Passports, Provisos and Photo Captions

When you stop to think about it, the fact that so much of the world’s attention—not to mention so much jealousy, anger and irrationality—has for so many years been so keenly focused on so small a piece of real estate as Yerushalayim is astounding.

Actually, in a certain way it’s enthralling too, demonstrating as it so powerfully does how special the geographic epicenter of the Jewish People—the dynamo of holiness that sanctifies the rest of Eretz Yisrael—is, today no less than ever.

Over history, many empires claimed sovereignty over the quintessentially Jewish city, site of the batei mikdash, the central Jewish Holy Temples; and many marauders overran it. Now, to add to all the indignities visited upon the Holy City over the millennia, Jerusalem is being summoned to appear before the United States Supreme Court.

Well, okay, not exactly. What the High Court will be considering is the passport of a Jerusalem-born boy. Menachem Zivotofsky’s parents, American citizens, requested of the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv that “Israel” be listed as the country in which their son entered the world. Then-President George W. Bush had mere weeks earlier signed a bill directing the U.S. State Department to do just that upon parents’ request.

But Mr. Bush made clear at the signing that the law “impermissibly interferes with the president’s constitutional authority to conduct the nation’s foreign affairs.” That proviso, in which Mr. Bush essentially rejected the authority of the law he signed, was reminiscent of the executive orders issued by every sitting president since 1998 that, despite the 1995 “Jerusalem Embassy Act” mandating the relocation of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, the move would not actually happen. The justification for the orders is the need to “protect the national security interests of the United States.” The guardedness, in other words, is seen as necessary to preserve the government’s claim of objectivity with regard to any future Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.

And so the State Department maintains that U.S. passports of individuals born in Jerusalem list only the city’s name, without anything appended.

In 2003, the Zivotofskys sued the State Department on behalf of their son, and that litigation—dismissed, and then resurrected on appeal—is what the Supreme Court will begin to consider next month. An alphabet soup of Jewish groups have jumped into the fray with “friend of the court” briefs, almost all in support of the Zivotovskys. An exception was the American Jewish Committee, whose representative contended that while it does consider “West Jerusalem” to be part of Israel, it believes that “all issues in the Israel-Palestinian conflict have to be settled at the negotiation table.”

In the meantime, the Obama administration came in for some criticism on the issue. The New York Sun’s website reported recently that photographs posted on the White House website that had carried captions referencing “Jerusalem, Israel” had been altered to read simply “Jerusalem.” The changes were presumably an effort to avoid the captions being invoked in the upcoming Supreme Court case—although photo captions obviously have something less than legal import.

In response to an inquiry, a White House official said the “U.S. policy for more than 40 years has been that the status of Jerusalem should be decided in final-status negotiations between the parties. As in prior administrations, the White House photo captions should reflect that policy.”

Indeed, the White House site’s captions during the Bush years also omitted “Israel” in at least some Jerusalem-datelined photos. Former Bush administration official Elliot Abrams told the Washington Post that the White House during those years “did not have a hard-and-fast rule” for statements and press releases about identifying Jerusalem as being in Israel.

In the end, the Supreme Court will decide what it will. And Israel will negotiate what it will. And believing Jews everywhere will continue to know what we have always known: That, whatever any court or any country might contend, Yerushalayim, the city Jews have faced in prayer thrice daily for thousands of years, is the heart and home of Klal Yisrael.

In fact, maybe that phrase is what passports should put after Jerusalem’s name.

© 2011 AMI MAGAZINE

[Rabbi Shafran is an editor at large and columnist for Ami Magazine]

The above essay may be reproduced or republished, with the above copyright appended.

Communications: rabbishafran@amimagazine.org

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