'Jerusalem, Blank'

New reminders of the consequences—big and small—of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Yannis Behrakis / Reuters

On Monday, the RAND Corporation released a study asserting that if Israelis and Palestinians were to forge a two-state solution and end their decades-old conflict, their economies would enjoy a combined windfall of $173 billion over 10 years.

Then again, to paraphrase an old Yiddish proverb, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him about your plans.” In the report, the authors were forced to temper their optimism and acknowledge that their definition of the status quo had been upended by the deepening of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict during the course of their research:

Indeed, the reality that evolves is likely to be a mixture of some aspects of all the scenarios presented here. For example, the Gaza war in the summer of 2014, the subsequent recriminations, the Palestinian diplomatic moves at the UN and its agencies, and the punitive responses from Israel depart from what we originally defined as present trends and seem more akin to our nonviolent resistance scenario.

It was just the latest reminder of the far-flung ramifications—of the accreted costs, both calculable and incalculable—of this particular struggle. Another came hours after the release of the RAND report, when the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling that effectively granted the power to recognize foreign governments  exclusively to the president. The case centered on Menachem Zivotofsky, an American citizen born in Jerusalem whose parents sued for the right to list “Jerusalem, Israel” as their son’s birthplace on his U.S. passport.

In 2002, the U.S. Congress passed an act with a provision giving Americans born in Jerusalem the option of listing their birthplaces as “Jerusalem, Israel” on their passport and birth certificate. President George W. Bush signed the law, but also declined to enforce the provision; the Zivotofskys were seeking to have the provision enforced.

U.S. officials maintain that sovereignty over Jerusalem should be determined by diplomatic negotiations, and that allowing Israel to claim any part of the contested city interferes with America’s ability to conduct statecraft. As Garrett Epps noted in The Atlantic on Monday, the Supreme Court, in rejecting the Zivotofskys’ petition, affirmed that the president “has sole authority to determine what countries to conduct relations with, which competing government is legitimate, and which territorial claims to accede to.”

The dispute before the Court is related to another involving death certificates. As supporting evidence for their case, the Zivotofskys reportedly submitted the death report of Myron Friedman, an American citizen who had passed away in Jerusalem in 2002 and whose place of death had been listed by American consulate officials as “Jerusalem, Israel.” The document was provided to the Zivotofskys by Wendy Serlin, Friedman’s daughter. But after the Zivotofskys submitted the death record, something strange allegedly happened.

“Barely three months later ... the US Embassy in Tel Aviv sent Serlin [a] letter informing her that they wished to ‘correct an administrative error regarding place of death’ on her father's forms,” The Jerusalem Post reported in 2006. “Included with the letter were 10 original copies of her father's death report, all of which listed the place of death as Jerusalem, with the country space left blank.” (A U.S. Embassy official contacted by the Post declined to comment on the incident since “these issues relate to ongoing litigation in which the United States Government is a party.”)

The fallout from the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it seems, extends from billions of dollars in unrealized economic potential to power struggles over the conduct of U.S. foreign policy and even to the minute details of death records. In 2012, on the tenth anniversary of a suicide bombing at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Katherine Baker spoke to Haaretz about the anguish she felt over the vague designation on the death certificate of her son Benjamin, an American who died in the attack:

It sounds terribly minor, but it really gets to me this time every year. Ben’s death certificate says that he died in Jerusalem, blank. The United States refuses to write that he died in Jerusalem, Israel. Well, the United States acknowledges that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. So, put it on your documents, because my son died because he was in Israel, not because he was in the ‘ethereal Jerusalem.’