Iranian-Born Israeli Physicist Denied US Visa

By Julie Stahl | July 7, 2008 | 8:12 PM EDT

Jerusalem ( - Visa regulations to enter the U.S. have become so stringent since September 11 that an Israeli physicist, who organized an international conference on quantum mechanics in the U.S., may not be able to attend because of the fact that he was born in Iran, a country he left 44 years ago.

Dr. Avshalom Elitzur of Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv, who is a board member of Temple University's Frontier Sciences department in Pennsylvania, already had a multiple-entry visa to the U.S., which was valid until 2005.

But when he asked the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv for the visa to be transferred to his current Israeli passport, it was taken away from him and submitted to the State Department for a further security check.

Elitzur's parents immigrated to Israel when he was one year old. He said not only is he not connected with the al Qaeda terrorist network, he barely speaks Farsi - the language of Iran.

"If I were to go there today, they would probably put me in jail," Elitzur said.

Elitzur, who spent nearly three years organizing the special four-day conference in Pennsylvania, said it would be an "embarrassment" both to Temple University and the U.S. if the organizer and chairman of the conference is not allowed to attend.

Sixteen of the world's top experts in quantum mechanics, including Dutch Nobel Prize Laureate Gerard Thoof, are scheduled to attend the closed-door seminar beginning September 24.

"I'm not talking about the personal blow," said Elitzur. "It will be a great academic loss."

The U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv issued a lengthy press release on Monday on the subject of granting visas since September 11. But a spokesman at the embassy said that the incident with Elitzur was only one of the cases that had prompted the statement.

"We don't have the discretion here," said the spokesman, who asked not to be named. The consular officials pass the information on to Washington, where the individuals are investigated, he said.

In this case, he said, the U.S. Embassy did tell Washington that Elitzur is "an Israeli living here for 40 years and not to put him in the same category as an Iranian who just came from the country."

In the future, he said, it would be up to Congress to address the issue of fine-tuning the screening process.

"Since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the State Department has been engaged with other U.S. government agencies in an extensive and ongoing review of visa-issuing practices as they relate to the security of our borders and our nation," the U.S. Embassy statement said.

Visa applications are now "subject to a greater degree of scrutiny than in the past...[which] in some instances take longer to process to conclusion than has been customary," the statement said.

"Special security screening procedures affect a limited number of prospective travelers. Our goal is to have assured security within a system that is responsive to everyone wishing to visit the United States," it said.

Included in that process is the screening of all those applicants who have certain suspect places of birth, including Iran.

According to the statement, delays of up to six to eight weeks can occur for those seeking entry to the U.S.