Americans born in Jerusalem cannot list Israel as their birthplace in their US passports

Menachem Zivotofsky, who is now officially not born in Israel.
Menachem Zivotofsky, who is now officially not born in Israel.
Image: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
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If someone was born to American parents in Jerusalem, can her American passport say she was born in Israel? It’s been a matter of contention for over a decade, but now the US Supreme Court has decided that the answer is no.

The general practice for listing “place of birth” on a US passport for a citizen born outside the US is to simply name the country. American citizens born in Paris, for instance, have “France” written in this section. For those born in Jerusalem, however, the matter is complicated, because different branches of the US government disagree on whether Jerusalem is the Israeli capital.

Israel formally annexed the eastern part of Jerusalem, which is in the West Bank, some years after it took over the West Bank in the 1967 war. Most countries, including the US, don’t recognize the annexation, and so don’t officially recognize Jerusalem as the Israeli capital, maintaining their embassies in Tel Aviv instead.

However, in 2002, a US law called the Foreign Relations Authorization Act (pdf, p.18) included a provision that for any US citizen who was born in Jerusalem, the secretary of state “shall, upon the request of the citizen or the citizen’s legal guardian, record the place of birth as Israel.” President George W. Bush signed the bill into law, but said that he would not enforce the provision. That same year, Naomi Zivotofsky made such a request for her youngest son, Menachem (pictured above), who had been born in Jerusalem a couple of months earlier. The state department, in accord with the president’s statement, refused.

The Obama administration has maintained the same stance. Since both Israel and Palestine claim authority over Jerusalem, US presidents have declined to take sides on the matter, insisting that “the city’s status should be resolved through negotiations between the parties.”

Today the Supreme Court ruled that the executive branch is in the right and that Congress overstepped by writing this little section of the law. Issuing passports recording “Israel” as the country of birth of Jerusalem-born citizens “contradicts the executive branch’s exclusive power to recognize foreign sovereigns,” the justices wrote (pdf). So if you’re an American and want your kid born in “Israel,” try not to be in Jerusalem when the labor begins.