Politics & Policy

Jerusalem, Israel

The Obama State Department allows “Jerusalem” but not “Jerusalem, Israel.”

Suppose, for a moment, that you’re an American citizen on a pilgrimage to Israel, your spiritual homeland. You’re also an expectant parent and, surprise, your child decides to come into the world in, of all places, Jerusalem — delivered perhaps at the Shaare Zedek Medical Center, directly opposite Mount Herzl and Israel’s national cemetery.

Knowing what this moment signifies for your faith and your ancestry, you look forward to listing “Jerusalem, Israel” as the place of birth on your child’s passport.

#ad#Now the bad news: In the eyes of the Obama State Department, no such city exists. U.S. passports do indeed list “Jerusalem” as a place of birth but won’t indicate Israel as the city’s nation — a defiance of common sense and commonly held belief, blurring the distinction between Judaism’s most sacred city and a trio of towns in Arkansas, New York, and Ohio that share the same name.

And the 50,000 U.S. citizens currently carrying passports that bear the words “Jerusalem” and “Israel”? They’re now Americans without an official birth country.

How could something so outrageous occur in a nation that recognizes Israel’s right to exist? You can thank the federal courts — a three-judge appellate-panel ruling that the U.S. president, not Congress, holds the power to recognize a foreign sovereign. Thus a federal law enacted a decade ago, enabling U.S. citizens born in Jerusalem to tack on “Israel” as their place of birth to their passport, became null and void because, in the court’s determination, it infringed on the president’s executive power.

But also culpable in all of this is the Obama administration’s Orwellian approach to the status of Jerusalem. Like the “nonpersons” in the novel 1984 whose existence was permanently erased by government fiat, “Jerusalem, Israel” is now a “noncity,” at least in the realm of State Department policy and politics.

Sadly, it’s the latest installment in a bad opera that needs a final act: Every four years, the presidential campaign features candidates promising to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv. Barack Obama, in 2008, was no exception. Once elected, the new president reneges on that promise, saying such a move would undermine a walking-on-eggshells “Middle East peace process.” Meanwhile, Congress pushes for greater recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, understanding what the city symbolizes both to a nation and to one of the world’s great religions. “Without Jerusalem, the land of Israel is as a body without a soul,” in the words of Zionist leader Elhanan Leib Lewinsky. Section 2014(d) of the 2003 Foreign Relations Authorization Act states that when a U.S. citizen is born in Jerusalem, “the Secretary of [State] shall, upon the request of the citizen or the citizen’s legal guardian, record the place of birth as Israel.”

But instead of offering progress and the promise of clarity for Jewish Americans, the Obama administration has fought the law in court, winning this latest round. But call it a pyrrhic victory, because the same ruling that delights State Department underlings sends a chilling message to America’s Jewish community.

So what comes next in this saga? The Obama administration could simply shrug its shoulders and do its best to stay out of the news by saying the third branch of government, the judiciary, is driving the process. Indeed, the matter may be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. But that would do little to address a glaring double standard: a State Department policy that singles out Israel and Jewish Americans.

What if the plaintiffs in this legal case — Ari and Naomi Zivotofsky, the parents of Jerusalem-born Menachem Zivotofsky — instead were Taiwanese American? And, instead of Jerusalem, their son was born in Taipei? Under current U.S. law, they’re free to list “Taiwan” as the country of birth, even though the United States doesn’t formally recognize Taiwan as a sovereign nation.

If the Obama administration wants to show that its professed admiration for Israel is for real, it can start by giving Americans the right to list both “Jerusalem” and “Israel” on their passports. As the Taiwan example shows, it’s possible for America to pursue its foreign-policy goals and allow its citizens to honor their ancestry.

Second, the administration can get on board with pending congressional legislation creating a new category of U.S. ally — “major strategic partner” — solely for Israel. Among the benefits: Israel would join the list of countries whose citizens can visit America for up to 90 days without a visa, provided they register electronically before boarding a flight.

Change doesn’t occur in Washington overnight, as proven by decades of Jerusalem’s being stuck in this policy purgatory. Still, there’s a deadline this administration should honor: In 2015, Menachem Zivotofsky, the boy at the heart of this debate, turns 13. There may be no better bar mitzvah present for him than to allow him and 50,000 of his countrymen to carry America in their hearts — and “Israel” on their passports.

— Tad Taube, honorary consul for the Republic of Poland in the San Francisco Bay Area, is president of the Koret Foundation and chairman of Taube Philanthropies.

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