Identity crisis

Canadian Court rejects appeal submitted by Toronto teen to list 'Jerusalem, Israel' on his passport.

UK passport 88 (photo credit: )
UK passport 88
(photo credit: )
Earlier this month, the Federal Court of Canada rejected an appeal by an Israeli-born Toronto teenager who had sought to have "Jerusalem, Israel" listed as his place of birth on his Canadian passport. In a ruling in the case of Eliyahu Veffer v. Minister of Foreign Affairs released last month, Justice Konrad von Finckenstein dismissed an application to review a Passport Office policy that does not allow "Israel" to appear on the passports of people born in Jerusalem. The judge ruled that "passports do not deal with, nor are they a reflection of, a person's roots, heritage or belief." Saying that Jerusalem's status is in dispute, von Finckenstein's decision upheld a previous Federal Court ruling that the place of birth clause in the passport reflects citizenship and not religious beliefs. "My religion teaches me that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel," Veffer said in his affidavit. "This is an integral part of my religious belief. "The fact that I was born there, in Israel, to me that's a fulfillment of the Jews saying for years, thousands of years, 'Next year in Jerusalem,'" he said. "That was fulfilled for me by being born there." In January 2005, B'nai B'rith Canada's senior legal counsel, David Matas, filed an application on behalf of Veffer, then a 17-year-old student at the Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto, arguing that the federal government was violating his client's Charter of Rights guarantees by not noting his place of birth in his Canadian passport as "Jerusalem, Israel." The teenager, whose father is Rabbi Shmuel Veffer, the spiritual leader of an Aish Hatorah-affiliated synagogue in central Toronto, was brought to Canada by his parents in 1999. As a dual citizen of Canada and Israel, he holds two passports. The case was heard by the Federal Court in Winnipeg, Manitoba, last April 25. Three years ago, Canada's Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade began listing the place of birth of Canadian passport-holders born in this city as simply "Jerusalem." The decision applies to those born there under Jordanian rule (1948-1967) and Israeli suzerainty from 1948 to the present. The Canadian court further ruled that since its policy applies to Jerusalem-born Palestinians as well, the policy does not constitute an act of discrimination against Israeli Jews. Matas said that with the exception of Jerusalem, Canada's policy is that when a city is disputed territory, the passport applicant is allowed to choose which country to include. But lawyers for the federal government say the status of Jerusalem has been in dispute since 1948, when the State of Israel was established. They further argue that Canada's policy is similar to other countries - to let the Israelis and Palestinians negotiate their competing claims of sovereignty over the city. Until then, they claim, a change in Canada's policy could show favoritism to the Israeli side and prejudice a peaceful political settlement. Canadian Foreign Affairs Minister Peter MacKay admitted it's a complicated issue. "We do not identify Jerusalem as being in Israel or in Palestine," he said. "That's something that has to be resolved in the context of the larger issues outstanding in the Middle East." The decision effectively means that Veffer "will continue to receive differential treatment under the existing policy," said Matas, a noted Winnipeg human rights lawyer. "Eliyahu Veffer is effectively being denied his birthright by the restrictive policy now in place." Canadians for Jerusalem (CFJ), a coalition of more than 30 nonprofit corporations, community groups and university student organizations across Canada headed up by the Canadian Arab Federation, was granted intervener status before the Federal Court of Canada in the lawsuit. "The passport is not a billboard for one's religious or personal views in Canada's multicultural society," said Faraj Nakhleh of Montreal, a spokesperson for CFJ and acting president of the Canadian Arab Federation. "This case is critical to my identity and human dignity," said Rula Sharkawi, a Jerusalem-born Christian now living in Canada. "To deny the historic claims of Palestinians to Jerusalem is a denial of my heritage." But the ruling came as a great disappointment to B'nai B'rith Canada. Frank Dimant, the human rights group's vice president, called the policy "discriminatory," adding that he intends to contact the current Conservative government - whose attitude on Israel-related issues is considered more favorable than that of the previous Liberal government - to discuss the matter. Prime minister Paul Martin and his Liberal Party were defeated in the January 26, 2006, federal election by the right-wing Tories headed by Stephen Harper. In 2003 the Foreign Affairs Department began recalling and replacing the valid passports of those Canadian citizens whose travel identification listed their place of birth as Jerusalem, Israel. CFJ lawyer Douglas Elliot said an "administrative error" had resulted in Canadian passports being issued with the birthplace Jerusalem, Israel. "The policy has not been well-articulated in the past," he noted. The inconsistent policy resulted in "at least dozens, maybe hundreds" of such passports being issued, he said. Ottawa has been seeking the return of those passports, which are, he contends, the property of the Canadian government. Among those contacted was Matan Kezwer, born at Hadassah-University Medical Center on Mount Scopus in 1984 but living in Toronto since 1986 (and the son of this writer). Kezwer refused to surrender his passport, which still had three years before it expired. His sister Bareket, born in Jerusalem in 1985, also refused to return her passport, which was about to expire. Her new travel document, like Eliyahu Veffer's, lists her place of birth as "Jerusalem."