Racial profiling on Tel Aviv beaches: A shared U.S.-Israeli value?

Inspectors in Tel Aviv once responsible for keeping beaches clean can now stop people they suspect of illegally residing in Israel. Like Arizona’s notorious S.B.1070 law, this could result in gross violations of the rights of both Israeli citizens and immigrants. Is this what politicians mean by “shared values?”

By Paul Karolyi

Politicians take every opportunity to tell us that the United States and Israel share values. It is those common ideals that bind us together in a “special relationship.” Rarely do they get specific about what those values are. Recent immigration reform laws passed in the United States and a discriminatory new regulation violating the rights of the Arab Palestinian minority in Israel together elucidate one shared value: suspicion.

On April 23, 2010 Governor Jan Brewer of Arizona signed a package of new immigration reforms, S.B. 1070, into law. This law was the manifestation of a new strategy for stemming the tide of illegal immigration. Each provision of S.B. 1070 was intended to establish a policy of “attrition by enforcement,” designed to make illegal immigrants want to give up and go back home.

U.S. federal law requires aliens age 14 and older to register with the government if in the United States longer than 30 days, and to have registration documents in their possession at all times. Of all the provisions of S.B. 1070, the Supreme Court reviewed four. Those provisions stated the following: it made it a state misdemeanor in Arizona for any alien to not carry their required documents; it allowed police officers to arrest a person without a warrant if the officer suspected they committed a crime worthy of deportation; it made it a criminal act for an immigrant to apply for or hold a job without immigration papers; and it allows officers to check the immigration status of detained persons if they suspect they are in the country illegally.

On June 25, 2012, the United States Supreme Court deemed the first three provisions I list above, leaving the last, and most controversial, portion intact.  This last provision of S.B. 1070, and its now-infamous “reasonable suspicion” caveat has led to a renewal of political bickering in an ongoing immigration debate.  It also has made life for undocumented immigrants very difficult.  Every government official can act as an immigration agent as far as Arizona is concerned, because every official can demand to see papers in cases of “reasonable suspicion.”

So it goes. “Reasonable suspicion” now joins “pursuit of happiness” and “freedom” in the pantheon of American values.

In a far less publicized affair, Israel recently changed regulations for beach inspectors in a manner that mimics the Arizona immigration law.  An article in Haaretz from August 5, 2012 describes a scene on Jerusalem Beach in Tel Aviv recently.  The author, Roy Arad, was relaxing and enjoying the good weather when he saw a pair of beach inspectors asking a group of men for their identification cards.  Arad was surprised, because these officials were formerly tasked only with the management of litter levels and the intimidation of scallywags.

What Arad witnessed was the beach inspectors new responsibilities, which now include keeping an eye out for “suspicious characters” and turning them in to the police. It is important to note that the beach inspectors cannot make arrests, but only stop and demand ID from anyone they suspect is in the country illegally.

Most of Israel’s famously beautiful public beaches are free to enjoy for everybody. But this new regulation authorizing beach inspectors to act as immigration agents makes the environment is much less hospitable. Any Palestinian citizen of Israel, along with asylum seekers from Africa, can be profiled by these untrained beach inspectors. This can lead to harassment for mere suspicion that the beachgoer is a Palestinian from the West Bank in Israel illegally, without a special permit.. The beach may be free and beautiful, but if constant haranguing from people who until recently were only responsible for picking up trash gets too irritating, they could also become ethnically homogenous. Only those who do not look like undocumented immigrants will be able to enjoy the sun and the surf without fear of government interference.

Every citizen of Israel (though we mustn’t forget that even non-citizen Palestinians who are targeted on the beaches are natives to this land) should have the right to walk free of constant suspicion, just as America should be the land willing to take in “your huddled masses, yearning to break free.” In the case of the beaches of Tel Aviv, this is another case of discrimination against the Palestinian Arab minority in Israel, and it must stop.

Paul Karolyi is an American living in Nazareth.  He works for the Arab Association for Human Rights and tweets for them @ArabHRA.