The Visa Waiver Program: A Zionist victory - comment

The Visa Waiver Program permits citizens of participating countries to travel to the United States for business or tourism for stays of up to 90 days without a visa.

 US AMBASSADOR to Israel Tom Nides meets with President Isaac Herzog. The ambassador has applied pressure on Israel to pass legislation to enter the Visa Waiver Program. (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
US AMBASSADOR to Israel Tom Nides meets with President Isaac Herzog. The ambassador has applied pressure on Israel to pass legislation to enter the Visa Waiver Program.
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)

Early Zionists never imagined that their goals would solely focus on Israel and the Jewish people. They saw the Zionist movement at first achieving a state for the Jewish people, and then being a light onto the nations that would help global advancement. 

World leaders understood the benefits of Zionism extending past the borders of Israel, as former British prime minister Winston Churchill said, “The cause of Zionism is one which carries with it much that is good for the whole world, and not only for the Jewish people; it will bring prosperity and advancement for the Arab population.”

Most attention focused on Israel’s application to the American Visa Waiver Program will focus on the inner politics of the Knesset and US Ambassador Tom Nides’s pressure on Israel to pass legislation necessary for Israel to enter the program. There is also a strong Zionist lesson about values and accomplishments to be taken from America’s willingness and eagerness to have Israel participate in the program. Let’s look past the politics of the moment and see the larger lessons of Israel and the American Visa Waiver Program. 

The Visa Waiver Program permits citizens of participating countries to travel to the United States for business or tourism for stays of up to 90 days without a visa. Currently, Israelis wishing to visit America must apply for a visa. 

The process is expensive, requires waiting in line for hours in the hot sun, sitting for an interview, multiple call backs, bureaucratic headaches – and at the end of the application process a high percentage chance of rejection. Israel’s participation in the program will allow Israelis to skip all of this and simply purchase a ticket to America and enjoy themselves.

 President Isaac Herzog meets with incoming US Ambassador to Israel Thomas Nides on December 5 in Jerusalem.  (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM) President Isaac Herzog meets with incoming US Ambassador to Israel Thomas Nides on December 5 in Jerusalem. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Recently, Nides tweeted, “I’ve been working around the clock since I arrived to help Israel meet all the requirements to join the Visa Waiver Program. Don’t lose momentum now. This will help Israeli citizens travel to the US – put them first!” While I know that Nides is concerned with helping Israelis, there’s another perspective to the program as well. 

Both Israel and the US will benefit

It’s not only Israelis that will benefit from the visa waiver program, but America will also benefit as well. While writing in his new book, Let My People Know, about the challenge China poses to America, Aryeh Lightstone, former US special envoy for economic normalization in the Middle East, connected Israel and the Visa Waiver Program to the China-America rivalry.

Lightstone wrote, “In various technologies of the future, breakthroughs will come from China and Russia, or from the United States and Israel. China will overpay to invest in technology; it will not open its market in a fair way. What’s more, China’s immigration policy currently gives it a big advantage in attracting talent from Israel, because it is far easier for Israelis to get a visa to China than to the United States. This is especially true for recent graduates of the Israel Defense Forces.” 

Lightstone continued, “The default position of the US consular service is that people who enter the United States will choose to remain unless there is a strong indication that they would feel compelled to return to their home country. This is a reasonable assumption regarding people from most other countries. Many young Israelis like to travel for six months after completing their mandatory service in the IDF, to decompress and regain some of their youth before going on to university or a vocation. 

“The US consular service views most of the people in this group as not having strong enough ties to Israel that they will likely return there rather than stay in the United States. Consequently, they are subject to a higher-than-average rejection rate for visas. The Chinese government default is that recent graduates of the IDF are likely to be start-up entrepreneurs in the next few years, so every single applicant from this group receives a visa.”

Lightstone saw past the benefits of easier travel for Israelis through the Visa Waiver Program. He understood the benefit to America by having young Israelis travel to the United States, become familiar with the country and their familiarity leading to greater partnerships between American and Israelis companies in the future. Israeli partnerships will only add to American intellectual and corporate prowess and its ability to shut down competition from China. 

Zionism's importance

Early Zionists envisioned creating a Jewish state that benefited the world through creative ingenuity and technological advancement. With great pride their vision has been achieved. Israel exports technology that helps the global community in areas like water availability, COVID research, farming and so many other areas that change lives for the better. It is challenging to recognize Israel’s value to the global community when so many of Israel’s opponents slander Israel in forums like the United Nations. 

“The US consular service views most of the people in this group as not having strong enough ties to Israel that they will likely return there rather than stay in the United States."

Aryeh Lightstone

With all the help Israel provides so many countries around the world, one would think Israel should be winning accolades in many global forums. It is frustrating and disappointing to see Israel denigrated instead of praised. America’s eagerness to have Israel participate in the Visa Waiver Program shows America’s desire for Israeli ingenuity and the fulfillment of the Zionist dream has come to fruition. 

Zionism stands for Jewish self-determination in its ancient homeland, but it isn’t limited to that goal. Zionism is about the Jewish state contributing to the world in all areas. Most nationalist movements are focused on their constituents, not the global community. Zionism differentiates itself by looking to see how it can help the world at large. 

Zionism is a movement that is built on a foundation of Jewish values; a value of Judaism is to be a light on to the nations and to be a force that makes the world a better and more moral place. Zionists never imagined building a state that would divorce itself from key Jewish values. To count itself truly successful, a Zionist state measures itself not by its own achievements, but by the benefit it has provided to the world. 

The writer is a senior educator at numerous educational institutions. He is the author of three books and teaches Torah, Zionism and Israel studies around the world.