or the United States Agency for International Development. A 2012 fiscal report states that USAID has given the school $900,000 over the past four years; since 1995, USAID has given the school $7 million. Those facts, combined with Joudah being an American citizen, were more than enough reason for American officials to get involved after Joudah’s first denial of entry. But Joudah’s citizenship, and her US-government funded place of employment, didn’t matter to Israeli authorities.
“This is the only place in the world where I feel that it means nothing to be an American. It means absolutely nothing,” said Reham Barghouti, a psychology instructor and guidance counselor at the Friends School who is also an American citizen. She shared a classroom with Joudah while they both taught at the school. “If there was any other place that dealt with American citizens in this kind of way, there would be this whole giant uproar, right? But because it’s here, I guess, it doesn’t really matter.”
After the first denial of entry, Joudah consulted with Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee, who represents the district Joudah lived in (and where her family lives), as well as the Israeli Embassy in Washington, D.C. and the Israeli Ministry of Foreign of Affairs. The Israeli Embassy recommended that she try entering at Ben-Gurion Airport. And that’s what she did–but to no avail. On February 25, her plane touched down in Tel Aviv. But despite having a multiple-entry visa, she was again questioned and detained for about seven hours. Joudah told the Electronic Intifada‘s Maureen Murphy that Israeli interrogators asked her for what she called “a list of every young Palestinian that I knew so that [the interrogator] could create a file of phone numbers to tap.”
She was put back on a plane to Amman the next morning. The Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service, told Haaretz’s Amira Hass that “an American citizen whose family comes from the Gaza Strip was refused entry on Jan. 5 after failing to cooperate under questioning on security-related matters. After it was made clear to all involved that if she cooperated her entry would be considered, she returned on Feb. 25 for additional questioning. On this occasion too she refused to cooperate to the extent required, and her entry was refused.” Joudah denies she was uncooperative; she says she answered every single question (other than the request to furnish the names of young Palestinians she knew).
By this time, Joudah had hired the Israeli-American lawyer Emily Schaeffer, who is known for taking on the Israeli government’s discriminatory treatment of Palestinians. While Joudah was in detention at the airport, Schaeffer filed an emergency petition with a judge in Lod, near where Ben-Gurion Airport is located. But the judge rejected the petition on the grounds that Joudah had not exhausted her legal remedies. The Israeli judge said they had not waited for a Ministry of Interior response to Schaeffer’s initial appeal questioning Joudah’s denial of entry. This happened despite the fact that the ministry told Schaeffer they would respond in two weeks. But by the time Joudah went to Ben-Gurion, 16 days had lapsed between the first appeal filed by Schaeffer and Joudah’s second attempt at entering, and there was no response yet from the ministry. This did not matter to the judge, though–and Schaeffer called the decision “outrageous.”
That wasn’t the end of Joudah’s legal headaches. While in Amman, Joudah kept in constant contact with Schaeffer, in addition to staying in contact with her students online and grading first-semester finals. There was also “a lot of twiddling my thumbs and trying not to go crazy,” said Joudah. She waited and waited and waited in Amman for a response from the Ministry of Interior, but it didn’t come, and she decided to fly home to the U.S. to search for a job and see family.
In early April, Joudah flew out of Amman, and the Ministry of Interior finally got back to Schaeffer–a few days after the 45 day deadline the Israeli government is supposed to meet to respond to legal petitions, according to Schaeffer. The Ministry of Interior decided to grant Joudan a hearing, but only in writing. And they still did not furnish a detailed reason for why they denied Joudah entry, which violates precedents that have been established in the Israeli court system. While Schaeffer and Joudah want to proceed with a hearing, they refuse to do so without knowing what exactly they’re trying to refute.
“This is a tactic essentially to exhaust people so that they will stop trying to demand their rights and enter the country,” said Schaeffer. “What we’ve been demanding from day one in her case is that she’s entitled not only to a fully detailed explanation of the reasons for the cancellation–or revocation of her visa–but also to a hearing in which she is able to attempt to mount a defense or bring evidence.” For now, Schaeffer says she will continue to harangue the Ministry of Interior for further explanation as to why exactly Joudah was denied entry. “If they completely ignore us, we will be forced to go to court,” she said, though no decision on that front has been made.
Schaeffer sees Joudah’s denial of entry as evidence of two trends she has noticed while working as a lawyer: restrictions on both foreign NGO workers who assist Palestinians as well as foreigners with Palestinian or Arab backgrounds. Earlier this year, Haaretz’s Amira Hass reported that Israel had “renewed restrictions on the freedom of movement of foreign nationals who live and work in the West Bank that prohibit them from entering East Jerusalem or Israel.” As for the other trend, Schaeffer told me in an interview that she has other Western clients who have had to deal with Israeli discrimination like Joudah has. “Basically, it’s intended to block the empowerment of the Palestinian community,” said Schaeffer.
Joudah’s case is the latest high-profile example of an American citizen with Palestinian background having trouble at the border. In mid-2012, Sandra Tamari, a Palestinian-American from St. Louis, was detained at Ben-Gurion and deported back to the U.S. after Israeli authorities demanded to see her e-mail account and accused her of being a terrorist.
“They have complete control over every aspect of Palestinian life. And they operate with impunity. And no one holds them accountable,” Joudah told me.
This type of discrimination is getting renewed attention in the wake of news reports on a bill sponsored by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) that would grant Israel an exemption from reciprocating visa-free entries to the country. AIPAC is pushing legislation that would allow Israelis to enter the U.S. without the hassle of obtaining a visa. Usually, countries reciprocate this practice with the U.S. But Israel–and AIPAC–are pushing for an exemption that would effectively allow Israel to discriminate against travelers it sees as “security threats”–largely meaning people with Palestinian or Arab backgrounds. “It’s stunning that you would give a green light to another country to violate the civil liberties of Americans traveling abroad,” a Congressional staffer told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency’s Ron Kampeas.
Despite the headaches Israel has caused for her, Joudah still manages to see some light in her situation. She has no regrets having fought the denial, and says her students have learned some valuable lessons from her.
Indeed, Joudah’s student, Nicole Zakkak, said that “one of the most important things I learned from Ms. Nour was to speak about my homeland and my rights as a priority.” Yara Izhiman added that Israel “won’t succeed. We will learn. We are sure that by learning we will face them one day.”
And Joudah says that when all is said and done, she remains “in a position of privilege,” especially compared to “other people [who] are separated from their families, they can’t get back to their families living in Palestine.”
Joudah added: “As my mother reminded me, ‘honey, the whole nation is in exile, so you’ve never been any different, you just got a reminder.'”