I’ll never forget the first time I went to obtain a passport for one of my children born in Jerusalem. When the clerk at the US Consulate asked what to list as place of birth, I said, “Jerusalem, Israel.”

“Sorry, that’s not an option,” she dutifully explained. “US citizens born in Jerusalem can list ‘Jerusalem’ – but not ‘Israel’.”

Last week, after decades of political hand-wringing, US ambassador to Israel David Friedman issued the first passport that lists “Israel" as the place of birth. The passport recipient, as shown in the photo above? Jerusalem-born teen Menachem Zivotofsky, whose parents launched a pair of failed battles at the US Supreme Court aimed at reversing America’s longstanding policy. 

The event corrected a historic distortion that treats Jerusalem as a vexing diplomatic issue and equates Jewish and Islamic claims to Jerusalem. This despite that Jerusalem has been the Jewish capital twice as long as Islam has even existed. The city is mentioned 457 times in the Jewish Bible; Jerusalem is mentioned zero times in the Koran. Jerusalem is the one and only Jewish capital; whereas Jerusalem has never – in all of human history – been an Arab or Islamic capital city.

As recently as 2016, the US was siding with a position that Jewish rights to even the Western Wall is a violation of international rights.

Canadian Pioneers

Rectifying this absurd injustice has been a long journey.

Back in 2005, 18-year-old Eli Veffer, born in Jerusalem, launched a court battle against the Canadian government to have "Jerusalem, Israel" listed in his Canadian passport as his birthplace. The case of “Eliyahu Yoshua Veffer v. Minister of Foreign Affairs” cited Canadian policy that allows passport applicants to choose the country of birth – even when the territory is disputed. With Jerusalem as the lone exception, Veffer claimed that erasing any mention of the Jewish homeland constituted discrimination of his basic rights to freedom of conscience, religion, and identity.

The case was spearheaded by Shmuel Veffer, Eli’s father, for many years a beloved rabbi at Aish in Jerusalem and Toronto. “We argued that ‘Israel’ is part of our son’s identity,” Shmuel told Aish.com, “and he resented being told he does not have a country of birth.'”

After a 3-year legal fight, the case reached the Supreme Court of Canada which ruled against the Veffers.

“We expected to lose,” says Shmuel, who now runs the Israeli olive oil export, Galilee Green. “But after consulting with Rabbi Noah Weinberg, we felt the battle was worth it. The court case would bring to the world's attention the absurdity of pretending that Jerusalem was not the capital of Israel.”

The passport that started it all: Eli Veffer’s 2004 Canadian passport.

Supreme Court Ruling

The Veffers' Canadian lawsuit got international press and inspired the Zivotofsky family to file a similar suit against the US Government. They argued that Congress passed a law in 1995 recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. The practical implication of this law was deferred by a succession of presidents, until 2002 when Congress passed legislation requiring consular documents to list Jerusalem-born citizens’ place of birth as Israel.

The DC-based father-daughter team of Nathan and Alyza Lewin filed a lawsuit on Zivotofsky’s behalf, demanding that his passport list ‘Israel’ as his place of birth.

In 2015, the US Supreme Court ruled against the Zivotofskys, claiming that Congress had overstepped its bounds. In writing the dissent, Chief Justice John Roberts decried: “The court takes the perilous step – for the first time in our history – of allowing the president to defy an act of Congress in the field of foreign affairs.”

In 2017, the US moved its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem – paving the way for last week’s passport recognition that Ambassador Friedman says brings US “passport policy in line with our foreign policy and common sense.”

Shmuel Veffer notes the poetic justice of this historic event taking place the week of Parshat Lech Lecha, where we read of Abraham standing alone, at great personal effort, to ensure the triumph of justice.

“The moral of the story,” Shmuel says, “is that one person, standing up with truth against the whole world, can truly make a difference.”

At a 2014 Supreme Court hearing: From left: Menachem Zivotofsky, his father Ari, attorney Alyza Lewin, and Lewin’s father Nathan. (credit: Rikki Gordon Lewin)

TIMELINE OF JUSTICE

1995 – US Congress passes law recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital
2002 – Congress passes legislation requiring consular documents to list Jerusalem-born citizens’ place of birth as Israel
2006 – Eliyahu Veffer files a lawsuit against the Canadian government, demanding that his passport say he was born in “Jerusalem, Israel.” Canada’s Supreme Court rejects his claim.
2015 – US Supreme Court rules against Menachem Zivotofsky in a similar lawsuit
2017 – US Embassy moved to Jerusalem
2020 – US government issues first passport listing Jerusalem in "Israel”