US gives first passport with ‘Israel’ birthplace to Jerusalem-born teen

Ambassador hands document to Menachem Zivotofsky, whose family mounted unsuccessful Supreme Court challenge to rule, now superseded, that only let him put birthplace as ‘Jerusalem’

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Menachem Zivotofsky (L) is handed the first US passport to have 'Israel' labeled as a place of birth by US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman on October 30, 2020. (US Embassy in Jerusalem)
Menachem Zivotofsky (L) is handed the first US passport to have 'Israel' labeled as a place of birth by US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman on October 30, 2020. (US Embassy in Jerusalem)

The United States’ ambassador to Israel on Friday issued its first passport reflecting a new policy that allows US citizens born in Jerusalem to list Israel as their country of birth.

The travel document was granted in person at the US embassy in Jerusalem by Ambassador David Friedman to teenager Menachem Zivotofsky, whose parents had launched a pair of failed battles in the US Supreme Court aimed at reversing the previous policy, that did not allow Jerusalem-born US citizens to list Israel as their country of birth.

“It is my honor to present you with the very first passport issued to an American citizen born in Jerusalem with ‘Israel’ designated as the place of birth,” Friedman said according to a US embassy statement.

The previous position, updated by the State Department on Thursday, refrained from identifying the city as part of the Jewish state in an effort by the US to remain neutral on a key final status issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The new policy allows US citizens to choose between “Jerusalem” or “Israel” as their place of birth; those who refrain from choosing will by default continue to be issued documents with their place of birth listed as “Jerusalem.”

Menachem Zivotofsky, left, and his father Ari posing in front of the Supreme Court with their attorney Alyza Lewin and Lewin’s father Nathan, November 3, 2014 (Rikki Gordon Lewin)

Friedman went on to thank US President Donald Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo for agreeing to make the policy change.

“It’s no secret that under prior stewardship, the State Department would not alter the passport designation even after Jerusalem was recognized as Israel’s capital. Secretary Pompeo cut through that bureaucracy and brought our passport policy in line with our foreign policy and common sense,” Friedman said.

“In moving our Embassy to Jerusalem, President Trump kept a sacred promise and reinforced our commitment to stand with our friends and to never flinch in the face of groundless opposition or threats. Our stature as a nation has been greatly enhanced by President Trump’s courage and determination,” he added.

Zivotofsky, 18, said in a statement following Thursday’s policy change announcement that he was “honored to be the representative of the many American citizens born in Jerusalem who want official documents to reflect that they were born in Israel.”

“I thank my parents who started the process long before I understood what this is about, and I thank the many people who encouraged and helped us to reach this point,” he said.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (L) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu bump elbows, ahead of a joint statement to the press after meeting in Jerusalem, on August 24, 2020. (DEBBIE HILL / POOL / AFP)

DC-based Lewin & Lewin LLP filed a lawsuit on Zivotofsky’s behalf just weeks after he was born, demanding that his passport list ‘Israel’ as his place of birth. The suit argued that Zivotofsky was born just weeks after Congress passed legislation requiring consular documents to list Jerusalem-born citizens’ place of birth as Israel. However, then-President George W. Bush issued a provision after the law was passed instructing the State Department to ignore the legislation in an effort to remain neutral on the sensitive matter. The Palestinians view East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state.

The lawsuit reached the Supreme Court in 2012 and in 2015, but was rejected both times, with justices unwilling to see the US take a position on the flashpoint city.

That policy has remained in place even after the US recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in 2017, despite growing pressure from pro-Israel lawmakers and groups in the US to allow Israel on the passports. The State Department said at the time that it would not revise the position.

But with just five days remaining until the US presidential elections, the Trump administration had a change of heart.

It was the latest amid a flurry of gestures and diplomatic activity seemingly aimed at shoring up pro-Israel Jewish and Evangelical Republican voters, with days to go before the November 3 presidential election.

On Wednesday, Israel and the US signed an agreement extending their scientific cooperation to apply as well in the West Bank, a move viewed by some as a first step toward American recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the settlements.

The Trump administration has also sought to expand the list of Arab and Muslim-majority countries to normalize relations with Israel in the final months of its term. On Friday, Sudan agreed to become the third country to do so in recent months. Sudan followed the lead of the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain after weeks of pressure from Washington, which conditioned removing Khartoum from its blacklist of state terror sponsors on Sudan making peace with the Jewish state.

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