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Couple uneasy with false visa information

Randy Cohen

Q. We hoped to attend a symposium, “The Middle East in the 21st Century,” on a ship that would dock in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Oman and Kuwait. Our tour director said everyone would be identified on visa applications as Christian. Because we are Jewish we felt uneasy and withdrew. Should the sponsoring organizations hold events in countries that bar Jews? Shouldn't they have told us unprompted that they would file false visa information? – Lillian Cartwright, Alan Skolnikoff, San Francisco

There is no ethical obligation to comply with flagrantly unjust laws. Travel restrictions based on religion are clearly deplorable. The U.N.'s Universal Declaration of Human Rights bars religious discrimination. Had you acquiesced in deceit on a visa application in the face of such laws, you would have committed at worst a minor moral transgression. In any case, while some of the countries you mention restrict some Jewish activities within their borders, none forbid Jews to enter. So is lying necessary?

Even if circumstances inclined you to submit falsified documents, the sponsors may not make that decision for you. They should have alerted you to their plans in advance. Nobody enjoys a surprise party at a border post, let alone a stretch in a Saudi jail.

There is nothing wrong with traveling to a nation that engages in dismal practices. To enter a country is not to endorse its every policy (or fewer Western Europeans, given prevailing opinions, would come to the United States). Such visits can even do good by promoting an exchange of ideas.

Q. I interviewed a potential speaker for the annual luncheon of our county's youth board and received a copy of his speech. The board accepted him on my recommendation. When he spoke, he gave a different speech, one I hadn't seen, which included information that sounded made up or exaggerated. I feel used. Was it my responsibility to ensure that he gave the speech I approved?– Name Withheld, Wappingers Falls, N.Y.

How could you ensure he would deliver the agreed-upon speech? Wrestle him to the ground if he deviated from the approved text? If this fellow showed you a speech he said he would deliver, then he was obliged to keep his word. Even if everything in the unexpected oration he actually gave was verifiably true and utterly innocuous, he should have alerted you to his change of plans. If this was not a casual swap but deliberate deception, if he performed the old switcheroo to give a talk he knew you were unlikely to approve, then he acted even worse. But there is little you could have done to prevent it.

I should add that I don't think much of the host closely vetting a talk, something that treads on the toes of free expression. It is reasonable for an organization to select a speaker its members are apt to enjoy and to discuss with that speaker his or her intended topic. But once subject and speaker are accepted, he or she should be able to speak freely.

Questions: ethicist@nytimes.com

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