This week, the U.S. Supreme Court is studying the case of Menachem Zivotofsky, a 12-year-old boy born in Jerusalem to American parents and the subject of one of the more geopolitically fraught debates to be weighed by America's top justices.
The source of the dispute is, on paper, trivial: Zivotofsky's parents want to change how their son's passport refers to his place of birth to "Israel." It just reads "Jerusalem," and the same is true for all other American passports of U.S. nationals born there.
But that distinction makes all the difference. The issue of sovereignty over this ancient city is a very delicate matter. Israel considers Jerusalem its eternal capital and has controlled the city in its entirety since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war, which saw Israel also seize the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. The United States, on the other hand, let alone other countries less well disposed to Israel, does not recognize Jerusalem as the Israeli capital.
Washington is the main proponent of the moribund peace process and the two-state solution, which, among other things, prescribes East Jerusalem as the capital of a separate (and thus far unrealized) Palestinian state. Successive administrations in the White House, irrespective of their own ideological predilections, have maintained the U.S.'s longstanding neutrality on the question of Jerusalem's status -- even as Israel has steadily (and controversially) changed the facts on the ground.
But, as Slate's Dahlia Lithwick summarizes, that has not impeded Congress from meddling:
Congress doesn’t agree with [the White House's] posture, and in 2002 it passed a law that, among other things, allows Jerusalem-born applicants for U.S. passports to record their place of birth as “Israel” if they so request. President Bush signed that law but attached a signing statement declining to enforce the passport provision because it “impermissibly interferes with the President’s authority to conduct the Nation’s foreign affairs.” Barack Obama similarly contends that the provision is unconstitutional.
The "Zivotofsky vs. Kerry" case invokes this 2002 passport law and has returned a thorny debate over executive power and foreign policy to the highest court in the land.
It also takes place at a moment of profound crisis in Jerusalem itself, as liberal Justice Elena Kagan, who sides with the administration on the matter, noted. "Can I say that this seems a particularly unfortunate week to be making this kind of, 'oh, it’s no big deal' argument," Kagan said, referring to the arguments of those backing the Zivotofsky claim. "I mean, history suggests that everything is a big deal with respect to the status of Jerusalem."
Kagan described Jerusalem as a "tinderbox," and she is right.
In recent weeks, tensions have flared to alarming levels in this city, which is holy to Jews, Muslims and Christians alike. An escalation in tit-for-tat violence and attacks saw Israeli authorities briefly bar access to the al-Aqsa mosque in the city's ancient Temple Mount, prompting angry rhetoric from Palestinian officials.
Meanwhile, the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu continues its expansion of Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, recently approving the building of hundreds of new homes in territory where the international community deems Israel an outside occupier. The revelation, published last week, of an unnamed White House official describing Netanyahu as a "chickenshit" has further reinforced the sense of strain between the two historic allies.
On the same day the Supreme Court discussed the Zivotofsky case, the State Department condemned Israel's settlement expansions.
"We continue to engage at the highest level with the Israeli government to make our position absolutely clear," said Edgar Vasquez, a State Department spokesman, "that we view settlement activity as illegitimate and that we unequivocally oppose unilateral steps that prejudge the future of Jerusalem."
Those steps would also include the changing of one word on a 12-year-old's passport.
Correction: The original version of the post incorrectly stated that Zivotofsky's parents want to change the listing of his place of birth to "Jerusalem, Israel." They want to change it simply to "Israel."