U.S. Supreme Court debates Israel wording on passports

Raffi Wineburg

WASHINGTON (JTA) — The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments over whether American citizens born in Jerusalem should have the option of listing Israel as their birthplace.

On Monday, the nine justices weighed claims in a lawsuit filed by the parents of Menachem Zivotofsky, a U.S. citizen born in Jerusalem in 2002. The parents, who hold dual citizenship, want their son’s birthplace on his passport to be listed as Israel, not Jerusalem.

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It marks the second time the Supreme Court heard arguments on the constitutionality of a 2002 provision signed into law by President George W. Bush that allows U.S. citizens born in Jerusalem to have Israel listed as their birthplace on passports. Successive administrations have refused to enforce the provision.

The Zivotofskys filed suit after the State Department refused their request despite the fact that Menachem was born after Bush signed the law.

In 2009, an appeals court ruled that the judiciary had no standing in the case. Three years later, however, the Supreme Court said the case was worthy of consideration and ordered the lower court to rehear it. The appeals court last year ruled that the executive branch prevailed on matters of foreign policy, effectively ruling against the Zivotofskys. They appealed, and now the Supreme Court is reconsidering the case.

The Obama administration maintains that changing the wording on passports would damage the American role as a peace broker in the Middle East by favoring an Israeli claim to Jerusalem. Since Israel’s independence in 1948, the United States has taken the position that no country has sovereignty over Jerusalem, and that the city’s status must be determined by negotiations.

Alyza Lewin, the Zivotofskys’ lawyer, argued that the passport language would not change U.S. policy toward Jerusalem.

The Supreme Court justices appeared divided over the case, focusing their questions on the degree to which Congress has a say in determining foreign policy.