A Queens congresswoman who serves on the House Foreign Affairs Committee said this week that she is investigating reports that the State Department has significantly reduced the number of visas granted to young Israelis during the last year.
Meanwhile, the denial of visa requests to Israelis of all ages is also causing concern in Israel.
Rep. Grace Meng, D-Queens, said that according to reports, in 2013 the State Department began routinely denying visas to Israeli citizens between the ages of 21 and 27 — the age of discharged soldiers who often set out on international travel once they leave the military.
“Such traveling is a time-honored and venerable tradition in Israel,” Meng said this week in a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry. “Unfortunately, it has come to my attention that the State Department presumes that such Israelis seek to illegally sell Dead Sea products in shopping malls, and that this is the reason they do not receive tourist visas.”
Dead Sea kiosks staffed by young Israelis have become a common sight in malls across the United States in recent decades.
Meng, in an interview with The Jewish Week, said she had planned to ask Kerry about the State Department visa policies during testimony last week before the Foreign Affairs Committee, but his appearance was cancelled because of his pending overseas trip to deal with the crisis in Crimea. She sent the letter instead.
“We want to know why” the visa rejection rate has increased. “We want to know the exact numbers,” Meng said, adding that her congressional district includes “a large constituency of people with family in Israel. It becomes a very personal issue for our constituents.”
The Zionist Organization of America has “expressed concern” over the reported State Department visa policy, stating in a press release that in 2013, 9.7 percent of Israelis who requested visas, about 12,000 people, were denied, a ZOA press release last week stated. The figures show “a sharp rise” compared to 2012, when 5.4 percent of Israelis had their applications rejected. In 2007, by comparison, only 2.5 percent of Israeli visa requests were rejected, the release said.
The Israeli press reported recently that the State Department has also begun denying visa requests from older applicants, including members of Israel’s intelligence and defense sectors. According to Haaretz, “Israeli defense establishment officials have discussed the matter in private meetings, after noticing a pattern emerging: Hundreds of individuals with ties to Israel’s defense establishment have been denied entry to the U.S. in the past year, or have been allowed in for only three months.
The Haaretz story said “Sources in Jerusalem had a difficult time explaining the phenomenon,” but, citing a report in Maariv, “the trend could stem from an attempt to reduce competition for American defense firms and contractors — or from fear of spying.”
The Consulate General of Israel in New York was unable to comment on this issue because of the ongoing labor dispute within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Meng said the State Department had not responded to her letter by Tuesday, when this paper went to press, and the State Department did not respond to a request for comment.
Some observers attribute the new visa policy to Obama administration pique over what U.S. officials consider Israeli intransigence in the Middle East peace process. “Despite a generally flourishing U.S.-Israel bond, there are those in the bowels of the [State Department] bureaucracy who wish to derail it and, at times, they achieve small victories,” Daniel Pipes, president of the Middle East Forum, told the Jewish News Service.
“I think this results from bureaucrats making trouble,” Pipes told The Jewish Week in an email interview. “It is a problem, but, in the larger suite of U.S. Israel relations, not something that will be very important.”