November 01, 2020
The US Ambassador to Israel presents Menachem Zivotofsky, a US citizen who was born in Jerusalem, his passport that lists Israel as birthplace at the US Embassy in Jerusalem. (File/Reuters)
When I was born back in 1955, East Jerusalem was part of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. In June 1967, Israeli troops rolled into our city and occupied it. The same month, Israel unilaterally passed a law declaring its sovereignty over the entire city of Jerusalem, including the occupied part. No country in the world, including the US, has recognized this unilateral act.
Now, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has announced a change in the long-standing State Department policy that avoided controversy over the place of birth of Jerusalemites by simply listing their birthplace as Jerusalem. Americans born in Jerusalem can now list their place of birth as either “Israel” or “Jerusalem.” Trying to win over a few pro-Israel American votes, the White House is dumping bipartisan US policy and, in the process, throwing non-Jews born in Jerusalem, like me, under the bus. This ill-advised new policy will allow countries, especially Israel, to discriminate between American Jews and American Arabs simply because of where they were born.
The idea that passports will have more than one entry in the place of birth line will easily flag up who is Jewish and who is an Arab Jerusalemite, thus discriminating against Americans in particular when they arrive at Israeli passport control. This will increase discrimination against bona fide American citizens who are protected against such actions by the US Constitution. When it comes to discrimination against US citizens, instead of forcefully fighting against it, the State Department is actually enabling it.
This issue is personal for me. In 1969 and without much hope of finding a good college education for me and my siblings, my parents decided to emigrate to the US. When I was old enough and after being naturalized, I was able to travel using an American passport. The entry for the place of birth on my newly acquired US travel document was listed as Jerusalem.
The idea of Jerusalem, rather than Jordan, Israel or Palestine, being listed as the place of birth was more than a clever diplomatic move to avoid making a sensitive political decision. Ever since the 19th century, countries around the world have treated Jerusalem as a unique city. It is legally considered as a “corpus separatum” (Latin for separated body). American, British, French, Spanish, Italian, Turkish, Belgium, Norwegian, and Swedish diplomatic missions have set up in Jerusalem since then. They report directly to their own capitals and not through their respective missions in Tel Aviv, Amman or even Ramallah.
The US has meddled with this sensitive city by making a symbolic move of its embassy to West Jerusalem (the US Embassy is still largely in Tel Aviv), while declaring that this move is not intended to prejudge the future state of Jerusalem, which is hotly contested by the Israelis and Palestinians.
Bipartisan support, international cooperation and the consent of the conflicting parties are necessary before making such a move.
Some American Jews born in Jerusalem have wanted to have their place of birth listed as Israel. But the US Supreme Court ruled in 2015 that the president has the exclusive power to recognize (or not) foreign nations. Now, however, the idea of tinkering with this issue has arisen once again. Officials have declared that they want to declare all those born in Jerusalem — including people like me who were born before Israel came to Jerusalem — to have been born in Israel.
Jerusalem is the cradle of three monotheistic religions. Jews who trace their lineage to Abraham say it is the place where Abraham nearly sacrificed his son Isaac on a mount, where they believe the first and second temples stood. Christians believe that Jesus Christ was crucified and ascended to heaven from Jerusalem, while Al-Aqsa in Al-Haram Al Sharif is Islam’s third holiest mosque. UNESCO has declared the entire Old City of Jerusalem to be a world heritage site not to be tinkered with or changed.
US law and the Supreme Court might have given the executive branch the right to recognize countries and therefore legally allow the listing of either Jerusalem or Israel. But such a change will certainly not be wise or conducive to peace and tranquility in the most complex conflict in the world. Bipartisan support, international cooperation and the consent of the conflicting parties are necessary before making such a move.
Decisions that affect people around the world should not be electioneering fodder. Any move that is made in Washington regarding Jerusalem can have a direct impact on the Middle East and can easily enable countries to discriminate against full-fledged US citizens.
For four years, the current administration has made repeated pro-Israeli acts while claiming that these moves are ultimately aimed at bringing about peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. However, these actions have done little to change the basic principles needed for peace.
Palestinians want peace and they understand that the best way to accomplish this goal is to usher in the creation of a Palestinian state in the areas Israel occupied in 1967, including East Jerusalem. This would provide Israel with the safety and security its people desire and would ensure that Palestinians, who have lived with decades of occupation and colonial settlement, will have freedom in their own independent and democratic state.
If the US cannot accomplish these conditions for peace, it should at least avoid enabling discrimination against American citizens.
Daoud Kuttab is an award-winning Palestinian journalist from Jerusalem. He is a former Ferris Professor of Journalism at Princeton University. Twitter: @daoudkuttab
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