In October 2002, Menachem Binyamin Zivotofsky was born at Shaare Zedek Medical Center, located in a part of Jerusalem squarely inside the Green Line. Just a few weeks before, the US Congress passed a provision titled “United States Policy With Respect to Jerusalem as the Capital of Israel” stating that US citizens born in Jerusalem may request their birthplaces be listed as Israel.
Amazingly, up until then the official US policy, as dictated by the State Department and consecutive US presidents, had been that only “Jerusalem” – not “Israel” – could be listed in a Consular Report of Birth Abroad and in passports for US citizens born in Jerusalem. Finally, Congress was officially contesting this policy.
The 1947 UN Partition Plan placed Jerusalem under international control. The parts of Jerusalem that fell under Israeli control in the wake of the War of Independence and the drawing of the 1949 Armistice Lines were never recognized by the US as part of Israeli sovereignty. Ever since, US presidents – both Democratic and Republican – have declined to take a position on the status of Jerusalem.
After the US Congress’s provision, however, a historic injustice had been righted. Ari and Naomi Zivotofsky, new immigrants to Israel from the US, hoped that their son Menachem, their only child born in Israel, would have that fact reflected proudly in his passport. But there was one problem. Registering Menachem’s place of birth as “Israel,” as dictated by the US Congress, raised a serious question about the constitutional power of the president of the US to determine America’s foreign policy.
The US Constitution gives the president the right to receive ambassadors, and this has broadly been interpreted to include a “recognition power” that allows for the president to speak as the sole representative of the US in matters of international diplomacy. As one judge of the Washington, DC, circuit court noted, the US Congress’s provision “impermissibly intrudes on the president’s exclusive authority under the US Constitution to decide whether and on what terms to recognize foreign nations.”
Perhaps. But it can also be argued that registering a birth in Jerusalem as having taken place in Israel – even if doing so goes against US State Department policy – should not be viewed as an intrusion on the president’s authority.
Clearly the ideal solution would be for US President Barack Obama to take a step that previous presidents – including George W. Bush – have failed to take for over six decades and recognize Jerusalem – at least those parts that are inside the 1949 Armistice Lines – as part of Israel. Otherwise, the US, Israel’s most important and closest ally, will perpetuate an untenable stance.
Ostensibly, the State Department’s position on Jerusalem – as presented to the US federal appeals court – is that the “reversal of US policy” could “provoke uproar throughout the Arab and Muslim world and seriously damage our relations.”
But caving in to extremists in the Arab and Muslim world only encourages more extremist behavior, because it proves that intimidation works.
Caving in to the extremists also strengthens the Palestinian “Nakba” narrative which views Israel as the aggressor in the 1948 War of Independence. In reality, it was not Israeli aggression that sparked the fighting that led to Israel’s control over western Jerusalem. It was a radicalized Palestinian leadership – backed by bellicose Arab nations – that rejected the 1947 UN Partition Plan. The Palestinians made the historic mistake of attempting to snuff out the fledgling Jewish state at birth. Thankfully, they failed. But they refuse to face the consequences of their own acts of violence.
By refusing to recognize Jerusalem as part of Israel, the US is essentially strengthening this distorted narrative.
Just walking around Jerusalem, a city that has flourished and grown beyond recognition for the betterment of both Jews and Arabs during the years it has been under Israel’s control, one is struck by the sheer absurdity of the US’s position.
The time has come for the Obama administration to amend America’s policy. Through direct negotiations, Israelis and Palestinians will decide the final borders of Israel and a future Palestinian state. No matter what the outcome, however, parts of Jerusalem will remain Israel’s capital. US policy should reflect this simple fact.
Next year, Menachem Zivotofsky will celebrate his bar mitzva. We can only hope that by then the question of Jerusalem will be settled and the Zivotofsky’s modest request – which affects tens of thousands of other American Jews born in Jerusalem – will be granted.