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The Jerusalem fiction that continues to endure

IsraelNational GovernmentLaws and LegislationReligious ConflictsCourts and the Judiciary

In 2002, at the Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem, an American citizen named Naomi Zivotofsky gave birth to another American citizen, Menachem Zivotofsky.

It is the strong belief of both Naomi and her husband, Menachem's father, Ari, that the Shaare Zedek Medical Center is located in the state of Israel. It was fairly easy for the Zivotofskys to discern that Shaare Zedek is located in the state of Israel. Maps, neutral maps, not maps produced by the Perfidious Zionist Entity, clearly show it to be in the state of Israel. When you walk outside Shaare Zedek, you are quite obviously in the state of Israel. Israel's principal Holocaust memorial is half a mile away. Its main military cemetery is close as well. Israel's parliament sits two miles away, as does the office of its prime minister. Since the rebirth of the Jewish state, in 1948, the land under Shaare Zedek has been part of Israel.

So when the Zivotofskys received Menachem's U.S. passport, they were disturbed to see that his birthplace was listed as simply "Jerusalem," not "Jerusalem, Israel." This was not a clerical error. It is the belief of the executive branch of the U.S. government that Israel's claim of sovereignty to any part of Jerusalem is in dispute. The long-held view is that Jerusalem's final disposition will have to await the outcome of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

The Zivotofskys disagree with this view, and so does Congress, which in 2002 enacted a law that demanded that the executive branch record the births of such Americans as Menachem Zivotofsky as taking place in "Jerusalem, Israel," should the parents ask for this designation. But the State Department has refused to respect this demand.

The Zivotofskys sued, and, after years of litigation, the Supreme Court has decided to hear their case. The court will be ruling on whether Congress has the power to override the executive branch's foreign-policy decisions. This is a fascinating, and possibly momentous, question, but it is not my question today.

My question is this: Why does the United States acquiesce to the fiction that Jerusalem in particular, West Jerusalem, which has been the seat of Israeli government since 1948 may not actually belong to Israel?

The answer, unfortunately, is fear of extremist Islamist violence.

U.S. presidents, of course, visit Jerusalem with some regularity. They meet Israel's prime ministers and presidents there. They speak before parliament. They even visit Judaism's holiest site, the Western Wall, which, unlike Shaare Zedek, is on land that was captured from Jordan in the 1967 war.

No U.S. president has disavowed the obvious Jewish connection to Jerusalem. In fact, Bill Clinton blamed Yasser Arafat for the collapse of the Camp David peace process in 2000 after the Palestinian leader denied that Jerusalem's Temple Mount is the historic location of the ancient Jewish Temple.

Barack Obama's administration, in contesting the Zivotofskys' lawsuit, has argued that acceding to their demand could "critically compromise the ability of the United States to work with Israelis, Palestinians and others in the region to further the peace process."

If this view is indeed true, then there is no hope for the peace process. If Palestinians are unwilling to concede, as a matter of fact, that Israel has sovereignty over West Jerusalem, how will it be possible to convince them that Israel has sovereign rights over the area of the Western Wall, which sits in disputed territory? (Israel will probably give up sovereignty over the Western Wall at about the same time Saudi Arabia gives up control of Mecca.)

What is actually going on here is something else. As Seth Lipsky points out in Haaretz, the real question is the World War III question, first posed by Justice Sonia Sotomayor and designed to test the limits of congressional involvement in foreign policy making but reflecting a real concern of the executive branch. Sotomayor asked whether calamity would follow a U.S. decision to acknowledge that someone born in Jerusalem was born in Israel.

"Let's assume that a dozen nations said this designation on the passport is we view as an act of war; if the United States is going to do this, we're going to view it as an act of war," Sotomayor said. "Would that then permit the president to ignore Congress …"

Again, the separation-of-powers issue is not what concerns me at the moment. What concerns me is the widespread assumption that a U.S. decision to state openly that Jerusalem's Shaare Zedek Medical Center is located in Israel could lead to a collapse of the already-collapsing peace process or, worse, bloodshed across the Middle East. There may be merit to the latter assumption; it is certainly not Sotomayor's idea alone. In the recent past, Islamist extremists have rioted and committed murder over cartoons they deemed to have been blasphemous, so there is no particular reason to believe they wouldn't react poorly to the tacit recognition by the U.S. that Jerusalem at least its western half is part of Israel.

But what does it say about us, that we allow the fear of violence to make us deny what is true?

(Jeffrey Goldberg is a columnist for Bloomberg View writing about the Middle East, U.S. foreign policy and national affairs. He is the author of "Prisoners: A Story of Friendship and Terror.")

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