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Failing To Recognize Jerusalem


In what country were you born?

If you are a U.S. citizen born in Jerusalem, you’d better not look for the answer on your passport. That line is always left blank.

On every other passport there is always a line listing a person’s city and country of birth. But as a boy named Menachem Zivitofsky learned, this isn’t the case for people born in Jerusalem. Because of U.S. policy, the State Department declines to record their place of birth as Israel, leaving passports to read simply “Jerusalem.”

While this outrage eventually led to Congressional action, it also points to a larger problem – the failure of the State Department to recognize Jerusalem as the undisputed capital of Israel.

In 2002, Congress passed the Foreign Relations Authorization Act, part of which declared Jerusalem the capital of Israel and ordered then-President George W. Bush to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, since our embassies around the world operate out of foreign countries’ capital cities.

Part of the law we passed specifically spells out that if a United States 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 the White House issued a signing statement saying it considered these parts of the law non-binding and that the administration would not implement them. President Bush said that Congress was trying to dictate foreign policy to the Executive branch, and that the president alone has the power to recognize foreign states.

In December of the same year the bill passed, Menachem Zivitofsky’s parents, who are American citizens (Menachem’s mother gave birth to him in Jerusalem), plunged into this debate between the White House and Congress and asked the State Department to issue Menachem a U.S. passport that listed his place of birth as Jerusalem, Israel. The State Department said no, listing his place of birth simply as “Jerusalem”.

A court ruled that our Congressional call for Jerusalem to be part of Israel intruded on the power of the president to recognize all foreign regimes. It also ruled that the court couldn’t enforce the law with the State Department since it involved “an inherently political” question.

This is wrong; of course Congress has the ability to legislate with regard to foreign affairs. For example, we recognized the PLO as a terrorist organization and made it illegal for anyone to accept anything of value from the PLO. Not only did Congress make these laws with regard to a foreign entity, the president used this law in an effort to close the PLO’s mission to the United Nations.

The idea that the president, not Congress, has the right to determine what a U.S. passport names as a place of birth for a U.S. citizen is wrong. Congress regulates passports all the time. The fact that the State Department can even issue passports at all is because of an act of Congress. For example, courts have upheld Congress’s right to require an oath of allegiance for people to obtain a passport and Congress’s right to deny a passport to anyone owing more than $5,000 in child support.

Adding insult to injury, the Foreign Affairs Manual of the State Department instructs its employees to allow Arabs born in areas of Israel that are uncontroversial and incontrovertibly part of Israel, like Tel Aviv or Haifa, to request that their passport not say Israel if they object to Israel being shown as sovereign.

If Arab Israelis can take Israel off their passports, how can the State Department not allow a Jewish Israeli to put it on?

This is simply beyond the pale, which is why I and several other members of Congress filed an Amicus brief on behalf of Menachem Zivitofsky, trying to relay to the court our displeasure with how our legislation is being ignored. The court did not decide in our favor, but I look forward to re-doubling our effort when the appeal comes before a court again.

This struggle is not just some “insider” bureaucratic dispute in Washington. Acceptance of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is crucial. The “international community” wants Jerusalem to be considered outside the control of Israel, probably in preparation of exerting pressure on the Israeli government to give parts of it away.

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